Tastemaker: Derek Brown of Drink Company, Washington DC

by: Amy Ciarametaro

Based in Washington D.C., Drink Company is an empire that is, simply stated, helping all of us to drink better. Drink Company is headed by cocktail and spirits expert Derek Brown, who happens to be one of my favorite people in the industry. Derek’s not one of my faves because he has more James Beard Award nominations ‘than Carter has little liver pills’. It doesn’t have to do with his ability to conceptualize and bring to life authentic bars that raise the standards for how we drink (e.g., Mockingbird Hill, which is a sherry and ham bar…. A SHERRY AND HAM BAR!!). It also isn’t because he strives to help the public understand the history of what’s in the glass through various collaborations with the Smithsonian and at events like Tales of the Cocktail, or this year’s inaugural BevCon…The list goes on and on.

We’ve all read numerous articles that wax poetically about his beverage talents, so I’ll share with you a story of a different light for when I first became proponent of one Derek Brown; and how he represents hospitality and a true sense of the word ”community.“ Allow me to elaborate.

I first met Derek at a promotional camp focused on Virginia grape varieties a while back. There were a mix of personalities that attended the camp. Some were soft spoken and some were verbose. During the 2½ day-long camp, there were countless times where I witnessed Derek initiate fellowship and communal discussion amongst all — both in and out of breakout sessions. It was akin to observing a symphony conductor; Derek would lead conversations, and often ask people that were perhaps socially awkward… shy… or albeit less engaged – their opinions so they would become a part of the group experience. It was refreshing to see someone extend a hand and initiate comradery.

That was my first impression of Derek. Since then, I’ve developed a further appreciation for Derek’s stewardship towards Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic foodshed. As he says, “We’re very lucky to have received a good number of accolades. It’s quite flattering; but, honestly, we do this for the love of the ingredients and products. Whether we’re using rye whiskey from Catoctin Creek or Virginia peanuts…we’re obsessed with Virginia peanuts…we look to Virginia for a lot of products.”

Derek is a fan of oysters, too. “Rappahannock River Oysters: Best oysters in the world!” exclaims Derek. “Here, have some, it’s National Oyster Day!” as he offers up some delicious bivalves. “Have you tried James River Distillery’s newly released GWAR Vodka?” he asks. He’s a self-proclaimed metal and punk nut (e.g., naming “Eat The Rich” after the Mötorhead song), and is pretty enthusiastic about the recent collaboration between GWARbar and James River Distillery.

As Co-owner of Drink Company, Derek proudly carries #VaSpirits behind his bars and incorporates them into a range of classic and creative cocktails. “We’re lucky to have such amazing products in our backyard. Across the board, Virginia is having a renaissance with local distilleries. Our backbars are littered with #VaSpirits!”

Derek poignantly waves the #VaSpirits flag further by saying, “Not looking to local products is as heartless as not rooting for your local baseball team. I realize craft spirits come in at all levels…but the passion, man! That’s what I love: People doing things no one has tried and even reviving old traditions. I know that the big guys make great products and you can rely on them. But if you’ve ever sat across from Rick Wasmund and drank his whiskey with fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies as his kid runs around the distillery floor, you realize it’s something entirely different. It’s all heart.”

Well, Derek, guess what? We ‘heart’ you and your #VaSpirit! And these are just a few of the reasons why we picked Derek Brown as a featured Tastemaker for September #VaSpiritsMonth.

*Rapid Fire with Derek Brown of Drink Company*

#VaSpirits: Where were you born?

Derek: Born in D.C., raised in Maryland.

#VaSpirits: What was it that first inspired you to get into the F&B business?

Derek: I was a shiftless loser and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had worked in and out of bars and restaurants since I was 16 (I’m 41 now). Finally, when I started bartending it just fit like a glove. That was my true beginning in the industry.

#VaSpirits: Tell us some fun tidbits about your daily routine and fun facts about what you enjoy doing when you’re not at Columbia Room, Eat The Rich, Southern Efficiency or Mockingbird Hill.

Derek: I eat Cheerios every morning with my two-year-old son, Avery. He’s the best kid in the world.

I like to play chess incessantly on my phone, read books on music (especially punk rock) and have two dogs. I drink a lot of apple juice. My favorite book on music is still Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus, but I just finished Why Be Something You’re Not on Detroit hardcore punk.

#VaSpirits: Lastly, when you’re not drinking #VaSpirits, what do you enjoy drinking and why?

Derek: Bourbon. Sweet, sweet bourbon, because it’s the most delicious nectar of the gods. Why else?

For more information, check out:
Drink Company: Website / Facebook
Columbia Room: Website / Instagram / Twitter
Eat The Rich: Website / Facebook / Instagram / Twitter
Mockingbird Hill: Website / Facebook / Instagram / Twitter
Southern Efficiency: Website / Facebook / Instagram / Twitter

Photo credit: Jay Paul