The first time I visited the Columbia Room for its cocktail tasting menu was with a college friend, and when it came time to request a drink, we joked about frat-boy favorites like Mind Erasers and Long Island Iced Teas. Then we caught a look from one of the svelte hostesses, who stifled a laugh. It was as if we had disobeyed the teacher.
Presiding as professor here is the dapper Derek Brown, who serves a reservation-only three-course drink menu ($54 including tax and tip) with one small food pairing on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. He presents the first two cocktails, then custom-makes a third based on a guest’s preferences. A leader in Washington’s craft-cocktail movement, he worked at the Gibson and at an underground club called Hummingbird to Mars, so he’s well versed in making his own bitters and squeezing his own juices. But Brown’s work is even more cerebral—he has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things spirits-related and a devotion to technique.
His sliver of a drinking den is tucked away in the back of the Passenger, a bar in DC’s Shaw neighborhood that he owns with his brother Tom, who once was behind the bar at Cork. The room has a sushi-bar style—on arrival, you get hand towels dotted with such aromatics as orange extract—with a hushed vibe. Pale blues and yellows and dainty etched glasses make the place look as though both Martha Stewart and Anthropologie buyers had a say in the design.
The names of Brown’s cocktails, such as Nelson’s Blood and Knickerbocker a la Señora, sound like indie bands playing the Black Cat. The changing lineup depends on what’s in season. In early fall, that meant a knockout combination of fig-and-orange granita with sherry, seltzer, and a garnish of chocolate mint. Its pairing—a radicchio-based salad with Gorgonzola, walnuts, figs, and orange—sounded too similar to be complementary, but they fit together seamlessly. The Diesel Sour, a jet-black, molassesy drink made with blackstrap rum and mezcal, was a great match for a petite sweet-potato pie topped by a brûléed marshmallow infused with smoky Lapsang Souchong tea. Javier Duran, a former sous chef at Cork, is the brain behind the food.
Scuppernongs—a type of grape popular in the South—were the garnish on the very good Verbena Cup, made with lemon-verbena-infused vodka and Cocchi Americano, a quinine-heavy Italian liqueur. By far the best drink I had was a simple gin martini, which GQ had just named the best martini in the country. The Columbia Room version mixes half vermouth, half Plymouth gin into pre-chilled glasses and adds a squeeze of lemon rind two or three inches from the rim.
Brown’s cocktails are impressive, and his ability to elevate even the martini is evidence of his talent. His act can feel over the top, but he has also designed an experience that’s unlike anything else in Washington—and a far cry from college.