What the exhibit was initially missing was anything of substance about the history of the cocktail, says Derek Brown, who had been asked to consult on the project as chief spirits adviser.
To Brown, president of Drink Company, which owns the award-winning Columbia Room and PUB pop-up bar in the District, that was a major oversight.
“It’s an American invention and something that’s been greatly influential in the history of the United States,” he says. “I was like, ‘This needs to be there,’ and they said, ‘All right, we’ll do a seminar,’ and I was like, ‘No, we should do 10 seminars.’ ”
And thus it was. Broken down into eras of cocktailing starting in pre-colonial times, the series was popular, informative and — thanks to the servings of thematically appropriate drinks — merrier than most, presented by leading bartenders, distillers and writers. (Full disclosure: I moderated the first seminar on the prehistory of the cocktail. It was a moment of personal glory I will remember forever because I mispronounced the name of the plant used to make agave spirits, the maguey, as “mah-gooey,” a memory my brain still likes to summon at 3 a.m.)
Most of the seminars sold out, and those who had missed earlier ones started asking Brown where they could see recordings. Which was when he realized they hadn’t made any. “Like, oh my God, what . . . did I do? Why did I not record these?”
Brown referred to this slip-up as his “Macaulay Culkin moment,” referencing the moment in “Home Alone” when the child actor slaps aftershave on his face and shrieks like a baby at the sting. I prefer to think of it as his “mah-gooey” moment. To each their own.
Brown’s oversight, though, has now produced a silver lining in the form of his first book, “Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World.”
With writer Robert Yule — one of the few people who attended all the seminars — Brown has created a book whose 10 chapters loosely re-create the sessions’ material, covering the length of the cocktail’s history in the United States and pairing drink recipes with each era.
Many of the recipes are classics, but each section also ends with one of Brown’s original drinks, including the General’s Orders. The quaff’s name references Washington’s issue of a ration of spirits to the troops at Valley Forge, and its ingredients (rum, rye and cherry bounce) all played a role in early American tippling.
Even the chapter on the dark age of the cocktail (the 1970s and 1980s) includes recipes for some of the era’s notorious drinks. It must be the first cocktail book ever to accompany one of its recipes (for the Slow Screw, a riff on the Screwdriver that spawned a whole lineup of bad double-entendred drinks) with such a clear DDIY (don’t do it yourself): “Do not make this drink unless you truly want to channel the era, and you have to find another use for your bottle of sloe gin.” Brown’s own contribution to the dark ages recipes is the Stay Off the Grass, a riff on the minty Grasshopper that, while sweet, drinks far better than most of the other drinks that oozed out of the disco era.
The book, published by Rizzoli, is beautifully designed, with simple, elegant line diagrams of cocktails throughout, and while the title may gesture to a global picture, its color scheme is red, white and blue.
Brown emphasizes that the book is not a faithful retelling of the Archives series — “partly because I don’t remember everything that happened during it” — and more of a loose, conversational history of the cocktail and the many things he has learned in nearly two decades in the restaurant and bar industry.
Unlike many cocktail books, Brown and Yule don’t go in-depth on mixology techniques, a basic education you can now get out of scores of cocktail books. “Obviously techniques and recipes greatly interest me. . . . The bar is my ‘book’ about that,” he says. “If you want to experience the techniques and the spirits I believe in, you sit down at the Columbia Room, and that’s a living document of my interest in cocktails.”
Brown also documents his own shifting attitude, one that happily is being reflected in the larger drinks scene these days.
When the craft cocktail renaissance first got underway, the snobbery expressed by some proponents could be off-putting, the opposite of true hospitality. Like many others at the time, “I was so fanatical. I thought people who drank vodka and soda were idiots,” Brown says. “That’s one thing that’s changed drastically, you know: I was the idiot. If you caught me back then, I was insufferable. I remember arguing with people, like, ‘Why don’t you have fresh juice at your bar?’ They’re like, ‘Well, my boss won’t really let me,’ and I was like, ‘What are you talking about? Bring your own lemons!’ ”
These days, more craft cocktail folks tend to have a more relaxed, “live and let drink” attitude. But that attitude is easier to have when, thanks to those early advocates of better drinking, it has become easier to find a good cocktail in almost any city in America.
“The cocktail had gotten so buried in the dark ages that it needed people to pull it out and fight for it,” says Brown.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
MAKE AHEAD: The simple syrup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 6 months.
Adapted from “Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World,” by Derek Brown (Rizzoli, 2019).
For the simple syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
For the drink
1 ounce aged rum
½ ounce rye whiskey
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
½ ounce cherry bounce or Cherry Heering liqueur or Cherry Bounce (see related recipe)
1 dash Angostura bitters
For the simple syrup: Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring just to a boil; once the sugar has dissolved, remove from the heat. The yield is about 1 cup. Cool completely.
For the drink: Fill a highball glass with ice. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the rum, rye, lemon juice, ½ ounce of the simple syrup, the cherry liqueur and the bitters. Seal and shake vigorously for 10 seconds to chill well, then strain into the glass.
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