A Conversation With Derek Brown, Bartender and 'Booze Nerd'

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portrait-twist_sized.jpg Derek Brown likes to call himself a "booze nerd"--an apt description, since it captures both his extreme detail-orientedness about the craft and history of cocktails and the irreverent sense of humor that enables him to refer to mixology as just booze. He is the James Beard Award-nominated drinks guru behind the Columbia Room, a Washington, D.C., cocktail lounge that is frequently listed as one of the best cocktail bars in America.

Brown is also a regular contributor to The Atlantic's Life channel, and has, in his trademark highbrow-lowbrow style, filled our site with everything from his in-depth look at the history of the Rickey, D.C.'s hometown classic cocktail, to entertaining rants about customers who ask silly questions and the most annoying reviewers on Yelp. Here, he talks about making drinks for Barack Obama, how bartending is like anthropology, and why you should never, ever order a Dirty Martini.

What do you say when people ask, "What do you do?"

It's always a struggle to put it in the right words: I drink for a living. My favorite response came when I was privileged enough to make cocktails at the White House, and I was introduced as the mixologist. President Obama responded, "Isn't that just a bartender?" I guess booze nerd may be the most accurate. Still, I think bartender works pretty well. As President Obama added after his question, "Well, being a bartender is a lot like being the president: everyone thinks they can do it but they can't, can they?"

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on how people think about cocktails?

Without a doubt, the creation of the Internet was what prompted the present-day cocktail movement. Since the publication of the earliest cocktail manuals, there's been no greater boon for the diffusion of drink-making knowledge. In a more contemporary sense, since Internet time is now measured in dog years, smartphones have brought that technology directly to the bar. People ask me if I know some obscure drink--let's say the Chatanooga Sling--and if I don't, they just punch it up and share the recipe.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your field?

It can actually be quite unhealthy. Firstly, you work on your feet for 10 to 12 hours per shift, reaching, shaking, stirring, and muddling the whole time. Bartenders experience the highest rate of accidents in the restaurant industry. Secondly, you rarely get enough sleep or see daylight. Lastly, being a bartender in some ways is like being a petit rock star: you may not get the sold-out auditoriums, but you have access to all the vices in the world. All of this makes it hard to stay in the industry for more than a few years without burning out. Longevity means taking care of yourself and watching out for signs of substance abuse.

What's an emerging trend that you think will change the bartending world?

Bars without bartenders, and bartenders without bars. We're at a time when the traditional roles of bartenders are starting to erode, with chefs making cocktails and bartenders taking jobs as flavor scientists, brand ambassadors, and entertainers. I think it's positive for the most part, but it's important to remember the advice of a fellow bartender: the drink is never more important than the person drinking it.

What's a drinks trend that you wish would go away?

The Dirty Martini because it's inappropriately suitable for both children and pets. It's the Fuzzy Navel of our time and I pray for its demise. I'm generally very tolerant of other people's choices, but since you asked....

What's a recipe or technique you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

Muddling is the one technique that I think is, while intriguing, for the most part worthless. There are very few drinks that actually need to be muddled and, even then, they should be muddled gently and not as they do in Bacardi advertisements, along to the music. A simple end to a bar spoon or shaking with large ice cubes will do the trick. Sorry Mojito lovers, but when making a Mojito walk softly and carry a lime juicer, not a big stick.

Who are three people you'd put in a bartending Hall of Fame?

There are many contemporaries who deserve recognition even as they're still going strong. Dale Degroff and Tony-Abou Ganim to name a few, but we were all preceded by so many greats. Here's my three:

[Orsamus] Willard. The first celebrity bartender. He was so badass he went by only one name, Willard. He had a photographic memory and remembered guests 20 years after their first visit on top of making delicious drinks like Bourbon Peach Punch.

"Professor" Jerry Thomas. The professor caught drinks on fire and then threw them back and forth between two mixing glasses. He also had two white rats as pets that he set on his shoulders and you might pay for one of his concoctions with a gold nugget. Thomas was a legend and rightfully deserves the attention he's received.

George A. Williamson. Williamson was one of Washington, D.C.'s finest bartenders and generally regarded as an all around nice guy. He invented the Rickey, was crowned "King of Julep Makers," and gave back to his community. The very model of a gentleman bartender.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Anthropology. I think it's the coolest profession on the planet next to bartending. As a bartender, studying anthropology couldn't have prepared me more for the various "tribes" of people who walk through the door. The most enduring lesson: people have their reasons. What is sometimes disregarded as pointless or meaningless is the exact thing that helps us better understand who we are as humans. How we drink is a perfect example.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

I often check recipes on cocktaildb.com. Developed by Dr. Cocktail himself, Ted Haigh, it's the IMDB of cocktails. All of the drinks are from cocktail books.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

Destroyer's "Chinatown." Damn those sax grooves! It's when indie rock merges with soft rock that you know the world of music has finally imploded, and I can't say that the result is not fiendishly listenable. It reminds me of a time when Chicago was cool.


Image: Courtesy of Derek Brown

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Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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