Will Bars of the Future Even Focus on Booze?
In his new book, drinks maven Derek Brown considers what we can call a cocktail
The drinks visionary who helped usher in the era of craft cocktails beyond his hometown of Washington, D.C., Derek Brown has a new book out that reflects where he’s at as far as drinking is concerned: It’s Mindful Mixology: A Comprehensive Guide to No- and Low-Alcohol Cocktails, and it speaks to a decision to drink booze in moderation or to cut it entirely — while still enjoying drinks.
The author of Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters, Brown says his second book isn’t about dictating whether you should or shouldn’t drink and it’s not a Sober Curious book, “even though I love those books and I respect them, and I think they’re very necessary,” he says. Rather, it’s about showing people how they can make drinks with no- or low alcohol: “There’s no judgment in that.”
Co-owner of The Passenger and the pioneering Columbia Room, among other D.C. spots; writer for The Atlantic; lecturer and James Beard nominee, Brown has always been ahead of the curve. Assuming he maintains his role as prognosticator, his book speaks to the future.
Non-alcoholic bars are as novel as craft cocktail bars once were, he says, citing Getaway Bar in New York and Sans Bar in Houston, and a lot of non-alcoholic bottle shops that are popping up, too. Rather than ditching booze at bars, “What I think is more likely to happen,” he says, “is that you have a variety of choices, but it starts from the idea that the drink in itself doesn’t have to have alcohol.” The bar of the future, “is one in which alcohol is not the center of it.”
Brown cites the pop-up in his own Columbia Room, called Disco Mary — tagline: “Party like there’s a tomorrow” — run by his partner, Maria Bastasch. “She says, ‘Here’s a cocktail.’ It has some functional ingredients or ingredients that have a health effect — whether it’s calming or energizing. You could have coffee in it, or it could have lemon balm. And then, if you want, you can add alcohol or have low alcohol, or whatever.”
Cocktails of the past decade or more have adhered to a sense of history, to the classic, to what came before now; Brown cites the 1806 definition of a cocktail as spirits, sugar, water, and bitters. Yet dishes in America have long been divorced in many ways from culture, a sense of place, or even culinary rules in general — thanks, in part, to giant industrial farms where our food is grown and apps like Instagram.
“When most people sit down to make a dish,” Brown says, “they may or may not be using classic French technique or an Italian sort of recipe. But ultimately, they’re just kind of pulling all these influences and what is the basic structure.”
Brown encourages an embrace of that culinary free-form when it comes to making drinks. “We’re saying you can create the cocktail without alcohol and we can stop thinking solely about the historical references to it and just kind of make it what we want it to be.” Brown suggests we consider different ingredients in the place of booze, like ginger, vinegar, teas, or chickpea water.
“We have all this confusing terminology about what is a non-alcoholic cocktail. There’s the M-word or mocktail. There’s zero-proof. There’s spirit-free. There’s alcohol-free.” he says.
“But what I’m trying to tell people is that at the end of the day, it is a cocktail if it’s a cocktail: It does not matter if it has alcohol in it or not.”