Mug Shots: You Can Pick Your Poison

Posted January 27, 2010 at 4:00pm

It’s easy to walk right by the Passenger and not even notice it. The newest bar to open near the Washington Convention Center is fairly nondescript — but don’t let that fool you. Inside, patrons will find some of the best cocktails in town mixed by the renowned Brown brothers.

[IMGCAP(1)]The bar (1021 Seventh St. NW) is broken into two parts, each one overseen by one brother. The front room, the Passenger, is manned by Tom Brown, formerly of Cork (1720 14th St. NW), while the second part, the Columbia Room, is Derek Brown’s cocktail workshop and bar.

The décor in the Passenger — named for an Iggy Pop song — is decidedly minimalist. Exposed cement and brick walls and a dark wooden floor are peppered with black leather booths and low-level lighting. A long bar runs along the far wall, where a large blackboard hangs, listing the day’s specials.

The bar does not have a cocktail menu. Instead, patrons are asked to tell their bartender what type of drink they are looking for. Customers need not be so specific as to say “a dirty martini, up.— Instead, they can ask for something sweet and list the types of liquor they like. The brothers chose this approach in an effort to get customers to focus on flavors and really articulate what they do and do not like.

On a recent visit, for instance, I told the bartender that I was looking for something sweet, and she presented me with a drink called the Journalist. A combination of triple sec, gin, vermouth, lemon juice and bitters, this citrusy concoction was delicious. On a subsequent visit, I told Tom Brown that I was looking for something made with gin that didn’t taste too alcoholic, and he created a wonderful drink containing St. Germain — an elderflower liqueur — gin, lemon and ginger liqueur.

While not having a drink menu is fun and leads patrons to try things that they may not normally gravitate toward, it is also tricky in that patrons don’t know how much they’re spending per drink up front. Cocktails range in price from $7 to $14, so while they are more affordable than at a bar like the Gibson, it’s still easy to run up a big tab.

In addition to cocktails, the bar also offers more than 20 wines by the glass and a selection of beers. Small bar bites, including chips, seasoned olives and paninis, are also available. But make no mistake: The Passenger is a place to drink, not eat. At the same time, it is worth noting that the Italian panini is tasty and ideal for a quick dinner.

Patrons walk through the Passenger to reach the Columbia Room. While that section has not officially opened yet, a quick peek into the space reveals a narrower bar that has the feel of a railroad car. This is where Derek Brown — who was most recently seen working behind the bar at the Gibson (2209 14th St. NW) — will serve drinks and teach cocktail classes twice a month for $65 per session. Upcoming classes include “A Primer on Orange Liqueur— in which the mixologist will teach patrons how to use triple sec without making an overly sweet drink, and “Ice, How to Use It,— in which Derek Brown will demonstrate how to make a drink cold without diluting it.

The Brown brothers have ample experience slinging drinks. Not only are the drinks expertly made, but the brothers are fun to interact with. Both are friendly and never shy away from explaining drinks or talking about their passion for cocktails. A trip to the Passenger can be fun and educational.