The Cuxibamba — a drink of gin, tea syrup and lime leaf cordial — paired with watermelon carpaccio and flower salad at Columbia Room. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

When it was a shot-size bar-within-a-bar near the convention center, the 10-seat Columbia Room was the crème de la crème of Washington watering holes. Here was a place, tucked inside the Passenger, that sweated every drink detail, including ice carved by hand into diamonds and balls. One can imagine how owner Derek Brown felt when he reprised the idea, more than a year after the original went dark, in nearby Blagden Alley.

“I was scared,” says Brown, the city’s best-known cocktail enthusiast, with three other bars in Shaw and cover boy bragging rights to his credit. (See this month’s On Tap magazine.) The first Columbia Room, inspired by Brown’s visits to Japan, was a passion project. Could the follow-up retain the intimacy of its predecessor? Brown, chief spirits adviser for the National Archives Foundation, also wondered if No. 2, part of an ambitious plan to appeal to a larger audience in more than 2,000 square feet, would meet expectations heightened by nostalgia.

The new Columbia Room, uncorked just before Valentine’s Day, is not one but three drinking destinations. The entrance, staffed by a guide who also checks IDs, leads to a flight of stairs and the Punch Garden, a rooftop deck arranged with wicker chairs and planters, alive with black mint, peppers and borage, which lend their charms to some of the venue’s drinks. A door opens to reveal the Spirits Library, clubby with leather chairs, shaded lamps, mirrored tables and, true to its name, fascinating stories in the bottles on display behind glass panels. If you’ve ever wondered what Maryland rye from the Civil War era tastes like, here’s your chance to find out, for a price.


There are three distinct bar areas within Columbia Room, each with its own purpose and personality. (April Greer/For The Washington Post)

In addition to owning cocktail bars, Derek Brown is the chief spirits adviser for the National Archives Foundation. (April Greer/For The Washington Post)

Yet another door, to the side of the bar, revives memories of the original Columbia Room. The door serves as a little pause before the show, in this case, 14 leather chairs fronting a curved counter paved with burl wood and running the length of the space. Facing diners is a handsome, Italian-made mural whose design incorporates the names of “alchemists, philosophers and D.C. bartenders” who Brown says have influenced him.

Each stop aims to quench a thirst. The exterior Punch Garden, dressed with strings of white lights overhead, is a relaxed, a la carte setting for quaffs, including an exhilarative pisco punch sharpened with lemon grass. Think of the deck as a beer garden for people who prefer cocktails to suds. And imagine, in the beastly summer of 2016, how much more attractive indoors is than out. Which means the Spirits Library, also a la carte, saw more of my MasterCard this season. Its list of nearly 20 cocktails changes throughout the year. Current attractions include This Is Not a Rose, a luscious illusion created with mezcal, an Italian aperitif, red pepper and grapefruit oil. The staff is well versed in the classics; a request for a Sazerac yields a libation that would taste at home in Crescent City.

Two drinks in the Spirits Library enjoy permanent status. One is Steady Cocktail, a dry martini that uses Chartreuse instead of orange bitters. The second is the Getaway, created at the request of a regular at the original drinkery who asked Brown to whip up something similar to a daiquiri, but made with Cynar, the bitter herbal Italian spirit. Mission accomplished, with the help of blackstrap molasses rum, cane sugar and lemon juice rather than the traditional lime juice.

Columbia Room’s more exclusive tasting den, which goes by the same name, is the bar equivalent of dinner theater, with the option of themed three- and five-course cocktails served with snacks. The upgrade to the inner sanctum is immediately apparent, as guests settle in with cucumber-infused water and chilled towels.


