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Derek on the Greatest Profession on the Planet

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

“Me and my brother, my father, my grandmother, and my great-grandfather are all from Washington, D.C. My family has a strong connection to the city, but, like many families, we eventually migrated out of the city to the suburbs. I grew up in Maryland and spent most of my childhood there. I grew up in the hard-core scene in D.C., which is funny to think about now that I own a bar.

I grew up in the hard-core scene in D.C., which is funny to think about now that I own a bar.

“As a teenager, I moved to Charleston, South Carolina, with my father. There is where I started to stray away from the idealistic, straight edge 14 year old and started drinking and partying with kids in high school. As soon as I could, I left South Carolina and came back to D.C. I had no plans or designs of being a wine-and-spirits professional at the time, but I got a job waiting tables at Rocky’s in Adams Morgan, which is where Evolve is now.

“At the time, I was somewhat aimless. I know this is going to come off as a little harsh, but a lot of people in the restaurant industry are aimless, which is a nice way of saying losers. It is an easy way to make cash and support substance-abuse issues. I considered myself one of those losers. Fortunately, I didn’t have substance abuse issues, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Eventually, one of the bartenders left and Rocky asked if I knew how to bartend. I said, ‘Yes,’ but I really had no idea. She could sense my hesitation and asked me to make her a rum punch on the spot. I grabbed every rum on the rail and threw in some juice and sour mix and garnished it with every piece of fruit I could find. Amazingly, she said it was good and that is how I got my first job bartending. After that, I fell in love with it and knew that it was the job that I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I think that bartending is the greatest profession on the planet. Sometimes it is hard because people can abuse alcohol. There have been instances when I had to cut off people who were my grandparents’ age. As much as I lionize drinking culture, I recognize the need for moderation.

“After Rocky’s closed, I went to work at a number of different places and then studied to be a sommelier. In the end, I didn’t love being a sommelier as much as I loved being a bartender. While I was still a sommelier, some friends and I started a speakeasy during our days off. Eventually, I came back into bartending when I got involved with The Gibson and eventually opened The Passengerwith my brother, Tom, and Paul Ruppert. When we opened this place, we wanted a bar that was of the District. We were tired of the mentality that D.C. is not good enough, so we thought there was no better way to show pride in the District than putting a D.C. flag on the door with a sign that says, ‘God save the District.’ We also wanted to incorporate local things, like half-smokes and rickeys.

“The rickey is actually D.C’s native cocktail. The gin rickey may be the most popular rickey, but the bourbon rickey was the original, and it was invented at Shoomakers, which was on Pennsylvania Avenue, in 1893. It was described quite literally as a shit hole. One of the bartenders, George C. Williamson, was considered Washington’s greatest bartender at the time. The Washington Post called him the ‘King of Julep’ makers and he invented the rickey. Every President visited Shoemakers except for Rutherford B. Hayes, who was dry. I went and made drinks for President Obama, but can you imagine that presidents actually used to go visit that guy to get a drink. It blows my mind. In his obituary, it said that Williamson likely had a hand in every political decision of the time, as Shoomakers was where all of the politicians and journalists hung out and talked about work.

“Shoomakers eventually closed because of prohibition, which came to D.C. earlier than the rest of the country. Morris Sheppard, a senator from Texas, wanted to make an example of the District. D.C., now as then, drinks more per capita than any city in the country. Correspondingly, the indicators of drunkenness are 36th or 37th in the nation, which means that we can hold our alcohol.”

Derek Brown is the co-owner of The Passenger at 1021 7th Street Northwest.  He is also a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

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