Pop-up bars to classic liquor: An evening with D.C. cocktail king Derek Brown

It's 4 o'clock on a Thursday, and Derek Brown can barely contain his excitement as he scrolls through his phone.

"You want to see the coolest thing?" he asks, seated on a metal stool in his popular Cherry Blossom PUB (for Pop-Up Bar). Just above Brown's head, the ceiling is engulfed by an explosion of bushels of white, pink and red cherry blossoms. A seemingly endless amount of white origami cranes and red and peach paper roses occupy whatever space remains unfilled. The display lightens the rectangular bar and provides an escape from the unseasonably cold in the bustling Shaw neighborhood on 7th Street near Howard University.

Brown finds the email from his publicist, linking to a recent story about the bar by Voice of America — in Russian.

"They dubbed my voice in Russian," he says to his staff, busily preparing the bar for the expected 1,200 patrons that evening. "How cool is that?"

Brown, 42, is considered a rock star in the craft cocktail scene. He is responsible for helping to transform the Washington landscape with Columbia Room; the connected triumvirate of Mockingbird Hill, Southern Efficiency and Eat the Rich (local oysters and seafood); and pop-up concepts. He has promoted diversity — embracing D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood and events showcasing female bartenders at the time of the women's march in January.

And on this evening, he is giving a reporter a tour of his kingdom of whimsical temporary bars and carefully curated destination drinking experiences.

Brown's signature cocktail bar, Columbia Room, has been a three-time semi-finalist for a James Beard Award. His ham-and-sherry bar, Mockingbird Hill, was a semi-finalist in 2016. He was a semi-finalist in 2010 and 2015 in the Wine and Spirits professional category.

His latest venture, these imaginative pop-up bars at Southern Efficiency and Mockingbird Hill, attract near-three-hour waits each night and are social media gold. Inspired by a pop-up in New York, Brown launched the Christmas-themed Miracle on 7th Street in 2015. The concept has now expanded to this current iteration, which celebrates the cherry blossoms and their Japanese origins. The next pop-up will be in June, though Brown is keeping its theme a secret.

"Derek has had an incredible effect ... on the D.C. cocktail scene," said Nycci Nellis, publisher of TheListAreYouOnIt.com, a site that highlights Washington-area food and wine events. "It's no secret that D.C. is having a complete explosion in real estate with restaurants opening up with a breakneck speed. Staying in the top consistently and being on top of minds consistently is hard to do."

It's a far cry from the straight-edge teenager who grew up in Olney not knowing what he wanted to be when he grew up. It wasn't until he was almost 30 that he started to build his brand.

"I wore [my parents] down," said Brown, who dropped out of high school and moved out at age 16. He later got his GED, went to Montgomery College, worked in food service and traveled, with stops in Israel, Spain and Morocco. He later studied anthropology and communications at George Mason University. "I don't know if they expected anything from me."

"I'm very lucky in many ways. I never expected to have the life and career I have now," says Brown,who is quick to smile and is wearing jeans and a black button-down underneath a khaki jacket. He buys a new pair of black and white Adidas Samba Classic shoes every year.

This day, like most, started at 6 a.m., when he got his 2-year-old son, Avery Strummer, ready for the day. Then, he says, "It's emails with 'Sesame Street' on in the background."

At the cherry blossom pop-up at Southern Efficiency, Brown glances out the windows as the crowd has swelled in anticipation of the 5 p.m. opening. Impatient passersby — the concept ends April 15 — try to open the locked door only to scowl and sulk back into the line.

He walks into the adjoining Mockingbird Hill, the Super Mario Brothers themed half of the pop-up, which features billowing cloud puffs, red mushroom caps and glowing geometric brick boxes suspended above. Several bartenders dressed in suspenders and oversized newsboy-style caps have taken on the persona of Mario and Luigi.

And of course, the cocktails are memorable. One — a sweet, milky and slightly sour concoction called the Neko Colada — is served in a ceramic cat-shaped glass. It has been so popular, that customers are now required to leave ID with the bartender when receiving the drink to thwart theft of the cups.

Brown says that the effort to transform the existing bars into themed pop-ups takes about six weeks. The work is done almost entirely by staff, not professional artists.

The eager crowd, which has now started flooding the bars, eats it up, and appreciates the effort.

Washington resident Cindy Spalding and her sisters Liz Rangel and Rebecca Diaz sit in three high chairs near the entrance of the Cherry Blossom PUB.

