I Love To Drink Wine Rotating Header Image

Cocktail Geekdom: The Force Is Strong At The Columbia Room


Over the last few weeks, I have been doing my best to expand my knowledge of spirits and the art of making high quality cocktails. I’ve already written about my stops at The Gibson and Proof, and I have been reading (in my copious free time) Boozehound, by cocktail expert Jason Wilson. When I found out that my wife was going to be hosting a girls’ night, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to stop by another famous spot for cocktails in the District, The Passenger. At the last minute, I decided to go all in and upgrade my experience with a reservation for The Passenger’s Columbia Room. There, for $64 a head, you can get two small plates and a tasting menu of three cocktails prepared by self-professed booze nerd, Derek Brown.

I arrived at The Passenger a bit early, so I decided to check out the scene. Every seat at the bar and table were taken, but the place was not overly crowded. As I took it in, I heard a couple of regulars taking on either side of me. The first said to his companion, “Tell him what you like and he’ll give you something good.” Always a good sign. I then overheard the second one tell a friend that he used to go to The Passenger all of time, but that he went less now because “the place has gotten more crowded over time, more popular, and the prices have crept up.” When I left the bar two hours later I knew what he meant, as the place had filled up such that it took me five minutes to make my way through the main bar room and out the door.

But those two hours made it well worth the effort I would have to put in to leave. When my time came, I moved toward the back of the bar and turned to the unmarked black door to my left. (There seems to be a theme here, but at least this door was inside a well-marked establishment.) The door opened and I was escorted into a 10-15 seat room with a long, elegant bar displaying a wide variety of liquor and bitters bottles. Two bartenders were setting up the bar and were soon joined by Derek Brown, who welcomed his next round of tasters.

I Found It

The first cocktail offered was a Charles Dickens Punch, a warm drink consisting of rum, cognac (or brandy), sugar, lemon juice, and boiling water. I am normally not a fan of hot drinks, but it was perfect on a cold night. I immediately resolved that I would have to make some for my wife.

Another Black Door

The next cocktail is where my visit became interesting and educational. After chatting with Derek a bit about the punch, he brought me an Antwerp Cocktail, made from Boomsa Oude Genever (pre-dry London gin), Domaine de Canton, Benedictine, and homemade lemon bitters, with a floating lemon slice and wild orchid flower. Derek explained that this was not your typical gin-based cocktail as the Genever was an old fashioned gin. He was right. The juniper was much less dominant than I expected and I thoroughly enjoyed this very powerful cocktail. Oh, and it was served with 3 delicious Virginia steamed clams.

While finishing the Antwerp, I mentioned to Derek, as I have mentioned to you in prior posts, that I do not like gin and was therefore relieved to have enjoyed the Antwerp. Derek looked at me like I had just issued a challenge. A few minutes later, he placed two bottles in front of me: Plymouth English Gin and Dolin Dry Vermouth. When I asked if he was making me a martini after I just told him I did not like gin, he commented that there are two ways to approach things, you can either dip your toe or jump in the water. He always preferred the latter. He said that he made the best martini in town and, if I did not like it, he would concede I did not like gin. At some point during this conversation, a bowl of truffled popcorn appeared in front of me, which certainly made me a much more amenable patron.

I asked what the ratio was and, without hesitation, Derek replied, “50/50, the way God intended it.” Now, I am not going to tell you that I will be order martinis from now on everywhere I go, but Derek’s martini convinced me that I can enjoy the right gin in the right cocktail made the right way. My door to gin experimentation was reopened.

That was the end of the menu, but I had some time left before the next round of reservations. I put myself in Derek’s hands and he brought me a Fancy Bourbon Cocktail, made from Old Weller Antique Bourbon, Royal Combier, simple syrup, Bitter Truth Aromatic Bitters, and a twist of lemon peel. It was a powerful drink to end the night with, but very enjoyable with the taste of orange complimenting the sweetness of the bourbon poured over freshly cut ice.

At $65 a sitting, The Columbia Room is certainly not an every night destination. However, the personal attention, the high quality of the cocktails, and the chance to ask questions of such a studied and impressive cocktail geek make it well worth the price of admission. Oh, and if you are a wanna be a true geek, bring a notepad . . . or an Ipad.

The Columbia Room at The Passenger
1021 7th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 393-0220

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>