A Guide to DC (and Its Cocktail Culture) by Mixologist Derek Brown

The cocktail crusader raises a glass to D.C. nightlife, getting lost and one very bizarre ingredient

With the 2009 opening of The Passenger and its 10-seat inner sanctum, the Columbia Room, Brown transformed the cocktail from mundane to magnificent. GQ, Esquire and Bon Appetit all took note, touting the hot spot as one of America’s best bars. In the past year, Brown, a founding member of the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild, debuted a varied trio: whiskey-focused Southern Efficiency, oyster bar Eat the Rich and Mockingbird Hill where his wife, Chantal Tseng, pours sherries. Here’s to raising the bar!

Since The Passenger opened, how has D.C.’s nightlife changed?

It’s been growing exponentially. Many great bars already existed, but The Passenger and Columbia Room became a rallying call for more than a small set of cocktail geeks and foodies (myself included), as well as restaurant bartenders invisible behind star chefs. You can have a successful, freestanding bar with a cocktail focus. We’ve seen a renaissance in bars with great beverage programs and bartenders serving amazing cocktails, beer and wine. We’ve also seen new breweries, distilleries and wineries. The District is a drinking town. It always has been, but now you can drink just about anything you want. Sherry? Check. Rum? Check. Sake? Yup, got that too.

What makes a cocktail great?

Study. Sounds funny, but it’s true. Learn the basics, practice. People want to do what Johnny Spero and his team at Minibar do. What Johnny, and Jose Andres, did first was study, practice and then execute. If you don’t know how to make a proper daiquiri, you’ll never make a great grapefruit-honey-rosemary daiquiri. For consumers, what makes a great cocktail can be fickle. So I love to see consumers taking classes, learning the craft on their own and challenging bartenders to be better. Try a sour beer, orange wine, local gin. Be adventurous.

Chantal Tseng and Derek Brown

Why do cocktails matter?

They’re part of our culture. Cocktails and spirits tell a story. I never learned as much about Mexico as when I drank mezcal with Demetrio, an 80-year-old Mescalero (mezcal maker), in the backwoods of western Jalisco, or about France until I sipped cognac on a barge along the Charente River. Drinking is one of the most salient ways to experience another culture and to express our own.

What’s the most bizarre ingredient you’ve used?

Whale puke. It’s called ambergris. You asked!

At the end of a night behind the bar, what do you pour for yourself?

Whiskey...neat.

Any tips for cocktail buffs on how to get the most out of their bar experience?

Take a class, read a book, travel. Life is too precious to waste on an unconscious routine and boring, thoughtless drinks.

What’s your favorite D.C. vista?

Looking out from the Frederick Douglass house Cedar Hill. The site is tucked away in Anacostia but has one of the best views of D.C., especially of the U.S. Capitol and the Anacostia River.

Green Hat gin barrels

What makes a good souvenir of the city?

A bottle of Green Hat seasonal gin. I don’t work for them, I swear. I just love their gin. Also, anything from 3 Stars brewery.

Where do you and Chantal celebrate a special occasion?

Izakaya Seki is one of the city’s gems. For something more elaborate, Komi or Minibar. Not to be too biased, but Columbia Room is a great place to celebrate.

When you travel, what’s the first thing you do at your destination?

Get lost. Wherever I am, I like to just start walking. Of course, D.C. is one of the great walking cities of the world. We have wide sidewalks, lots of green. Or rent a bike. Riding from Georgetown, around the Kennedy Center, to the monuments is a gorgeous tour.

So, where next for you?

New Orleans for “Tales of the Cocktail,” an incredible spirits festival. NOLA and D.C. are the only cities that have official cocktails. Theirs is the sazerac, ours the rickey—gin (or bourbon) with lime juice and soda water. July is Rickey Month, so you’ll find the drink all over town.

Read about Derek's perfect day in D.C.