The Future of the Cocktail

The Passenger

The Passenger & The Columbia Room — two great bars rolled into one.

When I ask Derek Brown about the future of the craft cocktail, his answer is unequivocal, “it’s not a trend anymore.” In a town where bluster is an art form, Brown’s certainty is surprisingly convincing. Of course, it helps that he has a resume to back it up. Brown was a James Beard Award Semifinalist for Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional in 2010, and his Washington DC bar, The Columbia Room, was twice a semifinalist for Outstanding Bar Program (2012; 2014). And that’s in addition to his four other Downtown DC bars and restaurants, his writing, and his appearances in the media. Brown isn’t just a bartender, he’s a historian, an anthropologist, a cocktail evangelist, and most importantly, someone who enjoys a good drink. In short, he’s exactly the guy you want to talk to when a question comes up about the future of the cocktail.

For those who already know the power of a good drink, it’s no surprise that cocktail culture has crept so thoroughly into the urban foodie scene. And yet, there are still people who dismiss cocktails— and especially so-called “craft cocktails” — as a mere fad. Brown, and those of his ilk, are here to prove the naysayers wrong. For Brown, a good cocktail isn’t just about something that tastes good and gives you a bit of a buzz. It’s about ritual. It’s about bringing people together in a way that other things simply can not. “A conversation over kale, and a conversation over whiskey, are different conversations,” Brown notes, somewhat wryly. It would be easy to disregard a comment like that as glib, except that he’s right.

Somewhat problematically for cocktail culture, enthusiasts often have difficulty explaining exactly why a good cocktail is so important to them. There’s an almost mystical quality to a good drink. A well-made cocktail isn’t something to be tossed down the throat before getting on the dance floor to grind on strangers. It has to be appreciated. It has to be mulled over. It begs for companionship. Throughout our conversation, Brown hints at the cocktail’s unique qualities, but ultimately, one has to leave a little mystery in the explanation in order to get it right. “Even though I love dive bars, and I love beer and shots, and I’ll never slag them,” Brown says, “there is something special about sitting down and having a well-made cocktail. Something far beyond the experience of drinking a light beer.”

Drinking has been a part of human culture for almost as long as humans could be said to have had a culture. Brown is acutely aware of this fact, and celebrates it as a cultural trademark for mankind. “Some of our most cherished moments are celebrated with alcohol. It’s something we cheers with, something we mourn with, and something we meet people with,” Brown says while describing the function of alcohol in human society. It’s this perspective that speaks to a good drink’s longevity.

The story isn’t all good though, and humanity’s relationship with alcohol provides plenty of examples of abuse. Brown, however, seems eager to acknowledge the problem, and in doing so, move past it. “As much as alcohol is something we love, it’s something dangerous, and it’s nice to see that people are having an open debate about what that means,” Brown explains. Certainly alcohol consumption can have negative effects, particularly on those who are predisposed to addiction, but as Brown and I run through the history of alcohol I can’t help but wonder whether cocktails could be a special case. Does the refinement of a good cocktail invite a different sort of enjoyment? A sort that is less conducive to abuse? What is it that makes a good cocktail so special?

Modern cocktails, Brown points out, are a uniquely American innovation— first defined at the dawn of the 19th century, and thereafter exported to the world. Although cocktails were originally considered to be drinks containing spirits, bitters, sugar, and water, Brown explains that the definition has evolved to simply mean a mixed drink. That history though, still matters, and still impacts what bartenders are doing today to hone their craft. “Does knowing the pedigree of an Old Fashioned make it more enjoyable?” Brown asks, rhetorically. “Probably not. Not on an immediate sensory level, but there is a fascination with where things come from, and their providence.”

For a drinker, a knowledge of history is by no means required — it is, in some sense, masters level training for the average consumer — but as a bartender, a knowledge of history is a vital source of inspiration. As with food, the history of drinks provides a foundation on which to build something new. Moreover, it links us to our ancestors and to the rituals that were important to them. The development of cocktails has been interrupted over the years by a variety of hurdles— prohibition, and the rise of frozen foods for starters, according to Brown — but bartenders like Brown are bringing back the old ways as a means of moving the craft forward.

