On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I made the decision to go for quality over quantity. Instead of bar hopping to three or four different places, I chose The Columbia Room—the amazing bar sanctuary created by and tended to by Derek Brown. Tucked within The Passenger, the Columbia Room is a Shangri-la for both the cocktail enthusiast and neophyte alike. The exceptional hospitality begins even before you walk in the door, and continues throughout the visit and beyond. The art of the thank you note is not dead at The Columbia Room. Add in Derek Brown and his wonderful liquid concoctions and you get one amazing place.
For my Columbia Room experience, I was joined by my sister Jess, my friend Gabriel (who I hadn’t seen in 11 years, but it was like no time had passed) and Jess’ neighbor Bryan (a fellow blogger: FoodNewsie). After refreshing our senses with cool towels scented with lemon and eucalyptus, we enjoyed our first drink—the Otranto Club Punch. From the Charleston Receipts (1950), the oldest Junior League cookbook still in print, this punch combines rye, Jamaican Rum (Smith and Cross was used), peach brandy, green tea, simple syrup, lemon juice and seltzer water. Those southern Junior Leaguers know how to make a punch!
Next, we enjoyed a Red Pepper Daisy—mezcal, red pepper jelly, raspberry syrup, and lemon juice. The smokiness of the mezcal was nicely matched with a savory jelly, sweet raspberry, and tart lemon. It was garnished with basil and piece of red pepper that Brown individually charred with a torch right before serving. Jelly in a cocktail may at first seem a bit odd, but as Brown explains in a recent piece in the Atlantic, preserved fruits in the form of shrubs and marmalades, have been used in cocktails for some time.
Before our 3rd cocktail, Derek shared a taste of a potent and really wonderful house-made grappa served in these super cute little bottles. These little tasting bottles seemed quite appropriate as the star of the minimal décor is a wall of apothecary-style jars filled with all sorts of wonderful things like sweet woodruff, chamomile and dried artichokes.
Conversation is made easy here by the seating. The bar itself is sunken, so we sat on regular chairs, instead of bar stools. What a novel idea—chairs are way more comfortable than stools, in my opinion, and then we are face-to-face with the bartender making chatting a lot easier. I should pause and admit here that I was a bit star-struck by Derek Brown. I mean, c’mon, the guy is a cocktail star. I quickly got over it, and stopped just nodding my head in a goofy way with a silly grin on my face and very much enjoyed talking with him.
Derek Brown is a great bartender. After brief conversation, he ended up making me my two favorite summer cocktails. I first asked for something herbal and refreshing. When I saw Velvet Falerum and Chartreuse, I got excited. And then out came the swizzle stick and I was beyond happy. My Chartreuse Swizzle was delicious! For my final drink, Brown picked up on our conversation about how much I enjoy Campari, and mixed me up a Negroni Sbagliato. This “wrong” Negroni, developed at the Bar Basso in Milano (I’ll be making a stop there in October!), replaces gin with sparkling wine, and Campari with Gran Classico, an Italian bitter, that is wonderfully bitter with a slight sweetness. Finish it off with Carpano Antica and I was in cocktail seventh heaven.
Oh, and did I mention the truffle popcorn? A-MAZING! Gabriel and I were so glad that Jess and Bryan didn’t eat theirs—it meant we each got two bowls! Yum!
To a spectacular experience at The Columbia Room. Cheers!