D.C.’s finest cocktailologist Derek Brown has a new book, Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World. He still owns one of the best bars in the world (Columbia Room) and the bar that has the most consistent lines in D.C. (Pop-Up Bar). He’s also still a spirits judge at the prestigious San Francisco World’s Spirit Competition. Like we said, D.C.’s finest cocktailologist. We asked for a Drink Diary and have a new spirit on our shopping list: Baijiu.
Let’s get one thing straight: I don’t drink as much as I used to. In days past, I might have shared 50 or more things I drank in a week. That’s just not sustainable when you’re waking up at 7 a.m. to get a kid to school, writing a book, and running busy bars. Sorry to disappoint those who have known me to be a prolific drinker; however, because I knew you’d be reading this, I spent time out drinking at some amazing bars, cafés, and restaurants, trying things that may not be part of my usual routine where I drink like two drinks a week (that would be the worst Drink Diary ever). I also added in some non-alcoholic drinks and a recipe for oat milk. Either way, this is one week in my drinking life.
Saturday, May 4
Dear Diary, all these damn fake drinking holidays are crowding me out. Derby Day, May the 4th, and “Cinco de Drinko” are more or less for amateurs. Horseracing is so terrible (just read about all the dead horses), Star Wars is a family movie, and, unless you’re from Mexico, why? Have I celebrated them before? Sure. Do my bars sometimes base things around them? Yes. It’s not a hard “no” from my perspective. People can celebrate what they want. But on a personal level, I drink Mint Juleps and Tequila or Mezcal without occasion.
What did I do instead? I went to Dio and drank wine. Bar manager Marci Gsteiger-Cox and general manager Danielle Moreno poured some fun rosés: LaLaLu Rosé from Inconnu (Contra Costa, CA), “CX” from Partida Creus (Penedes, Spain), and the “Hitzky Pet Nat” from Juama (McLaren Vale, Australia). Three great rosés that were all amazing, but I’m just going to talk about the Jauma since it was the highlight.
Look, I’m doing everything hip in wine right now: I’m drinking “natural” wines, organically farmed, from female producers and growers, and drinking Pét Nat to boot. But there’s nothing wrong with that. These wines are growing popular for a reason. The Jauma is lovely and funky, slightly sour with some berries things happening. It’s made from 100% Grenache. Drink this or anything else Dio pours.
Sunday, May 5
What better way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo than popping open a South African Pinot Noir? What a world we live in! The particular South African Pinot Noir I drank is Tesselaarsdal. It’s good and receiving amazing accolades, rightfully so. Part of it is the wine itself, and part of it is the story behind the name—named after a community of freed slaves—and its rising star winemaker, Berene Sauls. The wine is silky, a touch earthy, and tastes of red fruit, cherry, and spice.
Monday, May 6
Monday mornings deserve a Garfield-esque quip and coffee. Lots of coffee. I start the day with an oat milk latte from Peregrine. Usually I make coffee at home—It’s just so expensive otherwise—but Peregrine is my favorite shop if I’m going outside my house.
At night, I decide to open that bottle of Bourbon that I’m not supposed to open, Henry McKenna 10-year-old Bottled-in-Bond. Yes, I’m the asshole who squirreled some away, and that’s why you can’t find it. But, to be fair, I’m also one of the assholes who named this once under $40 Bourbon “Best in Show Whiskey” at this year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition (I’m a spirits judge). You have more than one reason to be upset with me. OK, three, actually: I’m now bragging about it.
Tuesday, May 7
Dear Diary, I’ve managed to escape the “holidays” without wearing a sombrero and claiming I care about horse racing when I’ve never attended a single race. What do I do to celebrate instead? I drink a Peanut Blast Smoothie (almond milk, bananas, peanut butter) with spinach from South Block Juice in Union Market. I drink healthy things too.
At night I head over to Maxwell Park and, to my surprise, find a rosé even more delicious than the Jauma I drank at Dio, which I was raving about just a few posts back. It’s the Heidi Schrock Rosê “Biscaya” from Rust in Austria, a field blend with a lot of grapes we won’t bother listing. It has a little RS, residual sugar, because the grapes have experienced botrytis, which is a kind of rot you want. (Yes, I just suggested rot could be desirable.) As for how it tastes, I was reading some reviews and wine writer Anne Kriebehl said it best, “A serious pink that is joyful, summery pleasure in a glass.” Indeed.