As Brown and I sit and talk in the corner of The Columbia Room, his bartenders JP and Mel are getting ready for the evening. Brown explains that good bartenders start from classic principles and then allow their craft to evolve naturally. Brown points out that “there are many people who have tried to cut and paste the rituals of craft bartending and make it look like they know what they’re doing. But what makes a craft bartender is someone who has studied, and who cares about the fundamentals of bartending.” For Brown, knowing how to mix a few drinks isn’t enough— as with any other craft, you need a basis from which to start. “It’s not something where you just show up behind a bar, get a tattoo of Fernet Branca, and wear some suspenders and you’re ready,” Brown cracks knowingly.

Considering the stereotypical “speakeasy” style bar that one sees in the media, it’s easy to see where Brown is coming from on this point. There are those that look at all the mustachioed bartenders out there and come to the conclusion that craft bartending is little more than a subset of hipster culture. But that would be the wrong conclusion. One has to consider the historical context— if Brown is right about drinking as a sort of cultural ritual, then perhaps craft bartending is in part a throw-back to a time where quality and relationships mattered. In that sense, the mustaches, and vests, and carefully cultivated atmosphere of mystery, are a conscious rejection of the modern bar-club hybrid. One does not walk into a craft cocktail bar in order to shout to your drinking companions over blaring house music. That’s not what the movement is about— and looking to the past is one way for craft cocktail purveyors to differentiate themselves. It sends a message to consumers about what kind of environment and quality they can expect.

Yes, craft bartenders are known for some truly awesome facial hair (though Brown not among them,) but not all craft cocktail bars cultivate the “speakeasy” look. Most do, however, understand the importance of a relaxed, even slow-paced, environment. Creating a truly great cocktail experience is a lot of work, and it requires the sort of dedicated attention that can’t be paid in a more frantic setting. Moreover, as Brown puts it, a bartender’s hospitality is “one of the people.” To be a good bartender, you have to be ready to meet your customer’s needs. You have to recognize that it’s not a matter of servitude, but a part to be played in what Brown describes as a “beautiful exchange.” This kind of exchange, in some cases, necessitates the intimate setting typical of most craft cocktail bars.

Back behind the bar, JP and Mel are continuing their prep work— laying out citrus, setting places, and preparing ingredients— when Brown asks them to describe a recent creation, the Mezcal Blackberry cocktail. “We’re using a single village mezcal, very smokey, earthy, a Chichicapa by Del Maguey with a little more weight, and oiler than some other expressions,” JP explains. And that’s just for starters. “Mel made a blackberry syrup with a little sugar, and then we added a little bit of chocolate chili bitters and a concentrated coffee, and added it to frame the other flavors of the drink,” JP continues. The process he describes is, in a word, intense. It sounds amazing, though again we’re presented with an opportunity for the movement’s opponents to cry elitism and unnecessary complexity. Of course, to counter, one might argue that the accurately described preparation of any dish at a four-star restaurant would sound equally difficult and complicated.

As JP finishes describing their creation, Brown breaks in, “to be honest with you, it sounds like a fucking mess. When you list all of those ingredients it sounds unreasonable. But there is a skillful way to combine things. What we try to do is create, based on classic cocktails, something that is a beautiful and interesting combination.” It’s important to remember though that a good craft cocktail bar doesn’t only offer obscure drinks containing dozens of ingredients. At The Columbia Room, as with any comparable bar, you can just as easily enjoy a three-ingredient classic martini as something like the Mezcal Blackberry cocktail. The unusual creations aren’t about impressing customers through sheer force of complexity, but rather, a means of expanding the craft through experimentation. The same could be said of any art form the relies on the creativity of its makers.

If bartending fundamentals and creative evolution are two pillars of craft bartending, then certainly the third pillar is ingredients. Brown explains that craft bartending and the locavore movement are “carrying the same banner,” in terms of cultural philosophy and the commitment to quality. For Brown, the future of craft bartending is in looking at local ingredients, and traditional food ways, in addition to finding the best drink components from around the world. Going back to the Mezcal Blackberry cocktail, Brown notes that for “that Chichicapa Del Maguey, you could go down to Oaxaca and see these families that have been producing it for years, and how the community responds to it, and how they love it, and how it’s interesting and different, and then know that it’s something really cool.” It’s true that the Mezcal Blackberry is complex, but at its core it’s a representation of the place from which it came. The drink speaks to a cultural tradition that might otherwise be distant and inaccessible to the consumer. But through this kind of incredibly careful treatment, consumers are able to experience a part of that tradition. Yet again, we’re taken to a place of ritual, not one of excess. Any good drink will take you on a similar journey, be it through a special ingredient, or through a time-honored recipe.

