Where We’ve Been Drinking: DC’s Columbia Room
Hidden away in a couple of alleys off of 9th and N NW is a magical little world. From the street they look like just another of the service alleys you find throughout DC, but if the unusual number of people going inside make you curious enough to turn the corner yourself, you’ll notice that the forlorn-looking alleys are warmed by twinkling lights and inhabited by some of the city’s food and drink gems. You can find our favorite DC sandwich place in an old garage on Naylor Court. Across N Street in Blagden Alley, Colombe coffee makes its home, as do two of DC’s best cocktail spots, the Dabney and the Columbia Room.
To our great shame, we hadn’t visited either one until a couple of weeks ago, when our friend Dan was in town on a short business trip. Dan and I stopped by the Columbia Room for a round of after dinner drinks. It turned into more than one round (three!) and an entire evening. When we arrived at opening, we had the small, quiet room of leather chairs and enclosed bookshelves to ourselves. By the time we left, it was pleasantly filled with small groups of people relaxedly chatting.
The Columbia Room is actually three rooms, each with a distinct approach to mixed drinks: the Tasting Room offers multi-course cocktail and small plate pairings; the Punch Garden is an outdoor patio featuring punches (another bit of evidence in favor of the punch trend); and the Spirits Library offers the more conventional, a la carte cocktails. The weather wasn’t quite warm enough for the Punch Garden, we wanted the freedom to follow our fancy, and the menu at the Spirits Library looked intriguing; so that’s where we landed. I’m sure we’ll be back on a special occasion for the Tasting Room, and when the weather turns warm for some punch in the garden.
What We Drank
Harvest Cobbler: amontillado sherry, mulled wine, orgeat, persimmon vinegar
Corn Maiden: white corn whiskey, epazote, honey riesling reduction, lemon, egg white, bee pollen
Manhattan Project #4: wheat whiskey, white vermouth, glogg reduction, absinthe
This Is Not a Rose: mezcal, cocchi rosa infused with lapsang souchong and red bell pepper, grapefruit oil
Kill Devil Joe: demerara and pineapple rum, coffee, gomme syrup, anise hyssop
Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground: brandy, vin rancio, muscat vin doux, pu’erh tincture, tamari, twig
What We Thought
The Columbia Room revels in experimenting with off the beaten path flavors. Tea, reduction sauces, and uncommon fortified wines are spread liberally around the menu. They play with white whiskey, and with wheat whiskey. You should definitely be prepared to ask a few questions about the menu before you order; we spend a lot of our time reading about and experimenting with cocktails and their ingredients, and we had to ask more than one of our own.
But asking those questions is a lot less intimidating here and a lot more rewarding than in most obscurantist cocktail lounges. It seems like they take their library theme seriously, answering questions in much the way a good reference librarian would. They welcome questions, and answer them in a clear and detailed way. By the time we ordered, we understood well the ingredients in our drinks and what the bartenders were going for in their recipes.
All of the drinks were well worth drinking, although for somewhat different reasons. Some of them tasted great, others were thoughtful, interesting taste experiments. For instance, we appreciated tasting the effect of bee pollen on the Corn Maiden’s foam, though we didn’t feel the need to immediately implement it in our own mixing.
Our favorite combination of taste experiment and great taste was This Is Not a Rose. Highly skeptical of the use of black tea and red pepper, we had to be convinced to order it. We’re glad the bartender put in the effort, because it turned out to be an extremely satisfying experience of cognitive dissonance. It’s the color of rose wine, and served in a rose glass; but it’s actually a sweetly smoky mezcal drink, the scent of smoke made especially strong by being trapped in the wine glass.
The Columbia Room is an extremely comfortable setting for an excellent education in atypical cocktail flavors. Go, ask questions about the drink you understand least well or are most suspicious of, and order it. You won’t be disappointed.