Bartending Siblings Tom and Derek Brown Fill Glasses and Fulfill Expectations at Washington, D.C.’s The Passenger and Columbia Room
by Kelly Magyarics
Love beer in a can? Tom Brown’s got you covered. Looking to sip “something with gin”? He can do that, too. If you want a first-hand look at the process of designing customized cocktails with eclectic, house-made ingredients, younger brother Derek’s your man. At adjacent hot spots The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C., the Brown brothers are a study in mixology dichotomy, and the bars’ wide (and thirsty) demographic reaps the rewards.
Located near D.C.’s Convention Center on the front side of the Warehouse Theater, the connected venues are indeed yin and yang, night and day, Martini and Manhattan. Older brother Tom tends the bar of The Passenger, named after an Iggy Pop song. The menu is heavy on off-the-beaten-path wines like whites from Touraine, fruity Austrian Zweigelt and rustic Tannat; it also offers up an Amontillado Sherry and all three Dolin Vermouths. Beer is sold as drafts and in “Craft” and “Conventional” cans (represented by brands like Old Speckled Hen and Steel Reserve High Gravity Lager). “Tom likes to joke beer comes in two natural states: keg and can,” Derek says. “I like to point out that kegs are just big cans.” Additionally, he says, cans keep colder, store better and have a smaller carbon footprint.
The “Mixed Drinks” section of The Passenger’s menu is short, with options like a five-serving pitcher of a Sherry Flip ($40), with brandy, falernum, two types of sherry, nutmeg and egg beaten into a light, frothy mix. The drink menu is brief by design; guests are encouraged to toss out a couple of descriptors or key ingredients to Tom (“not too sweet,” “something with orange bitters,” “a Bourbon drink”) and see what he shakes up for around $9. Even though the customized creations are popular, the good old Old Fashioned remains the bar’s most requested cocktail.
Where The Passenger is an industrial tavern — sparse and rowdy, with leather-studded stools and lots of wood — in the back, the Columbia Room’s train-car-inspired design renders more of a subdued, exclusive feel. (“It’s the ‘date night’ room,” according to Derek.)
The Passenger (above) and Columbia Room offer everything from craft brews to customized cocktails, often created by Derek Brown (center). Photo Credit: Vincent Gallegos
An integral part of the Columbia Room is the Japanese concept of omakase, translated to “as you like it.” Seats at the intimate room behind closed doors are reservation only and designed for mixology aficionados seeking a sneak peek at what’s involved in mixing a truly well-made drink. This area allows Derek to serve as the sushi chef of libations, if you will: offering samples, discovering tastes, testing out new concoctions.
The space is part lab, part bar, with a relaxed, spa-like vibe. Seats at the bar are joined by elevated, cozy two-person tables. Bottles of steeping infusions and jars of herbs and spices line the backbar. “I take notes from small Japanese bars in Tokyo but let people in on the process of making cocktails.” The cocktail consultant, blogger and former sommelier has quite a following in the D.C. area and beyond, and his enthusiastic fans are eager to snag a coveted seat here. A $49 charge per person, inclusive of tax and tip, entitles each guest to a welcome glass of Champagne, two crafted cocktails and a small plate from the kitchen.
Indeed, for the brothers Brown, it’s not just about the drinks. An assorted and ever-expanding bar food menu, created by chef Javier Duran, includes such nosh-worthy nibbles as Kimchi Hot Dogs, Chili Half Smokes, paninis, Duck Carnitas and Hummus with Marinated Artichokes.
Future plans include Monday night happy hours for charities, such as Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation event, and a Sunday “hangover” brunch starting at 2 p.m. “We don’t want to get up any earlier!” Derek admits.
Though Tom’s known more for his penchant for an icy cold brew, he’s also been known to toss together ingredients that, in theory, shouldn’t work but, like the illogically delicious Blood & Sand, magically do; his Truffled Amaro Flip with truffle oil comes to mind. And though Derek’s never happier than when he’s poring over classic cocktail tomes or perfecting ratios for his latest masterpiece, he is also perfectly content catching up with a dear friend over a couple of beers. “It’s not that complicated after all,” he explains. “The end result is that we’re just trying to make people happy.” NCB