Washington D.C.’s Columbia Room, which snagged the 2017 Spirited Award for Best American Cocktail Bar, is actually three bars under one roof: a casual Punch Garden, the Spirits Library, and the crown jewel of the operation, the Tasting Room. All are co-captained by head bartender Suzy Critchlow and beverage director JP Fetherston.
Critchlow runs the bar almost like a school. When it’s time to change the menu, she doles out homework to her team, and sometimes distributes books to inspire their creations.
Like any good library, Critchlow’s Spirits Library has gems that can be checked out (read: ordered) by guests, including pre-Prohibition whiskeys and Bénédictine from the 1930s. The Tasting Room, which changes its theme a few times a year, is currently collaborating with an exhibit at the modern art museum, the Hishhorne.
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We caught up with Critchlow to be schooled in the ways of desert island cocktails and the merits of ordering a PBR on your 21st birthday.
What’s your desert-island drink?
I’m thinking I probably want something tropical. There’s a cocktail called a Saturn: gin, passion fruit, Orgeat, and Falernum. We’re working on a riff on it now to put on the spring menu in Spirits Library, so look out.
What’s the first drink you bought when you turned 21?
It was PBR. For my 21st birthday I went to a punk rock dive bar that doesn’t exist anymore. It was in Richmond, [Virginia].
FMK three cocktails: Negroni, Margarita, Manhattan?
You’re on death row. What’s your final drink?
If I’m on death row, it’s gotta be something really nice, really old Cognac or whiskey, something top-shelf, neat.
You can only drink at one bar for the rest of your life. What is it?
That’s really tough. Let’s see. I really enjoyed the cocktails at PDT in New York. They were really hospitable … I felt at home, and they know what they’re doing and they’ve been doing it for a while.
What’s the best and worst bottle on your shelf?
At home, the best one I have is Midleton Very Rare from 2015. And the worst I have is a Dickel, a Tennessee rye.
What cocktail will you never order again?
In my early drinking days I did order a lot of vodka sodas. [But] I’d never order another shooter. That’s my final answer.