Food

Columbia Room’s Tasting Room Will Return With $120 Insect, Algae, and Mushroom Cocktail Menu

Derek Brown's latest tasting will have both no- and low-alcohol options.

Columbia Room's sour cocktail with black ants. Photograph by Nicholas Karlin.

One of DC’s most high-end cocktail bars is returning with a $120 tasting menu featuring ingredients like black ant sour mix and “kelp water.” Columbia Room’s 14-seat Tasting Room, which has been closed since the start of the pandemic, relaunches on Oct. 7 with no- or low-alcohol drinks themed around insects, algae, and mushrooms.

Owner Derek Brown says he’s gotten increasingly interested in “future foods,” including plant-based and sustainable ingredients. Insects, for example, have started to gain more mainstream attention in cooking thanks to their wide availability and supply of nutrients. But bugs also have a long history in cocktails, whether it’s cochineal insects traditionally used to dye Campari or worm salt with mezcal.

The first cocktail on the menu is a margarita-like sour with aquafaba (chickpea water, often used as a vegan substitute to egg whites) and black ants. The critters have an acidic smoky flavor, which Brown incorporates with citrus into a sour mix. (“You will taste the ants,” Brown assures.) The drink can be made with either tequila or a non-alcoholic agave distillate.

Brown has personally cut his alcohol consumption way back and become a champion for zero-proof drinks ever since confronting his own drinking problem and mental health struggles in recent years. While the Tasting Room has previously offered non-alcoholic alternatives, Brown is now making a point to feature them much more prominently. (He’s also hosting several “Sober(ish) October” cocktail classes next month.)

Columbia Room’s non-alcoholic, algae-infused riff on a dirty martini. Photograph by Nicholas Karlin.

In fact, the second cocktail on the latest menu doesn’t even come with the option for booze. The algae-themed drink is a loose riff on a dirty martini featuring oyster shell-infused non-alcoholic “gin,” a non-alcoholic dry vermouth, barrel-aged apple cider vinegar, wild sage bitters, and a proprietary algae blend that Brown calls “kelp water.” It’s garnished with a caperberry and sheet of nori.

“Algae in cocktails might seem like a real strange thing, but anyone who’s had a dirty martini already knows that having something saline and mineral in a cocktail is really delicious,” Brown says.

The last cocktail is an old-fashioned with chai-spiced honey, black bitters, and a lion’s mane mushroom tincture, which adds a funky layer. It can be made with bourbon, spiritless Kentucky 74, or a combo of both, depending on your preference.

All three cocktail courses come with a plant-based food pairing, incorporating ingredients such as large chicatana ants, vegan caviar, and oyster mushrooms. The tasting kicks also off with a Canadian sparkling wine alternative made of sea buckthorn berries—described as “tart, fruity citrus, with slight notes of evergreen needles and a hint of maple.”

“I really want to show some of complexities you can get out of non-alcoholic beverages. This isn’t like fake Chardonnay,” Brown says. “I want people to understand that this menu is the product of sitting around thinking about the world and what I love.”

Particularly noteworthy is that Brown himself will be behind the stick. While, yes, he’s operated some of DC’s most revered and popular bars, he hasn’t actually worked a bar shift since 2015. But he assures that he’s done plenty of events and classes, so “it’s not that I don’t remember how to bartend.”

Reservations are available here. The $120 price tag includes a service charge but not tax. Proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test within 24 hours is required.

Columbia Room. 124 Blagden Alley, NW. 

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Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.