A Man Walks into a Bar: The Columbia Room
A trendy and unique bar revitalizing the D.C. cocktail scene
After living in the Washington, DC area for a few years my friends and family started asking me, “You live in DC, what are all the good places to go to?” Unfortunately, anyone familiar with the traffic in the area knows that even if you live 20 miles from DC, sometimes that journey can feel like a trip across the country. I haven’t explored DC, especially the cocktail scene, as much as I’ve wanted to, but cherry blossom season was a perfect excuse to get out.
Stumbling Upon a Gold Mine
After walking around the tidal basin to see the cherry blossoms, snap a few pictures, and even post a new cocktail, it was time to find a good drink. Someone pointed me in the direction of Blagden Alley and told me if I couldn’t get a good drink there, I didn’t know good drinks. Duly noted.
At the end of the alley, I saw an understated service door with a small, index-card-sized sign that read “Columbia Room.” My limited experience with speakeasies told me to enter, and I’m so glad that I did. I was escorted upstairs past velvet curtains to a cool and relaxed rooftop bar. I was impressed already; then I saw the cocktail menu.
The Meticulous Drink Craft
The bartender greeted me with a friendly smile and a cocktail list that hit the bar with a thud. I would later learn from head bartender Suzy Critchlow, that The Columbia Room had won numerous awards for its bar program including “Best American Cocktail Bar” and even a James Beard finalist award. At the time, all I knew was this was one of the most impressive cocktail lists I had ever seen, not a single drink with ingredients I would have put together.
Chicory, hops tincture, and black sesame are just a few of the unique ingredients you will find on Columbia Room’s cocktail list. These aren’t just for show, they are incorporated expertly in all of their drinks. One of my favorites for the unseasonably hot day, the スーパードライ (Super Dry), employed a hops tincture and forced carbonation. This unorthodox combination made a gin and sherry cocktail that tasted oddly similar to an IPA, which frankly, blew my mind. After a few more cocktails, I noticed a similar trend. Unique ingredients blended masterfully into a one of a kind experience; and sherry, lots of sherry.
“We have some certified sherry experts,” the head bartender Suzy Critchlow says, “Me and one of the partners competed in the National Sherry Cocktail competition.” This love of sherry is very evident in the cocktail selection. You’ll find more known varieties such as Amontillado and Oloroso featured alongside rare breeds like Palo Cortado. For your average cocktail consumer, this splash of sherry brightens up the drink and leads to a unique flavor profile. For me, it meant something more.
Making sherry is a very involved process that requires care and dedication. It involves a lot of time, attention to detail, and knowledge to produce a consistent product. Sherry fell out of prominence since the ’70s and has since found a resurgence in craft cocktail bars like The Columbia Room. I like to think this is mutual respect of the craft of fine drinks and a commitment to care and dedication. I could be over-analyzing it, but like Suzy says, “Sherry is just lovely, and a little bit can bring a new perspective to a drink.”
Growing a Business and a City
DC is often left out in the cocktail conversation dominated by cities like New York, London, and even Singapore. The cocktail scene in DC, for whatever reason, never seemed to take off the way it did in places like New York. Today that is changing, and it is changing thanks to places like The Columbia Room.
It is no coincidence that one of the beacons of DC’s cocktail revival is the brainchild of Derek Brown. Derek Brown is the owner of other DC bar and restaurant staples like The Passenger, Mockingbird Hill, Eat the Rich, and Southern Efficiency. He is also the Chief Spirits Advisor at the National Archives (which is now my dream job).
Derek Brown could tell you all about the history of the DC drink scene from prohibition until now, but instead, he lets you taste it. Drinks span from subtle tweaks of prohibition favorites to new and original concoctions you won’t find anywhere else. The Columbia Room also offers these drinks in distinct spaces allowing you to choose your own experience.
The rooftop Punch Garden offers a relaxed environment to meet with friends and enjoy the weather. The Spirits Library provides a more intimate and study-like atmosphere for private conversations. And finally, the Tasting Room is the epitome of cocktail class, a ticketed and close locale featuring a four-course thematic cocktail event.
In all of these spaces, people like Suzy Critchlow ensure quality of service and a unique experience. “The staff and the guests really make this place special. It’s what motivates us,” Suzy says. The attention to detail and care for the craft is evident everywhere in the Columbia Room from the garnishes to the seemingly endless smiles of the staff. DC is on its way to becoming a powerhouse in the cocktail world, and when it does, it will be thanks in part to amazing places like the Columbia Room.