"We don't get much of this in Texas," says Diaz, who was visiting from Austin.

"My friend stationed in Germany told me about it," Spalding says.

Adds Rangel: "We're going to post about it on Facebook."

Upon learning Brown's identity, the three demand selfies with him on his way out of the bar and into his waiting Uber.

"Holy crapamole, that's a line," Brown exclaims of the queue, which now extends to the end of the block. "I heard one guy ask 'What are they giving away? Free drinks?' I said, 'No, they are $13.'"

A five-minute SUV ride from the pulsating go-go music, Brown arrives at his crown jewel, Columbia Room. It's in an inauspicious red-brick square building — atop Michelin-starred The Dabney — in the middle of a tranquil alley.

Columbia Room is split into the Punch Garden, a glass-roofed patio with a resort feel; the dimly lit Tasting Room, which features a prix-fixe menu of cocktails and small bites ($79 or $108); and the Spirits Library, a lounge where customers can order cocktails amid books, rich polished leather chairs, chandeliers and table-top container candles.

The Library takes on special meaning for Brown, an avid reader who sits on the D.C. Public Library Foundation board. He's also the chief spirits adviser for the National Archives Foundation. He is bookish by nature.

"What I saw in him is what I saw in me. He's a very geeky, nerdy, bartendery type of guy," said Columbia Room's head bartender, John Patrick "JP" Fetherston, who has worked with Brown for seven years. His wife, Angie Fetherston, is the CEO of Drink Co., the umbrella entity that oversees all of Brown's properties. "He's a great talker. And he's great in front of people. But he's a great, giant nerd."

Lynette Rawlings, a policy researcher and lifelong D.C. resident, has been a loyal customer since Brown first started out as a bartender at Rocky's, a bar and restaurant in Adams Morgan.

"He's a fun and brilliant restaurateur," Rawlings said. "With him, you are getting a history lesson with your drink. Before it was a thing, he was doing craft cocktails.

"He always brings a lot of fun to what he's doing," said Rawlings, who has been to all of Brown's establishments and pop-ups. "It's phenomenal. ... It's astonishing seeing it come together."

Ensconced in the private booth in Columbia Room's Tasting Room, Brown says one of the strengths of his business is his willingness to embrace all people. It's a reason he decided to open his establishments in Shaw.

"Shaw is the greatest neighborhood in D.C.," he says. "Rich, poor, black, white, it's a place where D.C. is really happening."

The conversation ranges from gentrification to the Obamas' adventurous dining practices in D.C. to concerns about President Donald Trump's willingness to explore the city.

In January, during inauguration week and around the time of the women's march, Columbia Room brought in women from across the country to guest-bartend. Titled "Women Rule," the menu comprised cocktails inspired or invented by women.

"One of our goals as a company is to represent diversity as a value," Brown says. The dark blue velvet curtains are open, giving a spectacular view of the multicolored tile mosaic commissioned from Italy. "We want to make sure that it's not just lip service."

Brown lingers for a few more moments, chatting about the history of the cocktail while finishing his favorite drink, a dram of whiskey. He then excuses himself, stating he has to get home to tuck in his son.

Derek Brown

Age: 42

Occupation: Owner of Columbia Room, Mockingbird Hill, Eat the Rich and Southern Efficiency.

Personal: A son, 2.

Awards and distinctions: Brown and his bars have been nominated for six James Beard Awards; His signature cocktail bar, Columbia Room, was a three-time semi-finalist (2012, 2014, 2017). Mockingbird Hill, was a semi-finalist in 2016. He was a semi-finalist in 2010 and 2015 in the Wine and Spirits professional category. Appointed chief spirits adviser at the National Archives in 2015. Playboy deemed him among its "Entertainers, Thought Leaders and Heroes Who'll Save Us in 2017."

Favorites of a Baltimore visitor: "I've always been in love with Baltimore. I've had many friends and some family who live there," he says. He cites as favorites Rocket to Venus, R House, R Bar, the recently closed Bad Decisions and Attman's.

"It has an old-school deli feel," said Brown, whose first job was working at a Jewish deli in Olney. "I kind of fell in love with that food. In D.C. you don't really have any old school delis."

He's also smitten with the chicken sandwich at BRD.

"That sandwich haunts my dreams," Brown said. "Why didn't we do this [interview] in Baltimore?"

Next up: His first book detailing the history of cocktails.

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