Recently a friend of mine had a "significant" birthday ("significant" because of the numbers involved, although you wouldn't know it from looking at her.) Her husband, a beer brewer and imbiber like myself, decided to treat her and a bunch of friends to a cocktail class hosted by Derek Brown - cocktail writer for The Atlantic, bartender and beverage program designer of The Gibson, owner of a beverage consulting business, co-owner of The Passenger bar, and all around cocktail-guy-to-know in DC. I was lucky enough to be invited, but had some time to kill between work and the class kick off time - and that translates to drinking time (see pics from the evening here).
Started at Central, Chef Michel Richard's bistro location. It was the start of Mardi Gras, and I had seen that Central had Abita Mardi Gras Bock as an exclusive in DC, so figured I would start there. The beer was very tasty - malty, slightly sweet, slight bitterness with a very short finish. Nice reddish amber hue to it - a good, but not great, bock. But the bar itself was slow, and the bartender spent most of his time noting he was off in 5 more hours and couldn't wait to get out of there, so I bolted for The Passenger.
The Passenger is in a converted store front directly across the street from the DC Convention Center in the Shaw neighborhood. This is one of the two or three DC neighborhoods undergoing a renaissance after years of blight caused by the riots that occurred in 1968 and the resulting years of neglect. Unlike many bars i've been to, the space is wide open - the entire center portion of the bar is absent tables or chairs (in New York, you would probably see 10 more tables crammed into the same space.). There are five vinyl, four person booths, a couple of eight tops at front in the bay windows, and the bar seats about fifteen. Chatting about the bar later, Derek mentioned that openness was intentional - it definitely makes the large space more intimate. It also mitigates the noise in the space- the space is dark, with dark, almost black hardwood floors, dark grey walls, and a darkly stained bar, and even with the open space, it can get pretty loud when the seats start to fill up.
I was about an hour early, so I grabbed a seat at the bar and asked my bartender Alex to make me something with rye. She whipped up a Manhattan made with Luxardo maraschino liqueur and absinthe. Tasty, and the absinthe added a nice zing to the drink. This was starting off well.
I figured getting tanked BEFORE the class would be bad form, so I asked for a Oscar Blue's (maker of Dale's Pale Ale) Gordon Imperial IPA in a can (not sure how asking for an Imperial IPA was supposed to keep me from getting tanked - I am sure this made sense at the time.) Oscar Blue makes awesome canned beers, and this was no exception. SMOOTH, a little hoppy, but not what you would expect from an IIPA - it went down very easily - probably a little TOO easily given the 8.7% ABV.
Very soon thereafter my friends arrived, as did Derek, and we were escorted into the Columbia Room, the newly opened party / event / class room in the back of the space. In contrast to the bar space in front, this space was brightly lit, with creamy light blue walls and a cozy atmosphere. There was a bar, a nicely designed prep/display area, barstools for about ten people, and that was it - certainly a proper atmosphere for teaching about drinking. Derek claimed the room wasn't quite complete yet, but it certainly looked complete to me.
Derek started off by making a champagne cocktail, making one for each of us while discussing the role of bitters in a cocktail. He moved on to a Crisp Martini - Plymouth gin, Dolin vermouth, and a lemon twist - while expounding upon the differences between London dry gin, Old Tom gin, and genever, as well as the importance of using fresh vermouth. From there he made a fresh batch of Daiquiris, and showed us his mad lemon peeling skillz by making a round of Horse's Necks - bourbon, spicy ginger beer, with an unbroken, whole lemon peel in the glass. He also broke out this HUGE Japanese cleaver which he used to carve an ice diamond (kudos to him - I would have cut my arm off taking the thing out of the drawer.) All of this was interspersed with tasty food -flat bread, artichoke hearts, veggie burgers - just enough to keep the munchies at bay (and keep you from keeling over halfway through class.)
Overall it was a great experience - everyone learned something, had some great cocktails and some great food, and I think came away with a better appreciation of the skill that goes into making a great cocktail.