Of course, not every bartender is interested in this type of careful and intentional crafting. And that’s why, as Brown puts it, “the key is to be cautious in our innovations.” By moving too far from tradition, bartending risks straying into the tawdry, and losing that connection to ritual. Somewhat pointedly, Brown describes this phenomenon by noting, “when someone makes a martini with blue curaçao, and lemon, and vodka, and cointreau, and then calls it an ‘Obama-tini,’ we’re worried for our culture. We’re worried for the fate of humanity.”

On the whole though, society appears to be recognizing that the ‘Obama-tini’ doesn’t have a long life to live in the culinary world. Craft cocktails however, absolutely do. As we talk about the cocktail’s future, Brown describes how innovative sommeliers and bartenders are exploring the role of science in cocktails, for example, famed sommelier Francois Chartier who wrote the book Molecules and Tastebuds. “[Molecular] is a loaded word,” Brown says, “because people say stuff like molecular gastronomy without understanding exactly what they mean. But what [Chartier] is saying, and why it’s a fitting title, is that you can pair drinks not only on a sort of cultural experience, but on a molecular basis.”

The issue of food-alcohol pairing is a complicated one, and merits deeper exploration, but Brown’s point is that the food world is embracing cocktails and spirits in ways that were not previously considered. “There is this tremendous cultural bias in wine pairing, that France and Italy spent a lot of time on the concept of food enhancement through wine,” Brown says of the food-alcohol pairing question. “But most of the world drinks spirits, or tea, or whatever else with food, and sometimes it’s intentionally to pair it for food enhancement.”  It is here, in this sentiment, that we can see the direction that cocktails are taking. Brown continues, “even though wine goes beautifully with food, it’s a small world indeed, and fortunately organizations like the Court of Master Sommeliers are really embracing liquor and cocktails, and I think there is a lot out there.”

Molecular pairing, and similar ideas, may be the realm of scientists, but there remains a great deal of room for the home enthusiast— and that’s at the core of Brown’s message. In the same way that a home cook would not shy away from cooking because “it won’t be as good as in a restaurant,” neither should a cocktail enthusiast rob themselves of the enjoyment of a good drink at home. Brown wants people to make cocktails at home— to learn something new, read a book, watch an instructional video, and try various different bars. “You don’t always have to drink at the highest level,” Brown says. “In fact, it would be quite boring. I tell people that I don’t order a Manhattan at the ball park, I order a Bud Light. OK, I’m not advocating for Bud Light, I’m just saying that there is a time to drink everything.”

As a cocktail ambassador of sorts, Brown sees his role as “telling people that if you want to have a great experience, it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.” There is something to be said for this perspective. Visiting a place like The Columbia Room is an incredible experience, but it’s not one you need to have every day. The important thing is making new discoveries, and sharing them with others. Brown wants you to understand the social and economic value of a good drink, so that you don’t feel like you have to go out and spend $120 on every drinking experience. There’s no need to shoot for a “great drink” every time, Brown says, just a good one. According to Brown, all you need for a good drink is something that meets three simple criteria: a drink that belongs to a community of people; something that tastes objectively good; and something that tells us about the past. And most importantly, you can make it yourself, at home, and with friends.

Brown is, without question, among the uniquely talented group of people out there who are able not only to make a great drink, but who can also tell you why it’s important. However, Brown’s passion for the sort of respectful drinking one finds in a craft cocktail bar isn’t unique. The community of cocktail enthusiasts grows daily. It expands every time a new consumer gives cocktails a try and realizes that there is an undeniable beauty in the careful craft and consumption of a good cocktail. One begins to understand at such a moment that drinking can be about more than excess and escape. Not only can it take you back to the rituals of the past, but it can help you create rituals of your own. As Brown puts it, “I’m not much of a socialist, but occasionally I’m a little bit of an anarchist, and Emma Goldman said it right when she said that ‘we all have the right to beautiful things.’” If we’re lucky, a good drink now and then can give us just that.

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