After Maxwell, I head over to Tiger Fork for dinner. I’m good with water but it’s obligatory whilst at Tiger Fork to have a shot of Baijiu. In fact, they’re the best Baijiu bar in the city. What does that mean to you? Probably nothing. Unless you’re Chinese, you’ve likely never had Baijiu, though it’s one of the most consumed spirits in the world. Some spirits experts are trying to make it a thing here but it’s a challenging flavor for Americans. Read: it can be disgusting. There’s one tasting note I often describe from Baijiu as bile, which my girlfriend refers to as papaya. (Maybe regurgitated papaya.) Still, you’re missing out if you haven’t tried it. It may well be an acquired taste but so are so many others wines and spirits I love. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll actually like it.
Wednesday, May 8
I’m drinking more this week than I usually do but I’ll still take a few days off. “You shouldn’t drink every day… It’s bad for you,” says a bar owner. But I’m making coffee at home and that means oat milk too. It’s super easy to make and you can make it for pennies.
Mix ¼ oats by volume of water. That means if you’re adding 16 ounces, water, add 4 ounces oats. Per 16 ounces, add two drops of vanilla and a teaspoon of cane sugar. Blend for about 10-15 seconds. Strain through fine sieve. I realize that ounces are measured differently in solids and liquids but I honestly just dump it in the blender and use the volume lines on the side. It may not be precise but it works. This entire process takes less than 10 minutes and it stores for a few days.
I also add a tiny amount of xanthan gum to keep it from separating when stored but you may skip this step and just shake before pouring. Kara Elder in the Washington Post recommends soaking the oats in the water for about 30 minutes. I haven’t tried that yet but I’m definitely going to. Soaking overnight leaves it too slimy.
Thursday, May 9
No alcohol today either but I will plug the Maca Matcha Latte at Calabash in Shaw. It’s one of my favorite drinks in the city. I think I know what those two things are—maca and matcha—but I also trust Calabash to steer me toward something healthy and delicious.
Friday, May 10
I’m in a relationship with a beverage professional, Maria Bastasch (the wine director at Maydan and Compass Rose), which has its perks. This morning it’s her making me a smoothie. She’s from California, thinks all-vegetable smoothies are normal, and drinks golden seal like it was Gatorade; so I have to admit that she makes her smoothies more palatable to my palate (one where I’m not used to ingesting bitter, medicinal roots throughout the day). She blends baby kale, honey, dates, pineapple, strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, maca, matcha, and pea protein. It’s delicious and invigorating. Thank you, Maria.
Not done with recommendations from Maria for the day, I head over to Compass Rose at night and drink Domaine de L’ecu “Carpe Diem,” which is melon de bourgogne spontaneous fermented, unfiltered, and aged in amphora. That means it’s a “natural wine,” and it’s my favorite natural wine right now. It’s herby, citrusy, with great texture and depth.
Let’s talk about natural wine. There’s no legal definition of what that means. Good talk. But, if you want something more specific, Wine Folly website has a down-to-earth (pun intended) definition.
Saturday, May 11
Tonight is my book launch at the Columbia Room for friends and family. My book Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World, just came out. The first thing I do when I get to the bar is order an Aperol Spritz. Days before Rebekah Peppler had decided to take a swipe at the beloved summer drink in a New York Times article. Do I believe it’s worth marching in the streets in protest? No. But I would like to rebut some of the claims.
Peppler leads with the assertation that Aperol Spritzes are, “Served in branded, jumbo wine glasses,” and “the sugary aperitif is paired with low-quality prosecco, soda water and an outsize orange slice, resulting in something that drinks like a Capri Sun after soccer practice on a hot day.“ She caps it with: “Not in a good way.”
Not in a good way? How the living fuck could a Capri Sun not taste amazing after soccer practice on a hot day. I won’t argue this. This is not reasonable.
