Welcome Back, Columbia Room

photo by Jake Emen
photo by Jake Emen

Ah, Columbia Room, you've been missed. Rare has the opening of a bar, or in this case, a reopening, been so unanimously, warmly received as the Columbia Room's glorious rise from the ashes. The doors officially opened to its new Blagden Alley location last month.

It's been just over a year since the original location shuttered, yet it's absence left a larger hole in the Washington, D.C.'s cocktail culture. Co-owner Derek Brown -- also of the "DB3", his three adjacent bars on 7th St. in Shaw, including Mockingbird Hill, just nominated as a semifinalist for an Outstanding Bar Program James Beard Foundation award, Southern Efficiency, and Eat the Rich -- has unleashed Columbia Room 2.0, one which exceeds what the original was, and in his words during a recent visit on the bar's 2nd night of operation, what the original ever could have been.

The Spirits Library - photo by Jeff Elkins
The Spirits Library - photo by Jeff Elkins

This is an establishment which is innovative not only for its cocktails and its spirit list, but for its very space, currently divided into two distinct locales, the Spirits Library and the Tasting Room, with a third, the outdoor Punch Garden, set to open with warmer weather.

The Spirits Library

The Spirits Library evokes a member's only lounge with none of the pretension, replete with plush leather chairs and dark wooden cabinetry lined with both vintage spirits and books.

"One of the things that I love is that we've taken all of the lessons we've learned, but we have a little more confidence now," says Brown. "This room wouldn't have been possible in the old Columbia Room, because we would have tried to prop it up, would have tried to make it focused more on the bartender."

His inspiration for the Spirits Library came from personal experience. Brown shared a story from when he worked at Michel Richard's Citronelle in Georgetown. After closing up, he'd head to the Four Seasons, where before Bourbon Steak was in place there had been a quiet, comfortable bar space and lounge.

"I would sit there by myself after a long shift and I was like, 'I feel on top of the fucking world right now. I feel so good,'" he recalls. "I sat down and had a cigar and great service, and was like, this was what a bar could be."

So it is that here in his new Spirits Library, the beautiful, well-stocked bar is eye-catching yet off to the side, visible to all in the room, but a clear secondary attraction, with no stools or tables surrounding it. "Here you can stop and watch the bartender, talk to the bartender, but really it's about you... and very comfortable chairs," says Brown.

Expect to find a seasonal cocktail menu changing roughly four to six times per year, along with a collection of vintage spirits. "Up here, we have our featured cocktails which run the gamut from sours to highballs to aromatic cocktails," says Brown. "We have Old Fashioneds and spirit-forward cocktails, and drinks to try with different spirits, from mezcal to brandy, which we really pick up the flag for, especially Brandy de Jerez."

1930s Fernet - photo by Jake emen
1930s Fernet - photo by Jake emen

The winter menu features eight cocktails, along with five featured high balls, and five house Old Fashioneds. Of the latter, one is made with mezcal and tequila, one with Calvados, another with Brandy de Jerez, one with blended Scotch, and another, the Right Side Up, with Oloroso sherry, Brandy de Jerez and rye, along with black lemon bitters, pineapple oleo saccharum, and a dried pineapple fan garnish. It somehow seamlessly blends a hogo tiki funk with a classic, smooth Old Fashioned.

Referring to the Right Side Up and its pineapple fan garnish, Brown dives into a deeper discourse on part of his cocktail philosophy.

"Things like the fan in that case, obviously there's a visual element. But the reason that's there is extremely simple, it's because that visual context connects you to the ingredient... It's a weird phenomena that you don't always know how to place what you're tasting," he explains. The visual cue ties it together, and that gives the guest a different experience, either recognizing what they're tasting and enjoying, or conversely, even realizing they don't like what they're tasting, but at least knowing why.

As for the vintage spirits, head bartender JP Fetherston is in charge of building what is a diverse and eclectic lineup. "For us, we look for bottles that are very special, with a story behind it," says Brown. "I'm very proud of JP's list that he put together... it's like Bach handing you a symphony like 'read this music', and you're like, 'what, this is incredible!'"

There are several Rhum Clement bottles from the 1800s, a few pre-Prohibition whiskeys to be found, and an array of additional gems for those willing to spend big on a special pour. The oldest offering is a Napoleon Cognac from 1811, or as Brown puts it, "It's a Napoleon Cognac from the actual time of Napoleon!"

The Tasting Room - photo by Jeff elkins
The Tasting Room - photo by Jeff elkins

On this, the 2nd night of the bar's newfound existence, Brown was in an experimental mood. "Let's try something crazy," he says. He opts for a bottle of 1930s Fernet Branca, sharing a pour of the $35 per ounce bitter liqueur, which as it stands is quite the very reasonable price for such an offering.

Kendrick Lamar is loudly thumping in the background, but one distinct note can be heard over the music. It's Brown. "Whoooooa," he says, taking in the pleasures of and reflecting on what is both decidedly familiar yet clearly unique to what's being sold today. "I have always thought that the best thing to drink 1930s Fernet to is Kendrick Lamar," he comments. Concurred.

