It would be an overstatement to say that Derek Brown birthed DC’s cocktail renaissance. After all, before he burst onto the scene, there were plenty of Washington bartenders–Todd Thrasher and Gina Chersevani notable among them–doing interesting work. But when Brown opened The Passenger on an emerging block in late 2009, followed quickly by the tasting-menu-only, reservation-only cocktail lab called the Columbia Room, the game was forever changed. In their wake, experimentation and creation became the rule at better bars, and even mundane restaurants were suddenly putting Cynar in their drinks.
So when the two bars under the same roof closed on New Year’s Eve 2014/15, it felt, to local cocktail enthusiasts, like the drinking equivalent of Wrigley Field being razed.
A little more than a year later, Columbia Room is back and it’s bigger, located just a few blocks away. (Brown’s brother Tom is set to rechristen The Passenger in a new space later this year.) This new iteration is more like Wrigley Field being renovated, with a few more seats and a couple new JumboTrons.
The new spot is really three concepts in one: an outdoor punch garden, complete with planters of fresh herbs; the spirits library, a first-come, first-served lounge where they’ll sell you Napoleon-era Cognac from 1811, Rhum Clement from 1819 or Old Overholt from the 1920s, if that’s your thing; and the reservation-only tasting room, complete with a mosaic flown in from Italy that name-checks famous bartenders.
We caught up with Brown on opening weekend.
What did you set out to accomplish with the new space?
The Columbia Room was always my most personal statement. It’s filled with things we love. This one gets to be so particular and specific. We want it to be among the best bars in the whole world. When we started, we were so insane. We wanted to make great cocktails, but it was a moment. Here, there’s a lot more confidence.
You’ve got multiple kinds of water here, from Kentucky branch water to Speyside mineral water. Are you overthinking things?
If you’re rolling your eyes, you should be. But when we created a Rickey, we researched the whiskey [from the period]. Then we thought about what kind of lime—key or Persian. So then we started thinking about the water. We went back and we made that mineral water. The alkalinity and the mineral content changed the drink. We don’t want people to worry about that. But if you want to learn more about it, you can. Remember, five years ago homemade tonic was ridiculous. There’s the hyperscientific approach, with centrifuges and such, then there’s the pre-Prohibition approach. We are on both sides. We’re concerned just with the end product.
What’s your favorite cocktail to make?
Dry martini. [Editor’s note: Derek makes his with a 1:1 ratio, and checks the temperature with a thermometer until the drink is between 29 and 31 degrees.]
What’s your favorite drink to drink?
Whiskey or a dry martini.
What’s the most underrated classic cocktail?
The Japanese Cocktail: brandy, orgeat and bitters.