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.)
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.