The Choice is Yours

Derek Brown is here to help you drink, with alcohol or not

By Stefanie Gans

If living through the pandemic has taught the world anything, it’s that we need to rethink everything. That includes alcohol. 

“Obviously alcohol is a wonderful piece of social technology,” says Derek Brown, who is out with his second book, Mindful Mixology: ​​A Comprehensive Guide to No- and Low-Alcohol Cocktails with 60 Recipes (Rizzoli, January 2022). As one of the most talented and acclaimed bartenders in the country, Brown knows the role of alcohol in society. It’s given him a career (see: Columbia Room in D.C.)  and a platform (see: @ideasimprove on Twitter.) 

In the last few years, Brown changed the impact of alcohol on his own life. He hit a point where he knew it was a cover, especially as a way to avoid dealing with his mental health issues. 

He sought professional help and returned with a vigor to spread his new outlook. It’s not one of never drinking alcohol. That’s still his livelihood, and as he says in his book, he’ll still drink alcohol on occasion. He’s here to bring choice to the grown-up drinking world. Most importantly, bars can still do what they do best, and that’s bring people together. 

When people stop drinking—even if it’s just for a month, like the Dry January movement—they worry about missing out on all the fun. “That is a very real feeling,” says Brown, who is also studying positive psychology and wellness coaching. (Because, what historically is a bartender other than being everyone’s de facto therapist?) “I get that, I felt that way, too.” But a lot of the time, it was never about being drunk. 

What it was really about was the people. “They were genuinely having a good time. There was nice lightning. Everyone was dressed up, or not dressed up. They were vibing. And, it feels good to connect with people. A lot of the positive emotion they were associating with alcohol had nothing to do with alcohol at all.”

Brown and his partner, Maria Bastasch, turned Brown’s Columbia Room into Disco Mary. The pop-up, with its disco balls, Virgin Marys and granny-chic aesthetic come together for a party featuring plant-based dishes and an assortment of cocktails, be they alcohol free, low ABV or spirited.

With Mindful Mixology, Brown lays out ways to play around with drinks marrying texture, flavor and piquancy. This delicate balance relies on ingredients as varied as ginger, aquafaba (liquid found in a can of chickpeas), hot sauce, fruit syrups and verjus (juice from unripened grapes.) In fact, just adding a dash of salt tincture (4:1 ratio of water to Maldon salt) can punch up an at-home cocktail. 

The message that comes across in all of what Brown does is choice. 

“In the future, when cannabis is legal and ​​psilocybin is legal, a lot of bars will have choices,” says Brown, including alcohol-free and alcohol-forward drinks. He’s not telling people to live a life of temperance, he’s letting adults find their own path. 

And while Brown crusades on his new path, he is happy to bring everyone else along, with earnest encouragement and laughs.

As he tweeted at the start of Dry January “Here’s what I learned when I started drinking mindfully. There was nothing I missed about being drunk. I could still spend time with friends, enjoy delicious drinks, and sing karaoke off-key. And, if I wanted, I could still punch myself in the face to approximate being hungover.”

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