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Cocktail pioneer Derek Brown’s new message: Sophisticated drinks don’t require alcohol

Derek Brown mixes the Getaway nonalcoholic cocktail at his bar, the Columbia Room. (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post)

I met Derek Brown as many have, when he was holding court behind the bar — specifically, the old iteration of the Columbia Room, back when it was just a room, a temple of mixology hidden away inside the rowdier Passenger bar in Washington. That evening, he took our little entourage through a roster of diverse cocktails, teaching us about the drinks, including one of his signature cocktails, the Getaway, a daiquiri enhanced with the bitter liqueur Cynar.

As I got more into cocktails, I enjoyed Brown’s pieces for the Atlantic, which were smart and un-snooty, providing an education on spirits and cocktails along with the occasional contrarian hot take, such as 2012’s “Confessions of a Binge Drinker,” in which he gently mocked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s finger-wagging about the dangers of having more than five alcoholic drinks in “a short period of time.” He noted that he had done so multiple times in the past month, and that the end result was not any dangerous, promiscuous, suicidal or violent behavior: “I just had a great time and then went to sleep.”

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Over the years, I’d see Brown out and about — pouring drinks, drinking drinks, educating people on drinks, always at the center of the action. Between his work running his bars and writing and organizing a National Archives lecture series on the history of the American cocktail, I’m not sure when he slept. I might have envied him a little, as someone who had found a career that mixed his rowdy side with his ambition and intellect, who had truly found his element.

This was not, perhaps, a wholly incorrect impression. But, as I discovered in reading Brown’s new book, “Mindful Mixology: A Comprehensive Guide to No- and Low-Alcohol Cocktails,” and speaking to him about the work he has done over the past several years on the book and on himself, it was an incomplete one.

“I drank too much,” he says bluntly. Though he doesn’t consider himself an alcoholic, a few years ago, he found he had gotten to a place where the external reality of his life didn’t match the internal one. “Outwardly, everybody was like, ‘Hey man, you’re doing great! Congratulations on this thing or that thing,’ and inwardly I’m just crumbling,” he says. “I was standing in a mess of my own making. So many aspects of my life were out of my control or not what I wanted them to be. … I had to address it.”

I caught Brown while he was wrestling with one of the stresses for so many parents right now, trying to send proof of his son’s negative coronavirus test to his school. His new book is dedicated to his son, and he writes movingly about the influence of that responsibility and his growing sense that all was not well: “I’m not averse to alcohol, I’m immersed in it. That immersion has brought me some joy and recognition for my craft, but it’s also brought a fair amount of pain and suffering. Especially when I had to wake up and take care of both my son and hung-over self. I’d heat up a bottle and grab the Pedialyte (the Pedialyte was for me, bottle for him), pray that my son would nap. … But baby duty wasn’t the only thing that contributed to my pain and suffering. The lifestyle of a young bartender and bar owner, awash with all the trappings of rock stars except worldwide fame, had led past late nights into early mornings and — too many drinks in — to make decisions I would come to regret.”

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Brown got to a better spot via some time at an outpatient program and therapy. He stopped drinking completely for a while and now drinks very rarely. But once he had gotten to a better place, he says, he had to figure out what this change would mean. “I was scared as hell — how am I going to tell people, especially the people that rely on me, that I can’t do this anymore?”

Happily, he discovered that his fears were largely unfounded: The people in his life, friends, family and business associates, were overwhelmingly supportive of his new direction.

Brown sees his shift and his new book — which is chock-full of balanced, bright drinks that bear little resemblance to the too-sweet concoctions that have tainted the rep of “mocktails” — as part of a continuum. (He and many others avoid the “m” word; where others have tried to find a substitute term, Brown says he’s not looking for one. “I want to normalize drinking sophisticated adult drinks without alcohol and that means avoiding ridiculous or confusing names. So, to me, they’re cocktails,” he writes in the book.)

His central message in his drink education efforts, he points out, has always been about drinking better. “At one point, that meant having a better-made cocktail, but there’s nothing exclusive about alcohol in that process. I can make great cocktails without alcohol and I can continue to encourage people to enjoy their lives and have great drinks and be together and that has really nothing to do with alcohol,” he says. “I realized that I didn’t have to let anyone down — in fact, I have the opportunity to speak for a whole group of people who weren’t getting served. Literally.”

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When I asked Brown about his old essay, he easily admits that the article is just the tip of the artisanal ice when it comes to things he would approach differently now. “You look at something like ‘Confessions of a Binge Drinker,’ I think I was a little bit in denial. I think that’s pretty easy to see in retrospect,” he says.

But he stands fast on his overall premise then, which was that someone can drink more than five drinks over several hours and be fine overall in terms of how alcohol is impacting their life. It comes down to the individual and why they’re doing it, how often they’re doing it, what kind of role alcohol is playing for them, what’s driving their drinking.

“The problem,” he says, “is not what I argued for. The problem was me.”

While drinking alcohol is never truly healthy and shouldn’t be presented as though it is, I think it’s possible to drink responsibly — or “mindfully,” as Brown puts it, a term that I like for its removal of the slight air of scolding “responsible” can carry. As someone who often goes weeks without drinking, but on a few social occasions a year has more than the CDC would recommend at one sitting, I find that Brown’s argument rings true. Others will choose a different approach — less or more — that feels right to them. Still others (trust me, I know from my hate mail) regard any drinking of alcohol as physically harmful and anyone who drinks it as simply an addict who hasn’t yet seen the light.

And arguing is usually fruitless. After all, anyone who declares “I am not an alcoholic” often makes their case as effectively as those who tell everyone not to think of an elephant.

Make the recipe: NA Getaway Cocktail

Be that as it may, this honest, nonjudgmental, non-absolutist approach to considering the role alcohol is playing in your life is one of the many elements I like about “Mindful Mixology,” which is being released during Dry January but includes nonalcoholic and low-alcohol drinks — an intentional choice, Brown says, but one that may make the book not the right choice for someone in recovery. His takes on the Aperol Spritz, the Americano and the St-Germain Cocktail, for example, include not only the traditional low-alcohol versions but delicious alcohol-free doppelgangers. And, of course, there are plenty of new nonalcoholic drinks, including a version of his own much-loved Getaway.

The book should be a go-to for those who may want to cut out alcohol for a while, drink less, or simply be equipped to host and serve sophisticated, delicious drinks to others who are doing so — for whatever reason. And there are so many, Brown points out. For him it was mental health; for others it may be addiction issues, or pregnancy, or “that they’re running a marathon the next morning. The important thing is that they have choices.”

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