Of all the famous landmarks in Washington, D.C., my favorite is The Columbia Room. It is among the most intimate bars I’ve ever encountered and certainly the most evocative. So this is what the “speakeasy” experience must have been like?
The Columbia Room is actually a bar within a bar. It is ensconced within a saloon-like haunt called The Passenger. Located in the Mt. Vernon neighborhood of Washington, D.C, the narrow, rectangular space has hard wood floors, red brick, booth-lined walls and the casual look of a Pullman dining car. The long wooden bar with its overhead lighting and black lacquered bar top easily accommodates 12-14 seats, while the backbar features a select assortment of fine spirits, a small handful of taps and two dozen varietal wines. The Passenger’s most alluring quality may well be its warm, neighborhood ambience, the kind that’s so inviting especially late night. Take it from me; the food offerings are as delectable as their drinks.
But wait, there’s more. Walk to the back of the bar, pass through the unadorned wooden door and you’ve entered The Columbia Room. Perhaps calling it a speakeasy isn’t wholly accurate; rather it’s more of cocktail club, a comfortable yet sophisticated chapel of hospitality.
Once inside, there’s a study, with a desk and a wall of pictures of famous D.C. bars, whiskey prescriptions from Prohibition and such. There, a bartender greets you and ushers you to an open table. The Columbia Room seats about 10. The space feels more like a chef’s table than a bar. The lighting and music is also designed to instill a feeling of ease and comfort.
After being seated, you are given a scented cold towel—during winter it’s a scented hot towel—and water. The bartenders then start everyone out with a punch or cup drink. The next round features a seasonal cocktail paired with a food dish. The night I visited the head bartender—Kate Nelson—was serving a cocktail of her own creation called the Almost Home (Yamazaki 12 Year Old Japanese Whiskey, Manzanilla Sherry, lavender honey, grapefruit peel) that was paired with Rappahanock oysters, grilled pork belly, kimchi consommé and crispy shitake. For the final drink, Katie came over to our table and discussed the options, which included an array of classic cocktails. Suffice to say, she had a laudable command of mixology and was a most gracious guide.
The Columbia House and The Passenger are the brainchild of Derek Brown, one of the nation’s preeminent mixologists and spirits authorities. In 2010, Brown along with his older brother Tom opened the two bars as a sanctuary for people who appreciate great spirits and classically prepared cocktails.
“The goal for us is to create the best version of the classics we can. We carve our own ice, use fresh squeezed juices, make our own syrups, etc,” says Brown. “But I think what makes us special really is the attention we lavish on each of our guests. We have two or three bartenders on duty for the room’s capacity of 10 guests. Typically one bartender is making drinks, while the others are there to make sure that each guest is well cared for.”
Having bartended for the better part of two decades, Brown has found the transition to owner/operator not without its challenges. One such challenge he encountered early on was how to stay healthy and balanced in a business in which the proprietor is expected to consume large quantities of alcohol.
“I also realized that being a good bartender or knowledgeable about spirits does not automatically make you a good manager. You have to treat your employees with respect and realize that no matter how often you see your name in print, it wouldn’t be there if someone wasn’t washing the dishes.”
Now in their third year, both The Columbia Room and The Passenger are exceeding all expectations and have attracted a steady, loyal clientele. While solid concepts, much of the credit for their popularity is the respectful manner in which the Browns interact their staff.
“It makes me wince when I see beverage operators treat their employees like interchangeable cogs,” states Brown. “People are not replaceable and it’s hubris to think you can train anyone to do the same job. I appreciate people move on and sometimes you make bad hiring decisions. That’s unavoidable. The best advice I can offer is to cultivate talent and hold your staff to high standards. Plus, make sure that learning is part of their job description.”
Among Brown’s impressive list of professional accomplishments is being a judge at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition. It’s a huge event both in terms of international prestige and intellectual demands. Over the course of the three-day competition, the judges do blind samplings and evaluate several hundred of the world’s finest spirits and liqueurs.
Brown feels honored to be on the judging panel. “It’s an amazing experience getting an opportunity to assess the characteristics of so many spirits I really would never get the chance to try otherwise. The competition is a concentrated burst of experience and tasting the entries blind is extremely challenging. I especially enjoy the camaraderie that develops with fellow judges. The fact is we don’t all taste the same so I find it beneficial to consider the other judges’ professional opinions.”
When asked about his predictions for the next hot new beverage trend, Brown responded without hesitation.
“I’d lay odds that it’ll be the widespread popularity of Sherry. Bartenders and mixologists are staring to discover how amazing Sherry is. There are a number of different styles and each offers a great deal of bang for the buck. It has a compelling backstory that dates to the Phoenicians. Not only is Sherry a dream to use in drink making, it pairs beautifully with food, better than nearly anything else behind the bar. Watch and see.”
Derek Brown exemplifies what it takes to be successful in this business—passion, knowledge, hands-on experience and a deep abiding appreciation of the importance of hospitality. The members of Congress have a great deal they could learn from our man in Washington.