Monday, August 16, 2010

Washington Social Diary

The framed photo of Derek Brown and his wife with the Obamas.
by Carol Joynt

There’s a hidden chamber in Washington where a handful of people can gather, and only then by prior arrangement. Once inside the unmarked door, the light is dim, mostly from candles, the music serene, and the mood beguiling. It’s a room of mysteries and adventure and, most of all, pleasure – for the mind, the palate, and the spirit – a place to let go and hand over control to the chamber’s grand master, Derek Brown. He is a bartender, who mixes his potions for you and me as well as the President of the United States.

To call Derek Brown simply a bartender would be to call Chuck Close simply a painter. Both men are artists. What Chuck does with paint, photography and printmaking Derek does with Bourbon, Scotch, Gin and a vast store of fruits, nectars, tinctures, bitters, herbs and hand-carved ice. His studio, or “cocktail club,” as he calls it, is publicly known as the Columbia Room. Open only three nights of the week it is tucked inside another bar, called The Passenger, which Derek owns with his brother.
The Passenger, in downtown Washington across from the Convention Center, houses the Columbia Room deep inside.
Patrons walk through the front bar to reach the Columbia Room's unmarked door way in the back.
Those with reservations for the Columbia Room arrive as if to a speakeasy, walking through the busy bar, down a hall, rapping on one unmarked door, and then entering another. The anteroom between those doors sets the mood, with its antique mirror and chest, holding a tableau of globes, silver collectibles, old books, and on the wall a framed photo of Derek and his wife with President and Mrs. Obama. The hostess, Katie Nelson, will take your coat, if that’s necessary, and explain there is a private bathroom, before she slides open the door to the inner sanctum.

It looks and operates like a private sushi bar for cocktails. The patrons sit along one side in comfortable high backed chairs, and Derek and an assistant are on the other side, on stage, really, performing the whole time. Derek is the star and the show, watching him craft his creations, never lapses.
Inside the Columbia Room - like a sushi bar for cocktails.
Derek Brown on stage.
Derek gets ready to mix a drink.
The Columbia Room's bar scene is convivial.
It probably goes without saying but this is not a venue for teetotalers, or for those rigid about what they will or won’t drink. In fact, one of Derek’s first questions is, “Are you feeling adventurous?” In his cocktail club, that’s the way to go.

The night I went we started with a plum infused “Carroll Orchard Punch,” followed by a flapper-era gin classic called “The Bee’s Knees,” and from there to another classic, a perfect, old-school dry Gin and Vermouth martini, stirred not shaken, served straight up, finished with a breath of oil from a fresh slice of lemon peel. After that it was time for adventure, to go to where I’d not been before, the brown stuff, Scotch and Rye, the territory of Don Draper and “Mad Men,” the hit 60’s era television drama that has lovingly stirred new interest in cocktails.
One of Derek's treasured recipe books. A "Fancy Free," a variation on the Manhattan, and in the background a bowl of truffled popcorn.
As with the ingredients, Derek Brown is also a connoisseur of glassware. Many in his collection are antique.
Clockwise from above: The ingredients for Derek Brown's classic martini; Chilling the martini glasses; Two perfect Gin martinis receiving their kiss of oil from a lemon peel.
Derek hand-carving of a piece of ice into the shape of a diamond... ... and then into a rock's glass for a pour of Scotch.
Derek made Don’s drink of choice, the Manhattan, with Don’s whiskey of choice, Rye, using Rendezvous from the High West Distillery in Utah. He followed with another “Mad Men” staple, the Old Fashioned, one of the earliest known cocktails, dating back to the 1880s, using 12-year-old single malt from the Yamazaki Distillery in Japan. These drinks were delicious, defeating all my prejudices about whiskey. For each drink Derek hand carved the ice, in one instance studiously creating a tennis ball sized chunk in the shape of a diamond.

While we sipped we were served a tid bit or two of cocktail food, including a beautifully grilled scallop and later a bowl of truffled popcorn. You’d be wise, though, to eat something substantial before the hour or two you spend with Derek, enjoying his artistry.

