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Derek Brown‘s esteemed cocktail bar, Columbia Room, is poised to make its long-awaited return on Feb. 9.
The new Blagden Alley bar is divided into two main rooms: the Spirits Library, a no-reservations den with a la carte drink menu, and the Tasting Room, a slightly larger version of the old Columbia Room with a prix-fixe cocktail menu. For the latter, tickets must be purchased in advance. An outdoor patio, dubbed the Punch Garden, will have additional seating and serve pre-batched cocktails when it opens this spring.
When you first enter Columbia Room, located above The Dabney, the 22-seat Spirits Library is the first thing you see. Although there’s a bar (complete with ice block carving station), no stools are placed in front of it. Rather, everyone will sit in big leather armchairs that look like they’re straight out of the headmaster’s office. The cocktail menu offers about 20 drinks ($12 to $17) with sections devoted to old fashioned variations and high balls. For those who don’t want alcohol, there are two non-alcoholic offerings including one with verjus, sweet potato and brown butter tonic, cane sugar, and a sweet potato chip.
The Spirits Library also features bottles that date back to the 19th century, like an 1811 Cognac, plus many other favorite spirits assembled by head bartender JP Fetherston. “When I saw the spirits list, I nearly cried. It was just a perfect symphony,” Brown says.
A four-to-six-seat banquette in the back the Spirits Library will be the one table in the room that can be reserved. Guests who secure this spot can choose between spirit or Champagne tastings (including rare and vintage options). “In the original Columbia Room, we were obsessed with Champagne, and we never got to pour enough,” Brown says.
If you’re looking for a fancier night out, you can make a reservation for the Tasting Room. Columbia Room is using a ticket system called Tock, which was developed by the team at Alinea and Aviary in Chicago. Guests will pre-pay $75, tax and tip included, for a three-drink tasting with two appetizer-sized plates and some juniper spiced cookies. A five-course tasting with the addition of an “amuse” and a whipped dessert drink will go for $100. Additional add-ons include things like canelés (Bordeaux-style pastries for $25) and Osetra caviar ($100).
The Tasting Room has been upgraded from 10 bar seats to 14 seats with much more elbow room. (The old Columbia Room was literally a converted closed.) There’s also a small booth—”It’s always good to keep a couple seats in the back,” Brown says.
The five cocktails featured in the Tasting Room will change seasonally rather than weekly or biweekly. What you seen on the menu now will likely remain there until March. “What we wanted to do is something where we could spend more time thinking about it and creating the drinks,” Brown explains. “There’s this cult of signature dishes that we miss out on because we’re constantly changing things.”
The tasting kicks off with a drink called the Doubting Duck with Manzanilla pasada, dry vermouth, Yellow Chartreuse, orange bitters, seawater, and oyster leaf (a leaf that miraculously tastes like oysters).
Another drink dubbed the Robert Frost cocktail is filtered through sugar maple charcoal (see photo above). Brown created the drink with bourbon, amontillado sherry, white port, and orange bitters in 2009 for an event at the White House. “It’s a great cocktail, but we sat down and said, ‘How can we make this better?'” Brown says. It turned out that filtering the drink through sugar maple charcoal—similar to the process used for Tennessee whiskey—made the drink that much more smooth. “It makes it perfect,” Brown says.
The team has also created a phosphate drink with amaro, bitters, and vermouth served in mini Coca Cola glasses with little red straws that kicks off the five-drink tasting menu. “Phosphate is what Coca Cola is,” Brown explains. “It’s like an old soda that used acid phosphate in it as the acidulant.”
Don’t expect any further gimmicks like liquid nitrogen, smoke, or changing colors. “That’s not really our thing,” Brown says.
Thanks to a major kitchen upgrade, you can expect more than before in terms of food. For example, the Doubting Duck (described above) is paired with pickled oyster and uni butter on toast. And the Robert Frost cocktail is accompanied by venison carpaccio, radishes, and horseradish “snow.” The Spirits Library will have its own food menu, including snacks like beet hummus and gin-soaked olives, plus $25 cheese, sea, or charcuterie plates and a $12 sweets plate. Guests can mix and match, but Brown says each plate is composed as “the perfect couple of bites.”
The kitchen doubles as a prep area for bartenders, eliminating the divide between front and back of the house. The team also has some new toys like a centrifuge, which will be used to clarify lime juice, for example. The benefit is that makes the juice easier to carbonate; the menu has a number of carbonated cocktails.
The backdrop behind the Tasting Room bar is dominated by a mosaic that was custom-made in Italy. Designed by artist and architect John DeNapoli, the art tells the story of the Columbia Room. On the bottom are the names of people who inspired Brown, from Aristotle to Kenelm Digby (alchemist and author of one of the first cookbooks) to Orsamus Willard (“the first celebrity bartender in the United States”). The center of the mosaic is a tree shown through various seasons with ingredients used behind the bar. Mythical animals represent some of the people who’ve been influential to Columbia Room. Head bartender Fetherston, for example, is an ox because that’s part of his astrological sign.
Brown emphasizes that people, more than even the drinks, are at the center of what he’s trying to accomplish at the new bar.
“If anybody asked me, ‘What do you want the Columbia Room to be known for,’ I would say first and foremost the way we take care of people,” Brown says. “But taking care of people is also making the best cocktails we can.”
Columbia Room, 124 Blagden Alley NW; columbiaroomdc.com
Photos by Joy Asico