High Art at the Columbia Room

It was on a freakishly balmy early January evening in Blagden Alley that we headed to the Columbia Room to sip through their fall tasting menu; temperature wise, it was eerily reminiscent of the last time I’d visited the bar in August. But we cast off our global warming concerns and threw ourselves into the 5-cocktail series, inspired by the Hirschorn Musuem’s “What Absence is Made Of” exhibit, which celebrates the artist’s use of vacuum and void. The art motif brought me right back to the Little Red Door in Paris, which also deftly used high art to formulate its menu.

The Columbia Room’s tasting room was its usual luxurious self, low-light and the impossibly ornate mosaic convey the atmosphere of seance. Talented and friendly bar tenders served as able navigators, explaining the ties between the cocktails’ endless ingredient lists and their cousins in the Hirschorn.

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Alright off we go: our first course was the “What Should Be” with siembra azul blanco, blanco vermouth, dry curaçao, fig leaf cordial, and anise hyssop. This was even, measured, with a relaxed tequila sting that paired well with the robust vermouth. An adult version of a margarita, more somber and mature, came to mind as we drank through it. Good kickoff.

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We went from light to dark with the “Scotch” with vodka, oloroso, muir brose, buckwheat honey, coconut, cider, and fruit liqueur. An inspiring attempt to reverse engineer one of my least favorite brown liquors, I was happy to discover that this drink didn’t taste much like scotch at all. Rather, it was a heavy, rich, and syrupy fall relaxer, laden in October spice. On the nose, a slower drink, well-done.

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For our next course, I was surprised to be offered what is apparently referred to as a “mocktail” – a cocktail without alcohol! I know, I’ve never heard of such a thing, and wasn’t sure how to react. This new experience came in the form of the “Spirit-Free Lion’s Tail” with seedlip spice 94–a non-spirited herbal additive–lime, maple, and aquafaba, which is a whipped cream from chickpeas that recreates the egg white froth. I fell in love with that aquafaba, which tastes like a slightly vegetal cool whip, if you can believe it. A proper dessert sipper for half-time, this sweet and earthy cocktail goes down easy.

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We got back on the alcohol train with my favorite drink of the evening, the “Clarity” with rum, cachaça, madeira, white vermouth, autumn squash, cane sugar, lemon, balsam, and milk. I remarked smartly and drunkenly that I find cocktails with over five ingredients that are able to still convey a cogent and enjoyable taste to be the pinnacle of the craft. And that’s what this drink was, a cool and direct cocktail whose borders hummed with plants and sugar, carrying a stiff but stable alcohol sensation. Worth the trip alone.

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The finale of our time at the Columbia Room was the “Caffé Corretto Columbia” with brandy de jerez, coffee, golden beet grenadine, licorice root, verbena, and spicebush. The Rube Goldberg presentation is a cute sight, and I can never drink enough cocktails out of child head-shaped porcelain cups. The taste was fine – I particularly enjoyed the grenadine, which infused a red-earth sugar to a conventional coffee cocktail taste. A beautiful sight and a nice pick me up for follow-on drinks off site. Good times at the Columbia Room, see you in the spring!

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