As delicious as the cocktails are, they are potent and you may become intoxicated, but less so if there’s some food in your stomach. The extravaganza set us back $54 per person, including tax and tip, which averaged out to about $10 a drink. Hangover? Not really. This is sipping, not slamming.
Plum-infused Carroll Orchard Punch.
Derek collects bitters - lots and lots of bitters.
Whiskey from Utah. Single malt from Japan.
Derek comes to his starring role with an impressive resume. First of all, with more affection than pretense, he considers himself a “cocktail anthropologist.” You patronize his Columbia Room for history as much as libations.

He writes about cocktails for The Atlantic, he’s the cocktail expert of choice for a variety of television broadcasts, he’s been named Sommelier and Bartender of the year by at least a couple of publications, he’s on the board of the Museum of the American Cocktail, and last but not least there’s the most powerful man in the world.

When the First Family wanted someone to mix cocktails for them at the White House during the holidays they chose him. Apparently, not a moment too soon. He was dismayed to learn the White House made its famous Egg Nog from a mix. That would quickly change with Derek Brown behind the bar.

It may be the dog days of summer but that doesn’t preclude a hot rumor from buzzing up and down the length of Pennsylvania Avenue. The way this one goes is that there are back channel discussions to have Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton switch jobs.

What makes it compelling? Well, it's no secret that Biden, formerly the chairman and ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has the expertise and affinity for the diplomatic job. The Vice Presidency gets Secretary Clinton into the White House, potentially bolstering the ’12 Obama re-election ticket, and in line to succeed the President after his second term. Would that not be a dream come true for Hillaryland?

A well known communications executive, who has deep roots in Democratic politics, sees the unprecedented switch as politically feasible but said for it to work it would have to be played as Joe Biden’s proposal, and not the President’s or Hillary’s.

In his scenario, the Vice President asks Obama if he may transfer to State, the President likes the idea and suggests it to Secretary Clinton, who obligingly agrees, and then the three of them send it up to the Hill for Congressional approval. Why would Republicans want to approve anything that could make the Democrat’s 2012 ticket stronger?

A Republican operative friend said, “Oh, that’s just what we need.”

The billboard for Harry Shearer's documentary, towering two stories tall in the Newseum's lobby.
Earlier this year I spent a week in New Orleans visiting my friend Harry Shearer, the actor, humorist and director who, among many other roles, is one of the star voices of “The Simpsons.” I wrote about the trip for NYSD (3.29.10).

While we were there Harry was deep in the editing process for a theatrical documentary he was directing about the causes of the catastrophic and deadly flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina.

The Newseum's Charles Overby welcomes guests to the special screening, praising Shearer's film as important and thought-provoking.
The film, “The Big Uneasy,” had its American premiere at a special screening last week at the Newseum before an audience that included many journalists.

Through gripping news footage, computer recreations, and especially interviews with a range of experts, investigators and whistle-blowers, Harry walks viewers through an argument for why the flooding was a disaster “that could have been prevented.”

Since the best films always have good guys and bad guys, in “The Big Uneasy” the good guys are the scientists and engineers who saw flaws in the levee system that failed, and tried to do something about it.

The bad guys are the Army Corps of Engineers, who are shown to resist, refute and shut down anyone who questions their methods and expertise. There’s a particularly amusing but troubling segment where an incredulous Louisiana Sen. David Vitter struggles to get some straight answers from head of the Corps of Engineers.

Tellingly, many of the “good guys” who talked on camera for Harry’s film later lost their jobs or were otherwise discredited. “The Big Uneasy” opens in theaters nationwide on August 30, the five-year anniversary of the New Orleans flood.
From the documentary, a graphic shows New Orleans before the levees were breached.
New Orleans, underwater, when the levee failure was at its peak.
The invited audience included many journalists.
A star of the documentary, Dr. Ivor van Heerden, right, was deputy director of Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center. He was fired when he went public on the causes of the levee failures, and has since filed suit.
Harry Shearer on fixing what's still unfixed in New Orleans: "President Obama is making good sounds but we haven't seen the commitment."
Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.

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