In today’s world, “grabbing a drink” is no longer just going out and getting a random cocktail- it can be an event. You can broaden your horizons, learn a little bit about history and have a special experience that is exclusive to the bar you are visiting...makes things a bit more exciting!
I have to admit- I was a bit excited when I found out that I’d be interviewing J.P. Fetherston, recently named one of Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Mixologists in America for 2016, included in Thrillist’s list of America’s 21 Greatest Bartenders of 2015 and winner of Eater D.C.’s Bartender of the Year for 2014. As Ron Burgundy would say, as he knocked back a Scotchy-Scotch-Scotch; J.P. is “kind of a BIG deal- people know him”.
I found J.P. to be a nice, humble guy that simply loves what he does. Since becoming Head Bartender at The Columbia Room in Washington, D.C., J.P. oversees all of the training and educational programs and has been instrumental in helping to create a truly unique and memorable experience for all patrons. There is no limit to his creativity and resting on the accolades he has received is not an option, “We want to continue to surprise people and expand on great ideas”.
There are three different options at The Columbia Room:
The Tasting Room, where cocktails and snacks are paired in courses.
The Spirits Library, where you can sip the classics and original cocktails a la carte.
The Punch Garden, an outdoor, open seating area that serves crafted punches and bottled cocktails.
Owner, Derek Brown, J.P. and their team have culturally diverse backgrounds and have traveled the globe to bring the best ideas, tastes and service to their customers. Twice nominated for the James Beard Award, The Columbia Room is consistently rated as one of the top bars in the country.
EJ: You’ve been getting a lot of attention for what you do but what is it that you would most like people to understand about what you do?
JPF: The way that we do our tasting menu, the presentation- they key word would be “Discovery”
We love for people to come in, taste new things and learn about the drinks. Most people come in as a blank slate. We give them a 3 or 5 course menu of cocktails, paired with snacks and talk them through, tell them about the themes and just give them a great experience. It’s a wonderful way to escape the outside world and focus on the moment with no distractions.
EJ: What was your very first day behind a bar like?
JPF: I was in College in Edinburgh and it was Fringe Night. I was basically serving bad pints of bad beer and bad gin & tonics. I was having a great time though. I thought I’d be spending my life in academia but it all turned out so differently.
EJ: You’ve spent time in London and Scotland, what are the differences in how people enjoy drinking in those cities versus the people in D.C. ?
JPF: London has one of the most progressive cocktail scenes in the world and they are really into the smaller details. In Edinburgh, you don’t see as many cocktail bars everywhere the way you do here but the craft cocktail culture has grown in the last few years.
EJ: Some people dislike the term “Mixologist” and some feel that the term is not really new and shouldn’t be dismissed. Do you consider yourself a “Mixologist” and do you still answer to “Bartender” ?
JPF: It used to seem strident but I don’t recoil at the word and I really don’t care anymore if people have a negative reaction to it. It is a useful indicator and people do recognize the term but I am a Bartender and I’m there trying to make people happy. I want them to have fun, taste new things and learn about the drinks.
EJ: The Columbia Room was named one of the Top 10 Bars in the US by Playboy and was #1 on the Washington Post’s Top 10 Best Bars. What does it mean for you and your team to receive those honors?
JPF: It feels really good- it’s validation that we are doing things right. We graciously accept the praise but the job is never done. We can always improve. All the accolades do expose us to a wider audience and if it gets people to come in and give us a try, then that’s a great thing.
EJ: Your Wife (Angie Fetherston,Co- Owner of The Columbia Room and CEO of Drink Company) has an amazing career in the industry as well- how do you deal with fast-paced careers and still manage to make time for each other?
JPF: We enjoy it all. She runs the bars and I get to see her. It also helps that she has a flexible schedule so we can keep a good balance. We were together for 5 years before we got married so we know what to expect.
EJ: Do you have a collection of great booze at home or do you leave the mixing for work hours?
JPF: I rarely make a cocktail at home, when I’m home all I want to do is open a bottle and relax. We have a great core group of friends so it’s nice to step out of the bar scene and just enjoy each other’s company.
EJ: How does history play a part in what you do? Is it fun to reinvent the Classics? Are there certain drinks that you just don’t mess with?
JPF: I think it’s important to have a foundation of knowing what the classics are because you really have to understand them before you can reinvent them. I never mess with The Sazerac. I like to make it but I don’t make a crazy variation....it’s perfect the way is.
EJ: What are your goals for 2017?
JPF: I want to keep expanding on our ideas for the Tasting Room. There’s so much room for improvement and we want to keep surprising people. I also just want to keep spreading the gospel of The Columbia Room. I love our team- we are really hungry to keep improving and we want to be the best bar in the world.
There’s a lot to be excited about in D.C. and clearly, The Columbia Room and J.P. Fetherston are going to continue to raise the bar with great service, great cocktails and a great time for all.
The Columbia Room
124 Blagden Alley N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20001
I asked J.P. to name 5 restaurants or bars that he enjoys visiting when he’s not at The Columbia Room:
2Birds 1Stone- Washington, D.C. - “I love it for cocktails. They do great tweaks on drinks but they are not trying to reinvent the wheel”.
Red Hen- Washington, D.C.- “It’s a neighborhood restaurant with so much more. They have great Italian Food and a fantastic wine list. Just great food and a great atmosphere”.
Ivy & Coney- Washington, D.C.- “This place is fun, relaxing and unpretentious. The owners are originally from Chicago and and they are rabid Cubs fans. If there’s a game on, everyone is completely into it”.
Russ & Daughters- New York, NY - “The smoked fish is the best thing ever. They have a Salmon Sandwich that I absolutely love. Whenever I’m in New York, I try to get there- no matter what”.
Amor y Amargo- New York, NY- “This is a small bar that specializes in Bitters and there’s nothing pretentious. The owner is amazing- it’s just a really cool place”.
Photos by Scott Suchman
Written by Erica Johnson
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