Derek Brown is a fixture of the US bar scene. Whenever you tell a member of the industry you’re heading for Washington, D.C., they ask you to say hi to Derek. The owner of Columbia Room — and three more bars now rolled into one —, Derek is also the Chief Spirit Adviser (!) of the National Archives and a published author. And yet, over a decade ago, he was a sommelier.
« I had been interested in cocktails and had been bartending », he told us, « but I was working as a sommelier to advance my knowledge — in my mind back then it was a more elevated position. I was working with and learning from chefs ». At the same time, though, the cocktail renaissance was finding its groove in New York City and Derek found himself pulled to the city, checking out new bars such as Death & Co and following the renowned BAR educational program. « It oriented me towards a certain style of classic cocktails. It was intriguing. » Things were also moving on the cocktail front in D.C., most notably through the collaboration of chef José Andres and bartender Todd Thrasher — « They were making salt air Margaritas and at the time it was ‘oh my god!’ », he recalled. And a lot of the bartenders that left their mark on D.C. in the early 2000’s were, according to Derek, sommeliers or chefs. « There is a culinary background that other cities don’t have. Cocktails pair with food and we use techniques traditionally used in the kitchen ».
While Derek was moonlighting as a cocktail bartender, his main gig remained that of sommelier at Komi, one of the city’s best restaurant. Interested by his approach to wine and service, a man who owned various spaces and wanted to create « very cool and innovative bars and restaurants » asked him what type of space he would do if he were to run a bar. « I realised that I was really good at bartending in a small area of the bar. I was always feeding myself information about what we were using and history, and people wanted to know about it. I’d have about ten seats around me and clients were peppering me with questions. Meanwhile, the service bartender was slamming out drinks ». So Derek came up with the idea behind The Columbia Room: « What if we take out everything else and just focus on a bar where a person can really indulge their interest — the history of ingredients, the specific recipe or even how we became bartenders. It was this dream bar where I could share whatever information I had learned ». The Columbia Room was a tiny, tiny space, booking only, working with a prix fixe menu. That it was located within The Passenger, a punk-ish wine and cocktail place run by Derek’s brother only enhanced the mystique. The original space has been sold, but The Columbia Room lives on since 2016 in a new, expanded location — with a regular bar focused on exclusive spirits and à la carte drinking, a patio bar and the The Tasting Room. The latter maintains the spirit of the original bar, with a very limited amount of seats and a set menu matching small plates and innovative cocktails. It was voted best American bar at Tales of the Cocktail 2017.
Derek says he was « drafted » into becoming an owner, that it was a « happy circumstance ». It was not, however, an easy ride. « The idea that if you’re a good barback you can become a good bartender, if you’re good bartender you can become a good bar manager, if you’re a good bar manager you can become a good owner… Well, that’s not true at all. You don’t just expand a skill set. You need to acquire a whole new set of skills to be a good owner, and that’s one thing I’ve learned painfully ». In 2013, Derek and his partners opened three bars — oyster-focused Eat the Rich, sherry bar Mockingbird Hill and whiskey-centric Southern Efficiency. While they were paying the bills and were hailed by critics, more was needed to grow the business. Mockingbird Hill was the first to go in mid-2016 and the others followed. The space (the bars were neighbours) now houses widely successful pop ups.
This capacity for reinvention has certainly been helped by Drink Company, the structure Derek Brown and business partner Angie Fetherston put together. With third partner JP Fetherston acting as Beverage Director, Derek has also been allowed to take a step back from the day-to-day running of the bars — he doesn’t call himself a bartender as « there’s no appropriate way for what I do » — and spend more time on other activities. Writing, for example. After years of contributing articles to both the national and the trade press, his first book, Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters will be released next month. « This is history, but it’s not written by a historian. Imagine you came to my bar and had a few hours to spend sharing things about the history of the cocktail ». It was inspired by a series of talks industry leaders such as David Wondrich, Jim Meehan or Ted Haigh gave at the National Archives Foundation — which houses the Declaration of Independence — two years ago. Derek curated the program and is now Chief Spirit Adviser of the (federal) institution — « that effectively makes me the highest ranking bartender of the United States », he quipped.
No (active) bartender, no historian, accidental owner. Apart from Chief Spirit Adviser, who is Derek Brown, then? A renaissance man at the heart of the cocktail renaissance, probably.