Prior to landing her dream job as head bartender at Columbia Room, Suzy Critchlow dabbled in a slew of fields: She attended art school, opened her own bicycle shop in Richmond, VA, and almost attended nursing school, all while working in restaurants on the side. But it wasn’t until a stint at a craft beer bar that Critchlow realized her calling had been under her nose the whole time.
“I figured out what I wanted to do by accident, because I’d been doing it all along,” she says of working behind the stick. She started educating herself in all things cocktail via the school of YouTube and soon landed a job at Richmond cocktail bar Rogue Gentleman. “The first time I ever stirred a drink was in that interview,” she says.
Critchlow learned fast, becoming the bar manager at the Richmond outpost of Italian restaurant Graffiato and eventually moving to D.C. to take the helm at the flagship location. Nine months later, she landed at Columbia Room, a place where geeking out over drinks is not only encouraged, it’s the modus operandi. “There is just so much attention to detail that goes into making these drinks…so much research,” Critchlow says. “Every day is a learning experience.”
Suzy Critchlow Makes the Seriously Mysterious Cocktail
The drink-making style she’s honed over the years has a decidedly funky side (see: the brie tincture she currently has in the works). “I definitely have a weird, savory palate,” she says. “I gravitate toward complex flavors.” At home, though, she keeps it simple with wine—or a glass of whisky. “When you come home from making cocktails all day, it’s not what you want to do at home,” she says. “I like a pour of something neat.”
So, what else does Critchlow get up to in her downtime? Here, she takes our Lookbook Questionnaire to share her weirdest hobby, the one thing she wishes would disappear from drink menus and her favorite ways to work with Scotch, plus the recipe for a cocktail named for one of her favorite metal songs.
Current occupation: Head Bartender at Columbia Room.
What do want to be when you grow up? Bartender.
What’s your favorite classic Scotch cocktail? Rob Roy. Simple, but fun to try with different Scotches and vermouths.
Tell us about your drink. I wanted to magnify some of my favorite notes in Dewar’s: fig and chocolate. So I took an equal-parts Rob Roy and added a barspoon each of crème de cacao and PX sherry. A hint of salt and some lemon oil… make it all pop. As far as the name goes, I was really racking my brain trying to come up with something when [Columbia Room co-owner] Derek Brown asked me what my favorite metal song was right now. It’s “Seriously Mysterious,” by a great metal band called the Sword.
How do you think about developing a Scotch cocktail versus one that uses rye or bourbon? What are your key tips to keep in mind? When thinking about Scotch cocktails, you have to remember that the tastes and aromas of each style vary wildly. Is it peated or unpeated? Where was it made? What kind of barrel was it aged and finished in?
Best thing you ever drank: Cognac from 1811. It’s also through sheer luck that I was also able to taste a different bottle of that same year at another vintage spirits tasting. It’s moments like this where you have to wonder, “What is my life? And how did I get so lucky?”
Worst thing you ever drank: I’m not going to say where, but there was a drink with a hot dog garnish involved. Why?
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted: Weird cocktail experiments are par for the course at Columbia Room. Bone tincture? Check. (Not good.) “Old book” tincture? We’ve done it. Right now I’m working on a brie tincture to go into a cocktail with amontillado and umeshu.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making? Spend time with my #1, a cattle dog mix named Bandit.
If you had to listen to one album on loop for the rest of your life, what would it be? Got to give a shout out to DC’s punk scene. So I’d say Repeater by Fugazi.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had? I collect vintage chalkware. My most cherished piece is a lamp with three life-sized owls as the base.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago? The importance of quality footwear behind the bar.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten: A Colorado Bulldog. Vodka, milk, coffee liqueur and Coke. Sounds terrible, but it’s actually pretty dope.
Your favorite bar, and why: Anywhere where a good friend is behind the stick.
Best meal you’ve ever had: My birthday a few years ago. We went to my favorite Greek place in Richmond, Stella’s. It’s always great but even more memorable when surrounded by good company.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar? Usually something on the menu. I love picking other bartenders’ brains.
Wine bar? Bubbles.
Dive bar? Whisky.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever: Excessively long or wacky cocktail names.
The last text message you sent: Heard!