Photos: Nick & Erin Donner
Photos: Nick & Erin Donner

Derek Brown Dishes on Summer Camp, Columbia Room’s Latest Inspiration & the Renaissance of DC Drinking

What does local cocktail and spirits mastermind Derek Brown have in store for DC’s drinking pleasure this summer? For starters, the Drink Company president at the helm of Columbia Room, Southern Efficiency, Eat the Rich and Mockingbird Hill – all in the city’s Shaw neighborhood – is inviting the entire District to join him at summer camp.

The price of admission to Camp Iwannawhiskey is $12 per drink, and invitees are eligible to attend through September at Southern Efficiency.

“Paul Taylor, the bar manager there, and I were just talking, and we really like using themes on our menus that give people an opportunity to maybe be more exploratory,” Brown explains. “Then we just had fun. We thought, ‘How can we make this a little goofy?’  In the long run, you can’t forget that cocktails are supposed to be fun!”

So, Counselor Derek, what’s being offered on the camp’s menu?

All visiting campers are encouraged to try one of nine new cocktails, such as the Last of the Firewood, with rye, green chartreuse, toasted coconut syrup, lemon and allspice dram, the Parents’  Weekend, with bourbon, Strega, Don Ciccio & Figli Concerto coffee liqueur, cane sugar, lemon and egg white, and the Wet Hot American Sazerac, with rye, pineau des Charentes, dark rum, pineapple gomme syrup, Peychaud’s bitters and absinthe.

With a conceptualized and fun menu theme, it’s easy to encourage guests to escape their comfort zone.

“Hopefully, it makes it a little easier for that guest to approach the cocktail and not feel kind of intimidated because this is” – Brown begins speaking in a spooky voice – “some strange name, from some strange place, with a bartender who’s reluctant to talk to me with these ingredients I’ve never heard of. That’s just a hospitality killer.”

His recommendation? “Instead say, ‘Hey look, we’re making great cocktails, but we’re making them fun, so that when you come and sit down you can just pick it by the name if you just like the name, and try it out,’” he says. “And if you’re concerned with what’s in it or you’re not as adventurous, then you can ask questions and we’ll help you.”

And for Brown, the experience of trying something new is one that he seeks out personally, while also aiming to provide the same thing for his guests.

“That discovery part of it is a huge piece for me,” he says. “I love going someplace and trying something I’ve never tried before and figuring out if I like it. We’ve noticed more and more people treating bars like they do restaurants. Let’s try this thing. That’s what we want to provide.”

Summer is also in full swing at Columbia Room, where a bounty of Latin American staples are shining through.

“We started to realize that inspiration for our menus starts from everywhere,” Brown says. “Instead of me and JP [Fetherston, head bartender] sequestering ourselves with books and the Internet, we started asking questions, especially of our staff.”

Brown and Fetherston were most interested in what other staff liked to drink from home, whether it was a bar assistant from Mexico, an El Salvadorian line cook or CEO Angie Fetherston, who hails from Ecuador.

“All of a sudden – schoom,” Brown says, offering an explosive sound effect replete with a mind-blown hand gesture, “there is this cornucopia. There were drinks I’ve never heard of, [and] ingredients I’ve never heard of.”

He revels at the wonders of Refresco de Ensalada, essentially a fruit and vegetable maceration, used as an ingredient and served up with rum at Columbia Room. There’s also an herbal tea consisting of chopped up flowers and herbs that Brown’s team pairs with gin, as well as other menu add-ons such as chicha, singani, tropical fruits and Chilean wine, all offered in an array of concoctions in Columbia Room’s tasting room, spirits library and punch garden.

And although it’s still summer, Brown and his team are already working on the fall menu.

“Our process to make a menu takes about three months at this point,” he says.

Yet it’s a labor of love, not a chore.

“So already, we got the menu out and we’re very happy with it, and now we’re like, ‘Okay, we got this other one coming.’ And we’re plotting and scheming, and it’s just fun. It’s just so much fun.”

While nobody besides the mad cocktail scientists at Columbia Room really want to look past the summer, the good news is that Brown has more fun in store. At the top of that docket is the revamp of Mockingbird Hill (closed for the summer), which he says will become more cocktail-driven and geared more toward the community.

“For me, a bar is a place where the community comes. [Mockingbird Hill] will be a little smaller and a little more intimate. It’ll be a place where people could feel very comfortable drinking a great cocktail, enjoying sherry, having some snacks.”

Despite the remodeling, the core principle is still in place – enjoying sherry.

“The irony being, our mission remains the same,” Brown says. “We want people to drink sherry. We think it’s a beautiful, traditional product, with a 3,000-year history, and it deserves a spot in contemporary drinking.”

And it’s one that has always been enjoyed first and foremost in cocktail form in this country.

“America has always drunk sherry like that. From the earliest days, sherry was very popular in mixed drinks. So we’re very happy to keep that tradition alive, to keep Mockingbird Hill a sherry bar – just to change that focus a little bit to the cocktails [coming to] the forefront.”

One of Brown’s favorite developments across the city is the sheer diversity of different places where great drinks are being served.

“It’s like, let a thousand flowers bloom,” he says, offering that excellent cocktails can be found in DC at tiki bars, fine dining restaurants, dive bars and beyond.

“Just so many different paths to the same thing. That’s pretty awesome – you have so many options to get a great drink. This is a good time to be a drinker, and it’s just getting better.”

From Brown’s own bevy of bars, to so many others, it is indeed a good time to be a bon vivant around the District. Just don’t say it’s a brand new trend.

“DC is in a renaissance now of food and drink,” he says. “Although I think it’s always been great, for the record. But now is a very special time.”

Learn more about Derek Brown and Drink Company at  www.drinkcompany.com.

Drink Company Locations

Columbia Room: 124 Blagden Alley, NW, DC; www.columbiaroomdc.com

Eat the Rich: 1839 7th St. NW, DC; www.etrbar.com

Mockingbird Hill: 1843 7th St. NW, DC; www.drinkmoresherry.com

Southern Efficiency: 1841 7th St. NW, DC; www.whiskeyhome.com

Photos: Nick & Erin Donner 

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Jake Emen

Jake Emen is a freelance writer focused on food and drink, as well as travel and lifestyle. Currently based outside of Washington, D.C., he has been published in a wide range of print and online outlets, including Whisky Advocate, Eater, Vice Munchies, Liquor.com, Tales of the Cocktail, Washington Post Express, Distiller, Roads & Kingdoms, Time Out, Tasting Table, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, and a range of others. He also runs his own site, ManTalkFood.com, and can be followed on Twitter, @ManTalkFood.