Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Bartender Diaries: Derek Brown

I first met Derek brown in 2005 when I was working at a small restaurant PR firm in Washington DC, and Derek was the sommelier / mixologist at Firefly, one of our clients. I was more than impressed with his talents, and when I quit public relations at the end of that year to start my blog, The Liquid Muse, I was heavily inspired by the DC bartenders, and Derek was one of the best among them. He is still one of the top people in the area, and I am pleased to (finally) feature him in The Bartender Diaries!

Derek stepped behind the bar about 7 years ago, and one of the first requests the bar owner made was if he knew how to make a rum punch. Brown remembers, “I hadn't the foggiest idea. So I grabbed a couple rums, all the fruit juices (sour mix, cranberry, OJ, whatever was in the fridge), and stuck a lime, lemon and orange slice on the rim of the glass with a cherry on top. She liked it and I was in.” Brown laughingly adds, “Now, I wouldn't thrust the same drink on my worst enemy.”

He liked the admiration and control a bartender had, but admits that once there he realized there was a lot more to it than I thought. I've been learning on the job ever since. A few years later, he became a restaurant manager and asked the owner to pay for a sommelier course so he could better assist guests.

Brown doesn’t see the jobs as vastly different citing, “If you look at early bar books they have sections on wine. Bartenders have often doubled as sommeliers.” He goes on to explain, “There's a lot in common between the two jobs but, honestly, as a sommelier you're in less control of the product. You can get to know the vineyards, vintners and even the grapes but you don’t make the product. As a bartender you're selecting from spirits (and even wines) that someone else has made but you're also manipulating them in a way as to change the final product.”

When it comes to mixology, Derek is largely self-taught although he has completed the B.A.R. training course, which he calls “an astounding amount of information and an amazing course.” He is currently the head bartender at the Gibson and the cocktail instructor for Culinaerie Cooking School. He also consults on various beverage programs and for liquor companies and he his the Museum of the American Cocktail’s Washington, D.C. Ambassador running seminars on the history of cocktails with one of the Museum founders, Phil Greene.

Despite his creativity (he even has a passion for tea and coffee) Brown says he still loves the classics. “I love scouring old cocktail books. I'm especially fond of the Fifty-Fifty cocktail, which I make with equal parts Tanqueray 10 Gin and Dolin Dry Vermouth. I then spray the top with the zest from an orange peel and discard the peel. It has to be stirred and it has to be cold. I think it epitomizes a simple, elegant cocktail. It's really just two ingredients but it sings.”

He describes the perfect bar as “warm and welcoming where the bartenders are knowledgeable and well-prepared.” He quotes an Arabic saying: “the heart doesn't desire cocktails and bars, it desires friendship,” and explains, “Cocktails and bars are just the vehicle, but a bartender must take care in perfecting his or her craft so that they are capable of enhancing that experience.”

When Derek isn’t working you might see him at Bourbon in Adams Morgan, Bar Pilar or Tabard Inn and Cork. He is also engaged to be married to fellow bartender Chantal …. And says that the only challenge he has found so far being engaged to a fellow bartender is: “it's damn hard to impress her with my bartending skills.”

Brown’s mentors include his brother Tom Brown, whom he calls one of DC’s best bartenders, Phil Greene, fellow DC mixologist Todd Thrasher and all of the guys from the B.A.R. program, especially Doug Frost, whom he knew as a sommelier before I was back behind the stick. The DC folks have also recently organized their own association called the D.C. Craft Bartenders' Guild, and Derek finds inspiration among his peers.

Those of us on the cocktail blogging scene a few years back have long lamented the dissolution of Derek’s cocktail blog “DC Drinks,” and are thrilled to welcome Derek back into the fold with his new blog ….

Derek’s goals include: “Working with bartenders in D.C. to work toward being the best city for bar hospitality in the country. I love promoting my city. I'd also like to work with bartenders nationally to make sure they're getting health insurance and are being taken seriously as a profession. Overall, I just think bartending is the greatest profession on the planet and I want to share that enthusiasm and passion for the craft.”

Photo credit: Jim Webb

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