The View From Behind the Bar

Classic Martini/ken30684/Flickr

If Basic Books continued its Art of Mentoring series—Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Chef by Daniel Boulud, Letters to a Young Conservative by Dinesh—anyway, we could’ve used a Letters to a Young Bartender by Derek Brown. I recently interviewed the bar owner at his Columbia Room outpost in Washington, D.C. And while I had questions about his new book, Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World, our conversation turned to practical issues like the dry Martini.

"This is something I’d love to correct because it’s very confusing to people when I say dry Martini," says Derek. "They think I mean a lack of vermouth, no vermouth, swirl it, dump it." Instead, he explains, "It’s dry gin as opposed to a sweet gin, and dry vermouth as opposed to a sweet vermouth. And that’s how it started. And I’m still correcting it today. … And with the proliferation of vermouth, I thought people started to understand the value of vermouth and how delicious it is, what a civilizing agent it is in a more savaging ingredient like gin."

But a ratio of one-to-one? "At first people certainly have an allergic reaction to it," he admits. But "I think a lot of people have that moment where they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve been using (a) cheap ingredients, (b) not diluting it, (c) not using techniques.' Those are not reasons to dislike a drink, and aperol spritz is the same thing now. The number one complaint is, it uses cheap prosecco. It should be obvious how to correct that."

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At one point Derek says he knew how to make 400 drinks off the top of his head. "But what I do I know now? Ten? Sixteen? I don’t know. Certainly not 400 at this point."

And it was all learned on the job and not, say, at a bartending school. "You pay somebody to teach you how to mix colored water—you don’t even get to mix with alcohol," says Derek. "Most bar owners, at least upper echelon, will not hire somebody who’s been to a bartending school because it’s no proof of their experience. That is advice I love to give people, to tell them it’s $500 to $1,000 to get this bartending certificate. Guess what? You never needed it. Go bar-back somewhere. Go work in a restaurant. Start waiting tables and waiting for your opportunity." (What he strongly recommends, however, is the Beverage Alcohol Resource program known as BAR, which he describes as a graduate course in mixing drinks. Based in New York, the courses are run by a handful of bar legends including Dale DeGroff and David Wondrich.)

It's how Derek got his start 17 years ago, when he began tending bar at Rocky's Café in D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. "We served tons of kamikazes," he recalls. "SoCo Lime was a big shot then too. People would ask for a SoCo and lime, and we’d be like, ‘Oh, we don’t have any Southern Comfort’ as it stood right behind me. I just didn’t want that sort of people in there."

Derek admits to having been a jerk about this. "When somebody ordered a vodka soda or what I deemed an unworthy drink, I judged them," he confesses. "We talked about you behind your back. And we were mean-spirited about it." The way he saw it, there were so many other drinks that were so much better than, say, a Fuzzy Navel. That said, "I don’t want to fight anybody over what their taste is. In fact, I want to encourage them to drink what they enjoy. But I am here if they want to drink something else."

Suppose that something else is a Long Island Iced Tea? (Yes, I’m taunting him.) "I forget which writer wrote this about the Long Island Iced Tea, but they said it’s principal sin is that it’s delicious," Derek says. "And I think that’s true, actually. I mean Long Island Tea is not really a respectable drink—I mean, it is and it isn’t—like I’m not going to judge somebody for it, but I just mean in the sense that we know it’s an easy drink—not to make, just to drink. It goes down like it’s namesake, iced tea. And it’s got Coca-Cola, which is a magical mixer so it makes everything good." Giving this further thought, he adds, "I think that it’s delicious like Snickers is delicious. There’s Snickers and there’s foie gras. They’re not the same thing but they’re both delicious."