Washington now home to best cocktail bar Columbia Room

Derek Brown (right), president of Drink Company which owns Columbia Room, and his brother Nick at the original Columbia Room in 2010. It closed in 2015 when the building it was housed in was converted.
Derek Brown (right), president of Drink Company which owns Columbia Room, and his brother Nick at the original Columbia Room in 2010. It closed in 2015 when the building it was housed in was converted. PHOTO: LAVANYA RAMANATHAN/THE WASHINGTON POST

UNITED STATES (THE WASHINGTON POST) – Washingtonians: If you want to experience the heights of the craft cocktail renaissance, look no further than your own back yard. Everybody else: You now have yet another reason to visit the District of Columbia. At this year’s Spirited Awards at Tales of the Cocktail – where bars, drinks and brand ambassadors are recognised by peers around the world – the Columbia Room won best American cocktail bar, an award that has never before been won by a D.C. bar.

This achievement will not be a huge surprise to anyone tuned in to the city’s cocktail scene. Over the years, the bars run by Drink Company President Derek Brown, chief executive Angie Fetherston and partner JP Fetherston have helped put Washington on the national drinking map. The Columbia Room in particular has been a smart, elegant upstart nipping scrappily at the heels of much-lauded bars in such major cocktail cities as New York and San Francisco. Previous winners include San Francisco’s tiki darling Smuggler’s Cove, Denver speakeasy Williams & Graham and New York’s gussied-up Irish pub, the Dead Rabbit.

Washington, Brown says, “has always been a big little market. We have so many media outlets here, so the city gets attention, but what do people recognise D.C. for? People think it’s a swamp. It gets recognition as the nation’s capital and as a political capital...but it’s always undervalued as a cultural capital.”

That has started to shift on the food front at least, with Bon Appetit naming Washington its restaurant city of the year in 2016, the same year the revered Michelin Guide added it to its roster of American cities worthy of review. Brown sees this latest recognition as a happy part of that trend. “We’re proud first and foremost of our employees...but we’re also grateful that our city and our bar and restaurant community has supported us this whole time,” he said. “This really belongs to D.C.”

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The original Columbia Room was, literally, a room. It seated 10 people at a time in an intimate boutique space hidden inside the more punk-rock Passenger bar. Both bars (run respectively by brothers Derek and Tom Brown) shuttered in early 2015, when the building was converted because of development. Both went on to find new spaces in the Shaw neighborhood, though where the Columbia Room was once a sort of a magical Narnia wardrobe inside the bigger bar, the two are now a 10-minute walk from each other.

The Columbia Room has been a perennial nominee for multiple national awards over the years. Before its relocation, it had also made the top four in the best new American cocktail bar category at the Spirited Awards.

  • The Getaway

  • Richly rounded, deepened with the higher-proof version of artichoke-based amaro Cynar, this elegant and beautifully balanced drink was an early Columbia Room original, composed on the spot for a customer who wanted a daiquiri with Cynar in it.

    You can do a traditional shake here, but another option is a reverse dry shake, in which the drink is shaken first with ice (for dilution and temperature); the ice is then strained out and the drink re-shaken to create a frothier head.

    From Derek Brown, president of Drink Company and former head bartender at the Columbia Room in the District.

  • Ingredients

    Ice

    30ml blackstrap rum

    15ml Cynar 70 liqueur

    30ml fresh lemon juice

    15ml rich simple syrup (see NOTE)

    1 small pinch salt

  • Method

    1. Chill a Nick and Nora glass or a coupe.

    2. Fill a cocktail shaker two-thirds full with ice, then add the rum, Cynar, lemon juice, the rich simple syrup and salt. Seal and shake vigorously for 10 seconds, then strain into the chilled glass.
     

    Makes 1 serving

    NOTE: To make a rich simple syrup, combine 1 cup of sugar and ½ cup of water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Bring just to a boil, then turn off the heat and let cool. Transfer to a heatproof container; cover tightly and refrigerate until chilled through. It can be stored indefinitely.

