Going 10 Rounds With Award-Winning Bartender Derek Brown
The Washington bartender and bar owner tackles our speed round of questions.
What do you like to drink after a shift? “Well, my shifts are a little different these days. I spend more time writing and managing our bars than clocked behind the stick. But whiskey has done, and always will do, the trick. Preferably bourbon. And, if given the choice, Wild Turkey’s Rare Breed. Second to that would be Belle Meade.”
What is the all-time best dive bar jukebox song? “AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” is one of those perfect bar songs. Especially if you’re tying one on. But we can’t forget sad daytime drinking. So, I’d also mention “Sweet Virginia” by the Rolling Stones. However, I’m more for hearing songs I’ve never heard before, in which case I’d visit Showtime Bar in D.C. and listen to whatever Paul Vivari has on his completely free jukebox.”
What’s your favorite city to drink in besides your own? “Richmond. Also, Baltimore. These bartenders deserve more recognition. You don’t always get that when you work in smaller markets.”
Name the first good drink you ever drank and where you had it. “It sounds just a bit pretentious, but it was probably the first time I made a Sazerac. We really didn’t have any bars that made them in D.C. Specialty cocktails were muddled fruit drinks. Fine, and innovative at the time, but not my cup of tea. A bartender named Don Lawson walked into my bar and asked me for a Sazerac and, for all I knew, he could have said Xanadu. I had no idea what he was talking about. Then he explained what it is and I patiently gathered the ingredients over the next couple weeks. Absinthe was illegal, rye whiskies were few and far between, and Peychaud’s Bitters were not common stock. I made one and was like, ‘Damn, this is a drink!’”
What book on cocktails, spirits, or food is your go-to resource? “I like the literary, history, or philosophy drinking books. A gem that’s easy to read and packs a lot in is Barbara Holland’s The Joy of Drinking.”
What cocktail was the toughest one for you to master? “The Dry Martini. I clocked a lot of hours figuring that one out. Truth is, most people’s version is warm vodka or gin with dirty orbs of vegetal matter and pockets of water floating about. Sorry, I’m usually much nicer but this is a spiritual matter to me. Please leave it how the good lord intended it and use gin and vermouth, orange bitters, and stir it until it’s icy cold. The kind of cold that stings the lip and encourages you to make low growling noises while your tongue defrosts.”
When you have a night off and you’re drinking in someone else’s bar, do you prefer to sit on a bar stool, in a booth, or at a table? “Depends where and who I’m with. Wherever it is, if that stool spins, I’m going to murder you.”
What drink are you most proud of creating? “The Getaway. Only drink that was best the first time I made it. A guest challenged me to make a Cynar Daiquiri.”
What’s your favorite shot-and-a-beer combination? “OK, ok. Bud Light, please, and Jim Beam. They’re going to pull my ‘mixologist’ card for this one.”
What is the one tool that you always make sure to pack when you’re traveling for business? “Curiosity. You don’t need tools. You need to pay attention and learn everything you can. I’ve grown more interested in traditional beverages and ways of making drinks. Those aren’t made with gold-plated spoons. They’re made with what you have available.”
Derek Brown is president of Drink Company and co-owner of recently named “Best American Cocktail Bar,” the Columbia Room, and the wildly popular pop-up bar PUB. He’s also chief spirits adviser to the National Archives Foundation and was named bartender of the year by Imbibe magazine in 2015.
Interview has been condensed and edited.