LIANE HANSEN, host:
If you're going to be watching the Emmy Awards ceremony tonight, you might want to think of a nice drink to go along with it.
Mr. DEREK BROWN (Bartender, Co-Owner, The Passenger): "Mad Men" is probably up for a bunch of stuff, right? So, let's go with the old fashioned.
HANSEN: That's bartender Derek Brown.
Mr. BROWN: Take a thin lemon peel, about two inches long, about a half of an inch wide with no pith on it, drop it in the bottom of a rocks glass. Add about a quarter to a half-ounce of simple syrup, then add a couple dashes of the bitters of your choice and then two ounces of rye whiskey. Add ice to it, stir it until you get the dilution you want. It's a simple drink. Delicious. And it'll make you feel like Don Draper so - on his good days.
HANSEN: Derek Brown was mixing drinks and doling out wisdom behind his bar this past week. The co-owner of The Passenger in Washington, D.C.'s Penn Quarter neighborhood doesn't shy away from the title bartender, but it doesn't really do him justice. Derek Brown is more like a professor of cocktails. He's won numerous awards, and this year was nominated for the James Beard Foundation Awards Outstanding Wine and Spirits professional.
Like any spot where folks gather after work to let off steam, The Passenger is boisterous. But walk toward the back through a narrow lounge designed to look like a vintage railroad car, open the door into the Columbia Room and the mood changes.
The Columbia Room only seats about 16 patrons. It's open several nights a week for cocktails by reservation. It's both a cocktail club and a laboratory. Twice a month, Derek Brown offers classes in cocktail making.
Mr. BROWN: I'd get a bottle tomorrow if I could.
HANSEN: The cocktail revival isn't new. In the 1990s, the martini reemerged; in the last decade, produced Cosmopolitans of many colors and flavors. But Derek Brown proselytizes for authentic libations.
Mr. BROWN: It is really an American tradition. And I think that people are in the mood to explore American ideals in a different way that sort of Coca-Cola and hamburgers are not the only thing that America has ever created. There's great culinary traditions here. The cocktail is one of our greatest exports.
HANSEN: The cocktail consists of liquor, water, sugar and bitters. But before bitters became a critical ingredient in the cocktail...
Mr. BROWN: You had hundreds of different varieties of bitters that were made at curatives. They're basically there to improve your health.
HANSEN: Traveling medicine men pedaled them out of their carts; newspapers ran ads for bitters promising strength and vitality. In this class, Derek Brown says they offered other medical marvels as well.
Mr. BROWN: One of my favorite was from Ponds Bitters(ph), which claims that it cures both diarrhea and constipation.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BROWN: OK? So, my question, obviously, and your question as well is how does the bitter know which one to cure?
HANSEN: Bitters eventually were regulated and taxed as over-the-counter medications. Many of them were banned during Prohibition. So, what are bitters? Derek Brown lists the central ingredients: a bittering agent and a solvent, like alcohol, water or glycerin. And a little bitters goes a long way.
Oh my God. Oh, sorry. Oh, that's awful.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BROWN: So, basically, whenever you taste bitters there's this kind of visceral reaction. It sends a signal directly to your brain that says, you know, these are going to kill you or that these can be fun. Right? Like a lot of bitter substances - coffee, beer - are things that actually bring us great joy, but they're aversive flavors, so it takes a minute to sort of adjust to them - more than a minute. I mean, a lot of people never adjust to them. It's sometimes disappointing when people come into a bar and they want something very flavorless, like a vodka soda.
HANSEN: No vodka sodas tonight. Derek Brown's class is full of amateur mixologists. On the sleek bar in the Columbia Room, Brown has placed two cocktails in front of each student. The drink on the left is a light caramel color.
Mr. BROWN: Smell it. You notice first of all that in the aroma it's like the sweet vermouth. Sort of like some of the aromatics from that, which might involve some herbal character, some spice character. You get a lot of wood mostly from that rye whiskey.
HANSEN: It's a Manhattan, minus the bitters. On the right, glowing with a deep, dark, almost coffee-like color is the real Manhattan, made with bitters.
Mr. BROWN: So, let's try it.
Mr. BROWN: I mean, the difference is like lightning to clear sky, right?
HANSEN: The students in this class are going to try to make their own bitters. We start with a little of the plain bitters base - the basic solution of special roots and herbs, alcohol - then mix in the aromatic bitter solution, which has more spices in it. Now, we can choose a flavoring agent, and there are several infusions - cacao, rose and cardamom, grapefruit, lemon and winter spices. We pass the decanters around.
Ooh. Chocolate - bittersweet chocolate. Oh yeah, I think I - it's like walking into the Christmas part of a department store.
Up and down the bar, the students add a bit of this and a dash of that. After each addition, the mixture is tasted and sniffed.
Mr. BROWN: Well, you already put the grapefruit in, right?
Unidentified Man: Yeah, and chocolate.
Mr. BROWN: Yeah, that was what I was thinking. But I actually get the grapefruit. I'm going to do the opposite. I'm going to do mostly chocolate; a little bit of grapefruit.
HANSEN: The smell in this room is intoxicating. Small glass jars bear the unique stamp of each of the amateur chemists, who seem to be having more fun than you'd expect in a classroom.
Mr. BROWN: I try to teach people this is not how you make my bitters; this is how you make bitters. And go forth and make bitters - because it's fun.
HANSEN: Oh yeah, oh yeah, I'm happy.
Mr. BROWN: You're happy?
HANSEN: I'm a happy camper here.
Mr. BROWN: What was yours? Let's hear.
Mr. BROWN: Um-hum.
HANSEN: ...just cacao, but now I'm going to add some of the caramel, yeah, 'cause it's dark. So, just a little bit.
(Soundbite of glass clanging)
HANSEN: Those are some darn good chocolate bitters, I just got to say. Want to have a taste?
Mr. BROWN: I do, definitely. Wow. It's like dark fudge.
HANSEN: It's fudge.
Mr. BROWN: Yeah.
HANSEN: It's dark chocolate.
So, I decide to call mine fudge bitters. But the jar will have to sit for a few weeks before the mixture is ready for consumption.
(Soundbite of shaking)
HANSEN: Derek Brown ends the class with a round of Angostura Sours, a classic cocktail, made with an ounce-and-a-half of bitters. The students raise a glass for a toast by Brown.
Mr. BROWN: The well-made cocktail is the most gracious of drinks. It pleases the senses. Taut nerves relax; taut muscles relax; tired eyes brighten; tongues loosen; friendships deepen and the world becomes a better place in which to live. Cheers.
Mr. BROWN: Wow. That's a drink.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HANSEN: And you can find the recipe for Angostura Sours at NPR.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Cheers. I'm Liane Hansen.