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Behind the Backbar at Washington, D.C.’s Columbia Room

In "Anatomy of a Backbar" we get to know the world's most notable spirits programs in five bottles. This round, Columbia Room, where the bar team keeps an elegant and well-curated selection of spirits spanning a range of styles.

Columbia Room Washington D.C.

In 2014, when Derek Brown and his team shuttered the old Columbia Room they knew it wasn’t the end. They already had plans for what the bar might become in a new space, and ideas for how the spirits program might evolve. “To put it bluntly,” says head bartender JP Fetherston, “we wanted to have a spirits program.”

The erstwhile Columbia Room—a tiny, serene craft cocktail oasis hidden inside the rowdier Passenger bar—kept only a small selection of spirits behind the bar. “Nobody ever touched them,” says Fetherston. “People were there for the cocktails.”

When they started planning out the new space on Blagden Alley in D.C.’s historic Shaw neighborhood, they knew they wanted to change that. “We also thought, ‘Well, we’ve taken Columbia Room this far in its first stage—what can we do next?’” says Fetherston.

When Columbia Room reopened in February of 2016, they did so with a collection of spirits that ranges from rare mezcal to a particularly notable selection of brandies, which includes one of the bar’s biggest showstoppers: a Cognac distilled in 1811. “Objectively, you could go find Cognac that’s made now that’s as good [as this one],” says Fetherston. “But to me, the whole point of this is you’re going to sit down with that glass, sip it slowly, and start thinking about what the hell people were doing when they made this.”

Before the craft cocktail movement had really caught on in the city, Fetherston explains, a few D.C. aficionados were scouring dusty liquor stores and auctions for old bottles—and driving the market for rare, new releases. Brown was part of that group of early adopters, hence, some of the bottles at Columbia Room have come from his personal collection, like a 22-year-old bottle of Willett rye whiskey. That bottle specifically was released in 2006, when single-cask bottlings were still relatively inexpensive on the market. “It was stuff we’ll never see again,” says Fetherston of the wide variety of spirits available at that time.

Today, visitors to the new Columbia Room are the beneficiaries of Brown’s early collecting. It’s the team’s hope that the opportunity to experience these spirits will offer drinkers a deeper understanding of what’s in their glass and how it got there, whether they’re drinking a cocktail or sipping a glass of 200-year-old brandy.

Columbia Room in Five Bottles

Napoleon 1811 Cognac

“Our collector Brian Robinson obtained this a few years ago at auction,” says Fetherston of this bottling from 1811, widely considered to be one of the great vintages of the 19th century. It spent many years in French oak casks before being transferred into glass demijohns for decades, before being bottled and stored in the 1950s. “The main appeal of this dram is mental, perhaps even spiritual,” he says. “Yes, it is rich, tannic, fruity, buttery and powerful, but the real pleasure is letting your mind wonder about what the world looked and felt like when the people who made this were living and breathing.”

Willett Family Estate "Doug Phillips" 22 Year Rye

“This is not only great whiskey, it harkens to a very particular time in the D.C. bar and restaurant scene,” says Fetherston. “Jack Rose owner Bill Thomas and a group of local whiskey geeks and collectors helped make D.C. a very strong market for exceptional and rare bourbons and ryes, and this was one of the early ones that caught everyone’s attention.” Released in 2006, it was a single barrel selected by renowned whiskey hunter Doug Phillips. Fetherston says Phillips’ selections favored “big, bold high-strength whiskies with loads of barrel character, and this in particular has all of that in spades.”

  • ABV: 68 percent

Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie Single Malt

“We truly love this distillery, not least because I spent a summer [on Islay] in 2012 and got to know the family who makes it and see the process up close,” says Fetherston. The producers, he says, use traditional methods while still indulging their experimental streak. This is a markedly floral, unpeated whisky, which for Fetherston makes for a “fantastic flagship” bottling.

  • Price: $50
  • ABV: 50 percent

Navazos Palazzi Ron Oloroso

“We often use this a gesture of appreciation to our guests, friends and family, pouring them small tastes,” says Fetherston of this cask-strength Spanish rum. It’s a 100-percent molasses rum from the Antilles, aged in the Caribbean in former bourbon casks and then shipped to Jerez, Spain, where it’s transferred to former oloroso sherry casks to rest for ten years. It’s “unabashedly geeky stuff,” he says—a “savory, intense, funky rum discovered like hidden treasure in the dark recesses of a sherry bodega.”

  • Price: $175
  • ABV: 51 percent

Don Mateo de la Sierra Alto Mezcal

This mezcal bottling is from the state of Michoacan, which only recently gained admission into the group of states where distilled agave spirit can be labeled as mezcal. Made from estate-grown agave alto, which is rarely used in mezcal and typically grows wild, this bottling is all about the raw materials. “The family and importer behind this—the Vieyra family and David Suro-Piñera—respect the artisanal methods and traditions that created this spirit,” says Fetherston, adding that the pair has also teamed with scientists on a project to support the ecosystem that sustains the agave plant.

  • Price: $60
  • ABV: 46 percent

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M. Carrie Allan writes about cocktails and spirits for The Washington Post, but only until she can break into a career in Negroni-drinking.