MICHAEL BROWN is my kind of bartender. Sure, he can make a mean -- and pricey -- cocktail. In fact, he whips up some of the most interesting libations in town at Degrees, the attractive, classy bar inside Georgetown's Ritz-Carlton Hotel (3100 South St. NW; 202-912-4100). But what makes him special is the way he remembers your name and your favorite drink, and how he welcomes everyone to his bar with an easy smile and a ready laugh.
Currently the Ritz's "Master of Mixology," Brown's resume also includes stretches at the trendy Dream nightclub and the U Street lounge Republic Gardens. But no matter where he's worked, Brown says, "I find that a lot of people are intimidated when they walk into a bar and see all these bottles staring at them. It's like walking down the Las Vegas strip: You see neon lights everywhere, but you don't know what's going on."
Brown wants people to feel comfortable at his bar -- or any bar, for that matter -- so he decided to offer a simplified, interactive introduction to bartending at Degrees. He says: "I talked to people at the Ritz-Carlton, and we thought, 'We won't [necessarily] be teaching people how to be bartenders, but we'll be educating them about the drinks, and helping them learn how to make some drinks at home for their friends or for a special date they're trying to impress.' " One Sunday afternoon per month, Brown leads a 90-minute class that covers basic skills and offers valuable pointers from one of Washington's finest bartenders, from proper shaking techniques to the backgrounds of various rums and vodkas. It's a popular event, with the 25 available slots often selling out a month in advance.
This lesson is no substitute for a professional-level course -- "Teaching you how to be a bartender takes more than an hour and a half," Brown says -- but it's a great primer for anyone who wants to impress friends by mixing cocktails at a holiday party, or just learn more about what goes into making a great drink. And spending time behind a bar with 24 other students, ranging from restaurant workers to neophytes, turns out to be a lot of fun, as I found out last month. (I also spent a few months pouring drinks in a busy London pub while studying abroad in college, but I rarely made anything stronger than a gin and tonic.) After a brief introduction, Brown lines us up behind Degrees' long, black bar and takes an unfamiliar spot on the customers' side. Most classes cover four or five popular cocktails, Brown says, and students actually make (and drink) each of them. That's the essential experience: It's one thing to hear Brown explain how to hold multiple bottles while making a complex cocktail. It's another to feel your wrists and forearms strain as you hold four full bottles of alcohol between your fingers, more than a foot over the bar, while trying to create a potent Long Island iced tea. (More on that in a bit.) The first drink of the afternoon, a straight vodka martini, turns out to be a basic lesson in How to Pour Mixed Drinks. Step 1 is to forget about jiggers and shot glasses. "We're not using any measuring tools here," Brown says. "You guys are learning how to be professionals." Instead, we learn the count: a slow "one, two, three" cadence that's used to pour ratios of different spirits. Brown explains that, with professional pour spouts, counting to four is roughly equal to an ounce. His Cosmopolitan -- the next drink on our list -- involves 12 counts of vodka; two counts of Cointreau or triple sec; one count of cranberry juice; and a splash of lime juice.
"Keep a smile on your face [while you pour]," he reminds us. "When people look over at the bartender, they don't want to see you counting."
Both Brown and fellow Degrees bartender Kevin Kriebel come around for a little "quality control," testing students' drinks through a straw. My Cosmopolitan has a healthy pink color, Kriebel says, but one sip tells me it was a little heavy on the vodka. "There's nothing wrong with that, unless you own the bar," laughs General Manager Damien O'Riordan, who's hanging out and watching the students.
Of course, in this laid-back atmosphere, there's no harm in screwing up, or even trying again. "Make sure you drink it all," Brown jokes. "That's what you're paying for." No, wait, he's serious. "This is a Sunday afternoon," he says. "It's about having a good time."
After the Cosmo, we make a luminous green sour apple martini, and students begin to loosen up as they sip their drinks and snack on appetizers from the hotel's Fahrenheit restaurant (included in the $45 fee). This is turning out to be a long afternoon -- even before Brown announces we're going to learn how to make a Long Island iced tea. Another participant asked how to make the legendary gin-vodka-rum-triple sec concoction, which is topped with sweet-and-sour mix and Coke. It gives Brown a chance to show us what it's like to pour from four bottles at once -- an impressive-looking stunt.
For most of us, it's the hardest part of the afternoon. It's not just the grip -- getting the spouts of all four bottles pointing toward the shaker was as much of a challenge as holding them upside down. After making a mess of the first attempt, I hoist the four bottles again and manage to get almost as much alcohol on the bar top as I did in the glass. "You see all that liquor on the bar? You're fired," barks O'Riordan, laughing.
The lemon drop shooter, a delicious citrus shot, serves as the final lesson of the day, as Brown and Kriebel offer final words of advice and encouragement -- and ask the students to be responsible for cleaning their section of the bar. But there's a lovely parting gift: A copy of Brown's spiral-bound cocktail book "All Mixed Up," which contains 26 recipes for cocktails and shooters, many featured at Degrees.
The next bartending class is Sunday from 5:30 to 7. Ritz-Carlton public relations coordinator Mark Indre says the course will be offered next month, though no date has been chosen, and again in February and March. "January's just going to be too crazy with the inauguration and everything," he explains. To make reservations or for more information about future classes, call 202-912-4110.