It’s been a decade since barman Derek Brown opened his ambitious cocktail den, Columbia Room, in the back corner of The Passenger. In that time, the bar has helped usher in a new era serious bartending in DC, earned the title of “best American cocktail bar,” and upgraded to a standalone location in Shaw with a tasting room, “spirits library,” and “punch garden.” To celebrate the anniversary, Columbia Room’s next four-course tasting menu—in the format of a birthday card—will bring back some of the team’s all-time favorite drinks. Tickets, $85, are available beginning today.
The new menu, overseen by beverage manager Paul Taylor, kicks off with the Getaway, a daiquiri variation Brown created in his early days at Columbia Room. The drink was born out of a customer’s challenge to come up a cocktail that tasted like a daiquiri but used cynar, an amaro made with artichoke. “We always love it when people play stump the bartender,” Brown says. And in this case, he aced it. Brown says it’s the only drink he’s ever created on the spot where he felt “this is awesome, this is exactly how it should be.” For the tasting menu, the Getaway will be paired with a non-alcoholic version of the drink that uses maple shrub, aquafaba, and house-made bitter soda called chinotto, which Taylor describes as “kind of like an Italian Coca-Cola.”
“We want to show that there is this versatility, there’s a way to play with it, a way to have fun and create non-alcoholic cocktails that are on par with cocktails that have alcohol,” Brown says.
Next, they’ll be reviving what Brown calls a “technically perfect” cocktail called “Into Great Silence” from their Paris in Spring menu. Among the ingredients: green Chartreuse, sherry, grapefruit, and jus vert (a blend of spinach and parsley with a little bit of salt and sugar). The drink is served in a terrarium with fresh herbs and spices, so when you stick your nose in it, you get some of the notes of the chartreuse. “I honestly recoil at the idea of spinach in a cocktail but somehow it works perfectly in this one, and that’s what I love about it,” says Brown.
The third course is a “weirdo” cocktail with an ingredient list that scared Brown at first. “Atlantic Ocean” combines “old-world” single-malt Scotch and red vermouth with “new world” cachaca and tomato water. Bridging the divide are house-made “transatlantic bitters” made with spices traded across continents. Brown says it’s his favorite cocktail to ever come out of Columbia Room.
The tasting ends with ramos gin fizz—but not just any ramos gin fizz. A birthday cake fizz with funfetti. Many bartenders are often reluctant to make the frothy cocktail with gin, citrus, egg, and cream because it calls for a 12 minute shake (although no one really shakes that long). “Even when the most hardened bartenders were saying they wouldn’t do it because it takes a little extra effort, I would force myself literally to do it,” Brown says. “I was like, ‘You know what? Any time I don’t want to do it when somebody requests it, I have to make one for the whole bar.'”
Reverie chef and and Columbia Room Culinary Director Johnny Spero will create food pairings for the menu, including a scallop crudo with “Chartreuse herbs” and a duck confit sando on milk bread. Truffle popcorn—a signature snack of the original Columbia Room—will also make a comeback.
The anniversary menu will be available through March. Brown and Taylor have already plotted out quarterly menus for the rest of the year as well. Next up: they’re asking top bartender friends from around the world to create “Columbia Room-style” drinks for their menu. At the same time, the team will also be going on tour to bring their cocktails to friends’ bars are the world, including La Factoria in Puerto Rico and Kimball House in Atlanta.
The third menu of the year will highlight cocktails created for regulars. The bar team will work with some of their most devoted customers to come up with signature cocktails. And 2020 will cap off with an exploration of the Columbia Room of the future.
“We’re going to look in our crystal ball 10 years from now and see what our cocktail menu will look like,” Brown says. “We’ll have to see on our 20th anniversary how well we got it.”