If you’re going to build a proper cocktail temple, for god’s sake, you’d better have a huge mosaic. And Derek Brown got himself a magnificent one. A mosaic, I mean.
But also a cocktail temple.
The Drink Company’s new Columbia Room in Washington, D.C., relaunched in February after a couple years of closure due to real estate dislocation, has come back slightly bigger, more arrestingly beautiful, more imaginative — and with a more expansive ambition.
It has much in common with its predecessor. Both are high-end, by-reservation backroom sanctums with fixed-price cocktail tasting menus and tiny servings of food, serving perfectly rendered, exquisitely detailed drinks under the close personal attention of skilled and knowledgeable staff.
But there’s one big difference.
Derek Brown, escaping his own gravitational field
The first Columbia Room [2010-2014], and proprietor Derek Brown in particular, were largely responsible for nurturing the craft cocktail renaissance in the nation’s capital.
It came our way about 15 years behind New York [as usual], where the great Dale DeGroff single-handedly got things going at the Rainbow Room in the late ’80s. If the cocktail renaissance has a da Vinci, it would be DeGroff.
And Derek Brown would be his talented student Francesco Melzi. [Don’t be impressed with that deft Renaissance art history reference. Wikipedia.]
I visited the old Columbia Room just once, and it was a veritable shrine [no mosaic] to the craft cocktail.
The drinks were perfectly delivered renditions of the classics. Back then I was a mere freshman in my drinking, um, “career.” I had my first French 75 [cognac version], Corpse Reviver #2, and Pimm’s Cup. All are classics. All were new to me.
The experience gave me an elevated view of the cocktail landscape, sort of like when a gopher pup first peeks aboveground: Whoa, dude, it’s crazy cool up here!
Thanks partly to the work of Brown and team, classic and craft cocktails are now served at hundreds of restaurants and bars across the Washington metropolitan region, as they are nationwide.
A couple of weeks ago I actually had a Corpse Reviver #2, and my wife a Pimm’s Cup, at a modestly reviewed chain bistro in Bethesda, Maryland. The crazy thing is, they were actually crafted well and damn good.
So how does a creative, national leader in cocktail cuisine bust out of the very pack he helped create?
And serve drinks that no customer will have tasted before.
And are unlikely to taste again.
In a room unlike any they’ve previously occupied.
When my wife and I visited the Columbia Room last weekend, the Summer 2016 Menu was 4 days old. All of the drinks were originals and of South American, often Ecuadorian, extraction.
Apoligia: I didn’t take pictures of the drinks. I wanted to soak up the experience without the distraction, and I didn’t want to be one of those Instagram douchebags in such a respectful setting — 14 seats, dimly elegant interior, luxe appointments, well-dressed guests, etc. Big mistake. So I’m going to have to “paint word pictures,” as they used to say.
Image 1: A low, hand-crafted bowl with a primitive geometric pattern, about 3/4″ high and 4″ in diameter. It is half-filled with a liquid the color of pinot grigio. Something that looks like a miniature marijuana leaf floats on top, with a tiny Seussian purple flower tucked below the fronds.
This was our amuse, the Athualpa Cup. [Reference: Incan emporer.] Head barkeep J.P. Featherston explained that this creation derives from a rustic Andean corn mash known as chicha. It had other ingredients, which sadly I don’t recall. But any “mashiness” of its origin was thoroughly-filtered from the clear fluid.
It was delicious.
And utterly baffling.
I turned to my wife. “I don’t even have words to describe what it’s sort-of like.” We both struggled and quickly quit trying.
It wasn’t citrus-y, it wasn’t corn-y, it wasn’t like Pisco, it wasn’t like rum, it wasn’t like cachaca [well, maybe a little]. A bit floral? That was probably the flower garnish.
But like I said, it was delicious. And sipping from a low rustic bowl — procured during his research mission in Ecuador, J.P. said — was just wicked-cool.
Image 2: Featherston leaning over the bar, peering into an oversized Nick and Nora glass filled with a liquid the color of pink lemonade. A compartmentalized tray of tiny flowers, leaves, and other tiny botanical whatnots lays open near his chin. He removes items reverently from the compartments one at a time with forceps, positioning each precisely on the drink’s surface. The effect is that of a lepidopterologist doing a particularly delicate surgery.