The “Watercourse Way" is a cocktail based on Japanese whiskey and sherry. It’s shown with an egg custard with a pea tendril and sesame seed salad. (April Greer/For The Washington Post)

Spring was a toast to Japan, with fanciful drinks based on pisco and matcha tea, Japanese whiskey and sherry, and sake infused with red shiso leaf. For the current menu, Brown and head bartender JP Fetherston polled the staff — a line cook from El Salvador and co-owner Angie Fetherston, the bartender’s wife from Ecuador — and came up with Latin America as the destination.

First up: a little glass pitcher of gin, lime leaf cordial and tea syrup coaxed from flowers and herbs, a rose-colored libation poured over a coupe lined with pansies and apple blossoms. Next, white rum flavored with pureed vegetables and topped with grapefruit juice and soda, an elegant riff on El Salvador’s popular “salad water.” To close: Andean brandy, scotch, dry curacao and banana, every sip smoky and nutty and thick with pleasure. The small plates accompanying the trio of drinks started with a sinewy mezcal-flavored watermelon carpaccio in a nest of flowers, moved on to a seafood ceviche that seems to be missing citrus, and ended with a refreshing dessert of guava staged as a granita, a frothy yogurt and a crisp meringue.

With a few exceptions, the food throughout the establishment tends to be designed more for the eye than the palate. (One of the more unfortunate desserts of my year was a Zen Garden, part of the Japanese script, composed of a chewy glutinous rice cake on “sand” made pink with plum and achingly sweet with super-fine sugar. Honestly, my favorite part of the dish was a tiny rake to comb the surface.) The brief menu in the Spirits Library leans heavily on cheese and charcuterie; chicken liver mousse leaves an unpleasant tang in its wake. A dash more creativity comes by way of warm popcorn sprinkled with shaved bonito and spicy “hummus” tinted green with edamame. While the ceviche wouldn’t be confused for the sparkling examples from, say, Oyamel in Penn Quarter, ivory slices of raw scallop under a carpet of onion and cilantro proves a modest pleasure.

The drinks, in contrast, almost always merit leisurely contemplation. And you have to admire a lounge that goes so far as to make its own mineral water. Banter with the talent behind the bar and you leave enriched: If Fetherston says Banks 5 Island Rum is what he uses at home, I’m following the master mixer’s lead.

FYI: Gone are the days when a buck a drink was a fair tip. Given the time and care lavished on cocktails of the sort made here and elsewhere, 20 percent is the new normal. The back bar factors this in its all-inclusive tastings, reservations for which are made online and paid ahead of your arrival, so when you’re done drinking, your only concern is getting home safely.

By virtue of its hospitality and liquid skill, the three-part draw, already mulling a “leaves” theme in its tasting room for September, once again ranks as one of the best places in the city to belly up to a bar. Some of the small plates hold it back from its full potential. Just as this review was going to press, however, Brown shared an update: Chef Johnny Spero, late of the four-star Minibar by José Andrés, agreed to come aboard as culinary guru. I’ll drink to that.

2 stars

Location:  124 Blagden Alley NW. 202-316-9396. columbiaroomdc.com .

Open: Punch Garden 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday; Spirits Library 5 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Tasting Room 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Punches, $13 to $15. Cocktails in the Spirits Library, $8 to $15; snacks $5 to $25. Tasting Room, $75, three-course cocktail pairing with snacks, gratuity included.

Sound check: 76 decibels (Punch Garden), 80 decibels (Spirits Library), 72 decibels (Tasting Room) / Must speak with raised voice.

For stories, features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.

Follow the Magazine on Twitter.

Like us on Facebook.

Email us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

THE SCOOP

Location:  124 Blagden Alley NW. 202-316-9396. columbiaroomdc.com .

Open: Punch Garden 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday; Spirits Library 5 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Tasting Room 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Punches, $13 to $15. Cocktails in the Spirits Library, $8 to $15; snacks $5 to $25. Tasting Room, $75, three-course cocktail pairing with snacks, gratuity included.

Sound check: 76 decibels (Punch Garden), 80 decibels (Spirits Library), 72 decibels (Tasting Room) / Must speak with raised voice.