Lunchtime Speaker

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

12:30pm – 2:00pm

Derek Brown, Mixologist and Co-Owner of Drink Company

Our first ‘outside the industry’ session features a prominent DC bar owner and restaurateur who understands how to build a sense of community by crafting a compelling concept and story.

Have feedback on this session? We’d love to hear it! Submit it here.

Learning Objectives

  • How do you plan what type of establishment you want to set up?
  • How do you involve your community?
  • How do you get to know your community?
  • How much of the concept is personal vs how much inspired from community?
  • How to reinvent the wheel?
  • How to keep it fresh? Examples of Community Support?


  • Currently holds multiple titles, including Key Spirit Advisor to the National Archives
  • Began first in restaurants but wasn’t sure he wanted to become a lifer.
  • Got first bartending job by lying about his experience, which worked primarily because of chutzpah.
  • I had this thought that someone in the world is the best bartender, and started that pursuit.

History of Bartending

  • Bartending has a very interesting creative and social history.
  • What does a bartender really do?
    • History: The first bartenders guide was written by Jerry Thomas, affectionately known as the Professor, in 1862 (How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion)
    • Jerry Thomas Quote: “An efficient bartenders first aim should be to please his customers, paying particular attention to meet the individual wishes of those whose tastes and desires he has already watched and ascertained; and, with those whose peculiarities he has had no opportunity of learning, he should politely inquire how they wish their beverages served, and use his best judgment in endeavoring to fulfill their desires to their entire satisfaction. In this way he will not fail to acquire popularity and success.”
  • Break that down, it’s just an emphasis that listening to people is the most important thing you can do.

The keys to being a good bartender

  1. Listen to people. That’s more important than making a drink.
  2. Learn the drinks, learn their history, and learn how to construct them. It’s important to know the context of a drink.
  3. Work with a team. The best bartenders are always moving (Story: knew a bartender who would slap a person’s hand if they were only using one a time). But you have to work with a team, and integrate what you’re doing with what is happening.

Lessons from experience in building a community

Deliver on promises. At the Columbia Room we are successful because we focus on our team first. The value of the Columbia Room is that team approach.

Core values for success

  1. When something is authentic, it’s easily and readily recognizable as such. Example: Eat The Rich. The goal was to create a space that was very true to ourselves and our goal of eating oysters and listening to punk and metal music (shout out to Lemmy Kilmister).
  2. Create experiences built on your own discovery and that allow people to discover something that they are not familiar with. Example: Mockingbird Hill. By creating a unique concept for a bar (sherry bar), they were able to build an experience that most people have not had in their lives.
    1. During the Shutdown of 2013, they offered free sherry to government workers. Found that Google searches for Sherry shot up in DC at that time.
  3. Use and build on it. Create interest in what we’re doing outside of other bars. Examples:
    1. Making Gin Rickey the official drink of DC
    2. DC Toasts honoring black bartenders
    3. Helping the National Archives with the Spirit of the Republic exhibit (book forthcoming)


Audience Question: What’s your take on the revival of local distilleries?

Brown Answer: It’s a great thing, we’re going to have a dozen distillers within a one hour drive in a very short period of time. These distillers are happy to interact with the community, which is very different from most distillers out there.

Audience Question: What liquor companies do a good job of associating a brand to a lifestyle?

Brown Answer: Mezcal; in particular, Ron Cooper who started Del Maguey. He shifted this agave based drink into a code. It was no longer just a tequila, but something with a lot of flavor that became a favorite of bartenders.

Audience Question: What do you drink at home?

Brown Answer: Budlight. Sometimes you just have to get away!

Audience Question: What bourbon drinks do you really like?

Brown Answer: There are too many really good ones to rattle off, but a highball done right (with really nice sparkling mineral water and whiskey) is great. The cool thing about bars right now is you can just say “I like bourbon drinks” and you can get great service.

Highly recommend trying the Robert Frost Cocktail at the Columbia Room.

Audience Question: Craziest thing you’ve ever seen as a bartender?

Brown Answer: Lots of stuff. People slapping each other, 60+ year old nude models, etc.

Audience Question: What is your creative strategy to come up with ideas to get people to talk about you?

Brown Answer: There are several things we try to hit upon:

  • We like to do word-of-mouth without being really obvious about it.
  • It all starts with the fact that we don’t want to do anything we don’t love,
  • Every idea we have was born out of a passion.
  • Loving what we do and having a point of view makes a big difference.
  • We don’t try and change people’s minds, we just want to offer them a sense of discovery.