The next bit is throwaway too: she claims she’s not alone is her opinion. The Twitter-verse proved the opposite—she’s more or less the only one—but that doesn’t matter. Arguments must live or die on their own validity not the fact they’re commonly shared opinions.
The core of her argument is that she thinks Aperol is simple, lacking complexity, and finishes sweetly. I’ve argued similarly before with other beverages. Complexity is something we seek in beverages as beverage professionals. The rest of the world doesn’t know what we’re talking about because they’ve done something us beverage professionals sometimes forget to do: they’ve separated what is delicious because it’s simple and satisfying from what is delicious because it exhibits interesting or complex characteristics. In a word, Snickers and foie gras. Both are delicious. It depends on the context though. Aperol Spritzes are terrible at a ski lodge in the dead of winter but on the porch and patio they come alive. In other words, simplicity may very well be seasonal.
As for the sweetness, the Aperol Spritz is greater than the sum of its parts. Prosecco and soda are there to offset the sweetness. Just add more prosecco and more soda. But it leads us into another problem she has: that Aperol Spritzes are “heavy on terrible quality, sweet prosecco….” I can only think of one solution to this, can you? Yes, shitty bartenders and shitty products make shitty drinks. That goes for every cocktail.
Her last argument is that “the ice melts and dilutes things so you get a watered-down version….” The Savoy Cocktail Book gives the best answer to this in its forward: “Harry Craddock was once asked what was the best way to drink a Cocktail: ‘Quickly,’ replied the great man, ‘while it’s laughing at you!’“
Instead of the Aperol Spritz, she mentions various other apéritif spritzes, which I’m not at all opposed to at all. In fact she wrote an entire book about it. And, regardless of her opinion on Aperol Spritzes, I’m excited to check it out. I’m a maximalist these days when it comes to drinking. Why choose?
I like that she added you should: “…think, and drink, for yourself.” Of course you should, but then that would put her and I out of business, wouldn’t it? So, feel free to lean on experts too.
This is the second “bonded” Bourbon I’ve mentioned. For those who don’t know what that means, let me explain. Bonded means the Bourbon is from one season, one distillery, and one distiller; over 100 proof alcohol; aged for a minimum of four years; and aged in government bonded warehouses. Is Bottled-in-Bond a marker of quality? Yes and no. In a world where spirits are being put out more and more with uncertain age statements, which means younger spirits in most cases and lower proof, this remains a stalwart. In that way, yes. Since it’s not blended and must be from one distiller and one season, the distiller’s skill is paramount. Bad distiller equals bad Bourbon. There’s no hiding the flaws. Still, I would say more than not it’s a smart choice.
While at Queen’s English, I drink a few bottles of wine. First up we had Christian Tschida’s “Himmel auf Erden Maische Vergoren” from Burgenland, Austria. Did you understand any of that? Being a sommelier often means you have to pretend to be a polyglot capable of speaking Afrikaans and Austrian when you have no idea what the string of words means on the wine’s label until you Google it. In this case, maische vergoren means, “skin contact.” This is a skin contact scheurebe. I realize the translation might be as confusing as the word itself. The long and short of it is that skin contact means a white wine made like a red wine. All red wines are skin contact, that’s how you get the darker color. But what this really means is that it’s a natural wine too.
We then follow the Tschida with a Greek wine from Jason Ligas, named Xi-Ro. It’s a combination of xinomavro and roditis grapes. And a Chilean moscatel “orange wine” (don’t worry, you got this, it’s just another way to say skin contact) from Cacique Maravilla. All superb.
Chinese food and globetrotting wines seems an appropriate end to the diary but I have one note to share. We’re so damn lucky. We live in a world where we can drink better than any time in human history. The scope and breadth of spirits, wines, cocktails, ciders, etc. is unprecedented as this diary attests to. Don’t squander it. Drink weird things and stay away from too many judgments. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you can’t like what you like and, conversely, stay away from things you don’t like. Some things are really, really good and some things are really, really bad. But how the hell are you going to know unless you try them?
For more with Derek Brown, listen to our recent episode of BYT Radio about his new book