This is the Cuxibamba, comprising gin, an Ecuadorian herbal tea called horchata lojana, and makrut [aka kaffir] lime cordial.
In this drink I can pick out the gin and the citrus, but just barely. That’s because the horchata lojana, an Ecuadorian herbal tea [bearing little relation to the milky horchatas elsewhere in Central and South America], layers in a rain forestful of herbs and botanicals: lemon verbena, J.P. says, but also [via a pretty obscure Ecuadorian food blog now] lemongrass, mint, flax, carnation, rose, begonia, fuschia, violet, and bloodleaf, which contributes the red color.
The drink is balanced, somehow controlling that riot of strange undergrowth to play nice with the gin and the unusual makrut lime, a homely, knuckled fruit found at specialty grocers and ethnic markets. And despite the use of the quotidian base spirit Tanqueray No. 10, this drink is once again unlike anything I’ve tasted.
The aquatic garden floating on top represents various flowers brewed into the horchata lojana — including a few precious little bloodleafs the size of your little fingernail.
It’s gorgeous and has the nose of a lucid dream.
Image 3: A tall, tubular glass with a tuft of sturdy lettuce protruding. A cucumber coin, partially hollowed and bearing a small load of finely diced tropical fruits, balances across the top on a small wooden spear. The drink is iced with a single cube the size and shape of a stick of butter.
This is the Refresco de Ensalada, which is built around Banks 5-Island rum. It’s a blend of 5 aged rums, each from a different island or part of the Caribbean. Though all the rums are aged, the blend is charcoal-filtered to yield a final product as clear as a bottle of Bacardi white.
The drink also contains “refresco,” which is a horrible sweet soda drunk globally with the same idiot zeal as Mountain Dew is drunk in the U.S. But before the current version evolved there was apparently a South American “real” refresco, tangy and bright, upon which this drink’s ingredient is based.
It’s a delight, refreshing and unique but not as bewildering as its companions on this menu. It’s a tart rum punch. The lettuce is meant to be eaten, the diced fruits meant to garnish the plate of ceviche the drink is served with.
But that ice cube, illuminating the drink’s core like a prism, is what I’ll remember most.
Image 4: A Nick and Nora, filled with a transparent beverage the color of anejo tequila. No garnish.
Here is the Banana Republican, made with singani [a Bolivian grape distillate a bit like pisco], Guyana rum, Cocchi Torino, Banane du brésil, and Xocolatl mole bitters.
I’ve never used the phrase “banana-forward” before, but that’s how I’d describe this one. And yet it is not overly sweet — the singani seems to keep things dry, but I’m not sure that’s the secret. Like many well-crafted drinks, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
I think. I’ve never had any of its parts before.
Image 5: A short pilsner glass, its mouth spread wide like a tulip, filled with what looks like beer and topped with a two-inch head of dense foam.
The Temblor, a global dessert original made with a pale cream sherry [Spain], vin rancio [France], Fernet [Italy], gum syrup [cocktail golden age essential], and carmelized pineapple cream [somewhere tropical].
Look, this was drink Number 5. I’m not going to pretend I remember much detail except:
- Sipping through the creamy head was delightful.
- The drink itself wasn’t sweet, but the cream topper was, and nicely so.
- I didn’t taste any of that godforsaken how-can-people-even-drink-that-sh*t Fernet.
- It was served with a spoon to get at the last bits of cream without dumping the final sip on your sternum.
Okay, where to next?
Derek Brown was recently quoted in The Washington Post saying, “I don’t think it’s a secret that we want to be one of the best bars in the world.”
I think we should take him literally.
Based on my visit, and the bit I know about the industry, I think I see the answer to the question of where you go after you’ve completely nailed the classic-craft-cocktail thing and so many others have now saturated the market behind you.
My hunch is that the new Columbia Room’s vision is to take you to faraway lands via thoroughly researched, culturally aware, painstakingly authentic original drinks — and a menu that changes seasonally to explore a new niche of the world’s diverse drinking geography.
I know Brown only slightly and socially, and I am certainly not privy to his business plans. But this approach, executed properly, would have the benefit of creating loyal customers who return to drink before the majestic mosaic 4 or 5 times a year at $75 [3-drink menu] or $100 [5-drink menu] a pop.
And so the customer leaves the Blagden Alley temple: That was mind-blowing! Wonder where they’ll take us next! When’s the new menu coming out?
At least that’s what I was saying.