#UrbanBourbon: Interview with Cocktail King Derek Brown

On January 1, 2015, D.C.’s drinking scene lost some luster when twice James Beard nominated Columbia Room closed due to renovations in Shaw. In most towns that could mean the doors would remain shut for quite some time, or even forever.

Then again, this isn’t most towns, because most towns don’t have Derek Brown.

Like everything else in his astounding career, Brown’s Columbia Room was heading for another big opportunity, this one being a new location in popular Blagden Alley. A year off from cocktailing in 2015 sounds like a vacation to some, but Columbia Room is just one of Brown’s many projects.

First and foremost, Brown is a father to his adorable son, Avery. When he’s not Instagramming family photos, he’s satisfying sippers in one of his three craft cocktail bars: Mockingbird Hill (a recent James Beard nominee for Best Bar Program and home to beloved Christmas pop-up, Miracle on 7th Street), Eat the Rich and Southern Efficiency (which I covered during Bourbon Heritage Month last year and absolutely adore). All operate under Brown’s umbrella organization, Drink Company.

A shot of bitters, shrubs and tinctures recently featured on Columbia Room’s Instagram.

As if that isn’t enough, Brown is a contributor to some of America’s top food and drink publications, a judge at San Francisco’s World Spirits Competition and board member for various organizations. It was during Columbia Room’s hiatus in 2015, however, when Derek Brown emerged as what is possibly his coolest title – first-ever Chief Spirits Advisor at the National Archives, beginning with its exhibit, “Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History.”

Spirited Republic ran throughout 2015 and ended just last month. The exhibit was a journey through America’s alcohol history, documenting the earliest days of distilling, the infamous whiskey tax, prohibition and our modern relationship with spirits. The exhibit can still be experienced online, with everything from Anheuser-Busch’s pasteurization patent to a letter written by George Washington regarding the Whiskey Rebellion.

While the displays were phenomenal, it was Brown who brought history to life with his “History of the Cocktail” seminar series. In ten sessions, Brown hosted more than 50 esteemed panelist and moderators to discuss the progression of American drinking from “B.C. (Before the Cocktail)” to the “Platinum Age of the Cocktail.” Thanks to the stellar staff at Drink Company, I was able to attend the final panel and learn about today’s “Platinum” era.

“Cocktails are an American invention,” Brown told me afterward on a phone call. “They’re part of our material culture. We create them, often drawing the recipe from our own experiences, and tie them to important events in our lives.”

His passionate words reminded me of a similar statement made during the seminar: “A vodka soda is an alcohol delivery vehicle. A Negroni is a lifestyle.”

When I asked Brown about this, his reply was simple: drinks that are flavorless or thoughtless like a vodka soda are for one thing – drinking to get drunk.

“A cocktail, however, is complex and articulates a story with its history, its ingredients and the person who made it. It’s not just about drinking, but what we’re drinking and where it’s from. We’re ingesting this. Why wouldn’t we want it to be better?”

Better. A motif appearing time and again with Derek Brown, from his social media handle, @betterdrinking, to the first quote appearing on Drink Company’s website, to his conversation with me. Although his plethora of projects is mind-boggling, the mission is simple: make drinking better.

As for the “story” told by better drinks, I asked Brown what cocktail told his story.

“A dry martini. My favorite. Gin, vermouth and orange bitters. It’s a classic, timeless and beautiful creation, that’s also clean, fresh and modern. There’s no clear origination, but whoever invented it is a genius.”

I was delighted to learn Brown’s second favorite drink is whiskey, bourbon being his top choice. From higher-end Wild Turkey labels like Rare Breed and Russell’s Reserve, to common Jim Beam, Brown finds the best in all types of bourbon, and all spirits for that matter. Considering he was born and raised in a drinking city like Washington, it makes perfect sense.

“D.C. purchases more alcohol per capita than any other city. We live in a highly educated city, one of the smartest on Earth, filled with people who are creative and trying to change the world. It’s a simple fact of life that educated people drink more.”

It’s a good thing Washington is so smart and consequently always drinking, because the seminar’s panelists agreed: this era, the Platinum Age of cocktails, is a tremendously important time to be drinking. According to panelist Jim Meehan, we’re at a time when cocktail creators are “looking back to look forward.” They’re building off the past with tools and techniques available in the present, ultimately moving the craft to a new and exciting future.

From high concept bars with euphoric drink experiences, to the home bartender attending Brown’s seminars, Americans’ drink tastes are in congruence with their farm-to-table palates. We consciously produce quality products and always expect that quality in return.

Columbia Room carefully garnishes cocktails with caramel lace, which Brown recently posted to Instagram.

When I asked Brown about this search for quality and whether it’s primarily provided by esteemed “mixologists,” he chuckled.

“That term came out as a cartoon in the 1850’s, as a sort of bartender joke,” he explained. “I don’t use that term because I don’t like terms that separate. What I do is no different than any other bartender. We all have the same role.”

If you follow the “Bar Trail” that accompanies Brown’s seminar series, you can see that philosophy in action. From coffeehouse-bar-lounges like Tryst, to classics like Farmers Fishers Bakers and Bourbon Steak, to new speakeasies like PX, the partners in this project are filled with bartenders like Brown, all aspiring to move the cocktail craft to new heights. Washington D.C. is teeming with superb sipping experiences, many of which epitomize the Platinum Age of drinking.

Spirited Republic may be over, but “I’ll continue to be Chief Spirits Advisor,” Brown assured me. “There’s more to do at the Archives.”

Yet again, Washingtonians are playing the waiting game with Derek Brown’s next step in the spirit world. Thankfully now, we can linger at in the “Spirits Library” of the newly reopened Columbia Room while we do so. Until his next seminar series, Washingtonians may wonder where in the world is that boozy, busybody Derek Brown?

My suggestion is to blaze the Bar Trail and keep an eye out for any place where there’s better drinking. You’ll find him.

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