Episode 113 - Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters

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What’s shakin, cocktail fans?

Welcome to Episode 113 of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast!

As you know, the Modern Bar Cart team likes to dig into a really great cocktail book every now and then, and it’s always a real treat to be able to pull up a seat and discuss their project in detail.

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This time around, the book in question is called: Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World. It was co-authored by two Washington, DC writers - Derek Brown and Bob Yule, and this interview was in fact recorded in the legendary Columbia Room - Derek’s Bar of almost ten years, which was named “Best American Cocktail Bar” in 2017 at the Spirited Awards.

That’s just one of many awards that Derek and his establishments have amassed over the past decade. His Wikipedia entry lists dozens of them from reputable publications and organizations around the country, and his influence on the DC cocktail scene runs deep as a founding member of the DC Craft Bartender’s Guild.

Some of the other topics we cover in the interview include:

  • How Bob and Derek fused their expertise on opposing sides of the bar to create this book as a tribute to a ten part cocktail seminar series at the National Archives.

  • Why and how we experience historical “echoes” in the cocktail world, and how these echoes can help connect us - at least in spirit -  with our tipsy ancestors.

  • The importance of names and definitions in the cocktail world- both for the original cocktail and all the variants that spun off through the ages.

  • Then, we get a little funky - we talk about what grows on the graves of dead Virginians, who’s about to take a hatchet to Derek’s bar, and the merits of a TGI Friday’s caesar salad.

During this conversation, we laugh, and we cry. We daydream about what Edgar Allan Poe liked to drink before he died in a puddle, and then we share our most embarrassing book errors and widely published typos.

Featured Cocktail: The Slow Screw

This episode’s featured cocktail is the Slow Screw - yeah. That’s a drink. And the reason we’re featuring it is because I was really delighted by the “Cocktail Dark Ages” chapter in Bob and Derek’s book.

The Slow Screw is yet another take on the classic screwdriver cocktail that emerged in the 1970s, and it has some interesting variations that we’ll get to in a minute here.

To make this seductive cocktail, you’ll need:

  • 1 oz Vodka

  • 1 oz Sloe Gin (which is a fortified, fruit infused gin from England - actually a very classic ingredient)

  • 3 oz Orange Juice

Combine these ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice, shake until cold, then strain over fresh ice in a highball glass and garnish with an orange slice. 

In our book of honor, Derek Brown leaves no uncertainty as to his stance on orange juice drinks - he’s not a fan. Regarding the Slow Screw, he states:

Here is that OJ and booze category once again and, no, I have not changed my mind. Do not make this drink unless you truly want to channel the era, and you have to find another use for your bottle of sloe gin. The Slow Screw [...] spawned a whole category of drinks using similar puns. The Slow Screw Against the Wall (with Galliano, also used in a Harvey Wallbanger), Slow Screw on the Beach (based on a Sex on the Beach with Peach Schnapps) and a Slow Comfortable Screw Up Against the Wall (throw in some Southern Comfort). The whole thing is despicable. Yet, I do find it kind of entertaining, so there is that.

Show Notes

Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters was written following a ten-part cocktail seminar series held at the National Archives and orchestrated by Derek Brown and Philip Greene. As part of this series, cocktail luminaries like David Wondrich, Robert Simonson, Julie Reiner, and others converged on DC to discuss the impact of cocktails on U.S. life and culture throughout our history.

Bob Yule says he learned to drink at the “DB-3” - a set of three bars on 7th street in DC (Mockingbird Hill, Southern Efficiency, and Eat the Rich). He was one of only a handful of people who attended all ten seminars, and has a passion for early American history, especially in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

With their powers combined, Bob and Derek worked to assemble this book as a “tribute” (in the Jack Blackian sense of the word) to the original seminars.

Derek Brown

Derek Brown

Bob Yule

Bob Yule

Lightning Round

Favorite Cocktail

Derek - Dry Martini. I think it’s the most perfect drink.
Bob - Whiskey Sour (rye, egg white). It’s my comfort drink - slightly sweet, slightly spicy. It’s kind of perfect.

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If You Were a Cocktail Ingredient, What Would You Be?

Derek - Lemon Peel. First of all, I like lemon in almost every drink. The outside has all these little pores filled with amazing aromatic chemicals, the inside is a slightly bitter. I’d like to think I’m a complicated, slightly bitter person.
Bob - Bitters. It’s one of those essential parts of the cocktail that people forget. But it’s ever-changing and can give the drink a different identity depending on what you choose to use.

Drinks with Anyone, Past or Present?

Derek - I’d like to go back to Shoomakers (in DC) and talk with George Augustus Williamson, who was the inventor of the Rickey - Washington, DC’s signature cocktail.
Bob - 1826 Charlottesville, VA. I’d go up to Monticello and share some pre-phylloxera Bordeaux with Thomas Jefferson. Then I’d go down the mountain to the University of Virginia to have a drink with one of the early students: Edgar Allen Poe. We’d drink his favorite beverage - peaches and honey - in his dorm room.