Its move to its new space more than quadrupled its footage and gave it room to provide a broader range of experiences: The more casual outdoor Punch Garden allows tipplers to seek a greenery-shaded retreat from the District’s sticky summers. In the Spirits Library, guests can try flights of rare and quality sips from the expanded collection.

Deeper into the space is the cocktail-focused Tasting Room, which was key to this year’s award. The Columbia Room impressed the judges “by taking attention to detail to religious heights across all three spaces...“ Charlotte Voisey, director of brand advocacy for spirits company William Grant and Sons and one of the judges, emailed me. “The carefully designed, intimate setting of the Tasting Room in particular provides a special ambiance for an immaculate cocktail experience.”

“The eyes drink first” is a phrase often applied to creative cocktail garnishing, but it applies to the Tasting Room, where the team’s fascination with cocktail history is on display. The area behind the bar – which in most bars is used to hold bottles – instead presents a commissioned Italian mosaic depicting elements of the history of cocktails and spirits. A tree hung with citrus and flowers and the names of key botanicals grows out of the Columbia Room’s crest, spreading its branches toward figures pouring drinks, a flaming Blue Blazer and a cocktail arching in serpentine streams into a pyramid of stacked coupes.

That visual is borne out by the drinks, which reach their heights in the seasonal tasting menus the bar team develops with chef Johnny Spero, pairing cocktails with nibbles of his food.

While head bartender Fetherston shared a few recipes for this story – The Getaway and The Telephone Tag are both drinks that cocktailers can replicate at home – he admitted that finding “easy” recipes among their back catalogue was a challenge. Many of the Columbia Room’s drinks are you-have-to-be-there concoctions, involving house-made potions few would have the patience to whip up at home. Some of the ingredients on the current seasonal menu include yuzu and calamansi (Asian citrus fruits), feni (a Goan spirit made from cashew), coconut orgeat and watermelon molasses – hardly typical offerings from your corner bar.

To better understand the bar’s approach, take a recent favourite of mine, developed for the “Spring in Paris” menu. The drink and paired bite for the course “Into Great Silence” (taken from the name of a documentary about the Carthusian monks who make Chartreuse) arrived on a tray lined with a pattern of green felt resembling an aerial view of the gardens at the palace of Versailles. Paired with Spero’s composed bite of spring pea and ham, the drink combined the herbaceous Chartreuse with orgeat, sherry and a house-made jus vert, a bright green elixir of peas, spinach and parsley.

Like many of their drinks, that one was a collaborative process, Fetherston said. They had a bartender whose recent trip to France had left him “on a sort of Chartreuse cloud,” they had Spero’s ideas about a bite that would represent the garden coming back after winter, and the whole team kicked around ideas about how to present it visually. The seasonal theme “will open this little world of these ingredients, these spirits that we think will exemplify this idea or this region,” Fetherston said, “but then you have to make it work in the glass.” The resulting drink was peak Columbia Room: historically informed, complex, lovely to look at and most important, delicious. That last part is critical, and it is where I have seen some ambitious bars fail to stick the landing. Thinky does not always equal tasty, but Fetherston and team consistently nail it.

The Columbia Room is smarter than your average bar, to paraphrase Yogi, and it may not be to everyone’s taste. But when I go there, the part of me inclined to roll my eyes at seeing such meticulousness applied to an object as ephemeral as a cocktail is always overpowered by pleasure. That is partly because the drinks are so good, but mainly because those thinky drinks are served by friendly, hospitable staff. If you are willing to go along, even for a few hours, with the idea that the cocktail is an art form, then the Columbia Room is likely to bring you extreme happiness.

Brown’s aware that some people would hate the Columbia Room. There are people, he said, who don’t want calamansi in their cocktails or to drink out of a fish-shaped glass, “and I respect that. But all these little things – that’s us, they’re all part of our personality. At the Columbia Room, we’ve been able to make the definitive statements about what we love.”