The Tasting Room

In the back of the house is the Tasting Room, where three and five-course cocktail and dinner pairing menus are served at a single 14-seat elongated table, behind which Fetherston holds court. Here, with a beautiful Italian mosaic mural running the length of the room, and all guests facing towards him, Fetherston is part barman, part Hibachi grill chef, part entertainer.

"It's a performance, in a certain sense, absolutely," says Fetherston. "It's fun. I love getting really nerdy on specs on cocktails and weird combinations. That's very important but I think main thing back here is you all feeling comfortable and being in this special space, sort of shut out the outside world for a couple of hours. We can tell you some stories, do a little song and dance up here, or you can just enjoy a nice little cocoon of comfort."

The mural is a true work of art. One of the team's architects sketched it out before having it made in Italy from hand-cut tiles, and then shipped back in four pieces. The mosaic depicts the bar's crest, from which flowing branches of a tree showcase aromatics and ingredients overlaid atop of a gorgeous, bright background of flowers, skies and stars, and mythical creatures.

There's also a row of carefully selected names etched along the bottom. "That was Derek, he's calling out the bartenders and historical figures who have influenced him in his life, like Aristotle, but also in his career," says Fetherston.

Iron Arm Grog - photo by Jake Emen
Iron Arm Grog - photo by Jake Emen

"These are some of the biggest names in bartending from the 19th and 20th century. These people, men and women, they wrote some amazing cocktail books which have been guides for us, and some of them are still alive and have given us a lot of direction and inspiration."

To simply look at the mosaic offers inspiration. "I feel not worthy," says Fetherston.

Fetherston's "cocoon of comfort" kicks off with spa-worthy service, a heated frankincense towel provided to guests as they take their seats, along with a liquid amuse to get things started.

As an example of the experience, take the presentation of a single drink, the Iron Arm Grog, which Fetherston refers to as the bar's showstopper. This was not a spiel delivered to a visiting journalist -- this is the explanation Fetherston provides to any guest. All a part of that immersive cocoon.

"The Iron Arm Grog, the name is a reference to the fact that we're pulling a couple of different parts of Europe together for this. William Iron Arm was a Viking, one of the Vikings who made it all the way down to the Mediterranean raiding up and down the Italian coast, he's bridging our two worlds.

In this, we have some Scandinavian, Scottish and Italian flavors and ingredients. The base is Black Grouse scotch, which has a high percentage of single malts in the blend, we add to that di Mirto myrtleberry liqueur. This is a berry that comes from Sardinia.... it's sort of mimicking the flavor of certain flavors you get from berries in Scandinavia and Scotland involved in their cuisine as well. It's a sort of dense, dark red fruit, very spicy, black pepper and allspice.

Softening those two up is Brose, common to every civilization, it's cereal water. We made this one with oatmeal, hay and farro. The oatmeal gives it a creamy texture, the hay a little grassy flavor, the farro a nice little undertone. A couple of dashes of cranberry bitters. The whole thing is meant to have some nice rustic flavors and harkens back to these old styles of drinks.

Basically, this drink started with the bone cup and Scotch, and basically built out from there, like what would I want to drink out of this? What would a Viking want to drink out of this?"

Did you just learn something from that? I did. That type of service -- and what is in its own right, a wonderfully layered drink served in one of the more unique presentations you'll ever see -- is what sets Columbia Room and their team apart. It's also a reflection of the collaborative, group effort they take in creating their drinks and progressive cocktail menus.

"It's me, JP and Eric [Hodge], our head of R&D," says Brown. "We sit down and go through something and try to figure out the best fit."

Brown, as all of us, has matured over the years, and credits that for a different approach to his efforts as of late. "I don't do the ego bartending," he says. "I think it can be fun, we all have swagger. If you don't have swagger, you're not a bartender. But it's not about that. It's about you, who comes through. Do you like it, or do you not like it."

Fetherston also separately cites the team approach as a key to the entire system. "It's very collaborative, and it's better that way," he says.

JP Fetherston, Angie Salame and Derek Brown - photo by Jeff Elkins
JP Fetherston, Angie Salame and Derek Brown - photo by Jeff Elkins

"We all sort of input our own thing. A lot of times it'll work that Derek will come up with the harebrained idea, and I'll sort of form it and shape it to something that works in the real world. I do all the ordering, so I'll say 'well we can't use 30 year Scotch in there, Derek.'"

The process also entails careful refining, as all grand ideas aren't as fantastic as they originally seem to their creator. It's the "high school band effect" according to Brown.

"Editing is the true creative process in this case," he says. "That's one thing that we're very aware of. We used to call it creativity by subtraction. We reduce the elements that make it suck, and get to the core of what it is. I think of it as a sculptor, taking away all the bullshit."

The end result, whether in the Spirits Library or the Tasting Room, is exceptional. But the team is going to let you figure that on your own.

"I'm not trying to impress anybody anymore," says Brown. "I think what we have is impressive, but I'll leave that for people to discuss. Our hope is that... we provide an environment, a drink, an experience, that proves it. I think there's a confidence that we have, but it's about what we're trying to provide. It's not about the ego aspect of it. It's about sitting down with a drink..."

It's impressive. Consider it proven.