While I’m quite the wine-o, I do enjoy an evening of cocktails when the occasion calls. And, for me, cocktails are always an occasion—as I only drink the hard stuff when it’s at a cocktail-focused bar or event.
I so admire Derek Brown, Washington’s best known (and well-respected) cocktail guru. Brown is the man behind the original Passenger, Mockingbird Hill, Eat the Rich, and everyone’s favorite pop-up bar concepts: Christmas Bar, Cherry Blossom Bar, and so forth.
My favorite of Brown’s spots is the Columbia Room, a charming three-part cocktail concept tucked away in Blagden Alley. I love the outdoor punch garden, with its blue-and-white tapestries, string lights, and charming ambiance. Now that the weather is warm, I have called on friends to meet me outside at Columbia Room for cocktails more than a few times. (You can read our Thirsty Thursday series on the Columbia Room here.)
I was invited to drop by the Columbia Room to attend a cocktail takeover. Much like a chef takeover, a well-known mixologist from another bar comes down to collaborate with a bar or restaurant. This was the first takeover done by the Columbia Room, and they invited Jeff Bell, of the well-regarded Please Don’t Tell (PDT) bar on St. Marks Square in the East Village. Jeff, who has good looks and a strong Instagram following, is more importantly an incredible mixologist and really nice guy. I had come solo to cocktails, as I was meeting friends around the corner for dinner after. This gave me the opportunity to Instagram in peace and to also pay close attention to the cocktails he was crafting.
Like most experiences in the reservation-required cocktail space at Columbia Room, the takeover offered five courses of cocktails—in hearty sipping portions—with small plates. Jeff explained that Derek is one of the first, and only, people to get the cocktail pairings game right, with unique food pairings that complement the drinks and make for an experience. Similarly, the cocktail sizes are just the right amount—enough booze to get your money’s worth, but not to put you out of commission.
The amuse-bouche was a strong start: a cider, celery, and grapefruit concoction with a spruce tip nicely clipped onto the glass, adding an herbal aroma to this light, citrusy beverage. I loved it. It was served with a spruce and juniper rice cracker—light, white, and sweet, it tasted like eating a fluffy, crispy air cracker. We were off to a delightful beginning.
The next cocktail sold me—a rhubarb spritz, made with rosé, Tanqueray 10 Gin, rhubarb shrub, Huacatay (a Mexican herb), and sparkling water. Served on ice, this cocktail was exceptionally light, with a little extra flavor (from the Huacatay) to make it memorable. It was served with pickled green strawberries, plated beautifully on a dark blue plate.
The third course was the most memorable, with the Amalfi Time cocktail transporting you to a European seashore upon the first sip. The cocktail was made with La Gitana Manzanilla, a Spanish sherry aged for 10 years off the coast of Jerez, in Spain. The salty, crispy sherry was blended with Tequila Cabeza, Don Ciccio Finocchietto, thyme, and lemon. It was crisp with strong flavors of citrus and sea salt, and served with razor slams. The clams were served in a basil seed sauce topped with edible flowers—making for a salt and basil combo that paired incredibly with the cocktail. I’m not sure I’ll come across anything like this course ever again.
As the pairings got more bold and heavy as we continued, the third course was a Scotch and vermouth cocktail made with tomato water and beef fat. Certainly not a vegetarian cocktail, it was salty and tomato-y, and while you could taste the beef fat this cocktail was also light. I’m not sure I’d try this again, but I did enjoy my few sips.
We concluded with a Guayana rum and Cynar cocktail, served with a cube of ice in a small, sake-style glass. It was paired with a frozen chocolate bon bon, of sorts, and was the perfect conclusion to an incredible evening.
Please Don’t Tell
113 St Marks Place
New York, NY 10009
The Columbia Room
124 Blagden Alley N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20001