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Raising the Bar: Derek Brown

Contributed by

Derek Brown, co-owner of acclaimed Washington, D.C., cocktail lounge The Passenger (and its satellite bar, the Columbia Room), is part mixologist, part drinks nerd and part writer. But mostly, he’s an anthropologist.

He studied anthropology as an undergraduate at Georgia State and George Mason and considered pursuing it as a career. But then life, as life will do, took a turn. Twelve years ago, he began working at a small neighborhood watering hole called Rocky’s in D.C.


Here, he analyzed the tribes that populated the bar and learned how to interpret their unspoken communication. And he set out to learn a whole lot about the rituals of cocktails and spirits.

“I became interested in all things bibulous,” he says. “And I realized this important bit about drinking: It has done more for humanity than we often realize, from the origins of agriculture to its role in spiritual and religious ceremonies.”

Brown had also studied journalism and started writing about the whys and hows of drinking. But covering liquor in the age of the internet—when trends can rise, fall and die in a hot minute—requires more than just a finger on the pulse. Brown has shown an ability to see and convey currents that run deep beneath the surface.

He now contributes regularly to The Huffington Post and The Atlantic’s website (full disclosure: I write for The Atlantic’s print edition), doing pieces on health (alcohol doesn’t actually kill brain cells), history (how the English stole gin from the Dutch) and unusual ingredients (like ambergris, which he described as “clotted whale cholesterol excreted by sperm whales.”)

His mastery of the craft has taken him to high places. He once made cocktails at a White House party, where he was introduced to President Barack Obama as “the mixologist.”

“Isn’t that just a bartender?” asked Obama, who then quickly added, “Well, being a bartender is a lot like being the President: Everyone thinks they can do it but they can’t, can they?”

This was, it should be noted, the perfect compliment for an anthropologist.

The Getaway (AKA Cynar Daiquiri)

Contributed by Derek Brown

  • 1 oz Cruzan Black Strap Rum
  • .5 oz Cynar
  • 1 oz Lemon juice
  • .5 oz Simple syrup (one part sugar, one part water)
  • Glass: Cocktail

Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Wayne Curtis writes about drinks for The Atlantic and is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. He is also host of the site Slowcocktails.com.

(Photo courtesy of Jim Webb)

Series & Type: PeopleRaising the Bar

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