The cocktails at the Columbia Room in Washington, D.C., might best be described as heady. They make you think as you sip, which makes perfect sense when the menu is coming from the mind of Beverage Director JP Fetherston, a self-proclaimed history geek with master’s degrees in history from the London School of Economics and the University of Edinburgh.
The bar’s “Spectrum” tasting menu has drinkers considering what sound and color might taste like as highly conceptual yet tasty cocktails. In one course, guests sip drinks “stirred” by sound waves; in another they are asked to pick a color and get a cocktail with a taste to match.
“We built this course around some work that an Oxford food scientist has done a number of studies back; he’s collaborated with a number of chefs in London, and he’s got the statistics to back it up,” Fetherston says. “People associate different flavors depending on the colors that they perceive. … We could point them in the direction of all of this scientific analysis, but at the end of the day, it’s also just kind of fun.”
It’s this kind of innovative cocktail mixing that has the drink world abuzz. Fetherston was named the best new mixologist in America by Food & Wine magazine in 2016, while the Columbia Room team, including partners Derek Brown and Angie Fetherston, has been regaled with best bar awards and nominations from Esquire, the James Beard Foundation and more.
Fetherston will be bringing his brainy take on cocktails with him to Italy as a featured tastemaker at the Venice Food & Wine Festival, hosted by the JW Marriott Venice Resort & Spa from May 3 to May 6, where he will explore the vast world of amaro bitters and the perfect Italian cocktail. Marriott TRAVELER sat down with Fetherston at the Columbia Room to talk about his upcoming trip and his journey into mixology.
[Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.]
The Columbia Room has gotten quite a few accolades recently. Tell me what is resonating with people? Why are people so intrigued by what you’re doing here?
I think there is definitely a hunger for new and novel things in food and drink. People are always very interested in something a little bit different, so that’s certainly one aspect of it.
We always try, especially with our tasting menu, the preset fixed menu, to always have something that’s a little novel or a little different, something that hopefully people can discover here and take with them.
But I think we’ve also got a really highly educated and curious crowd that comes here. So we’re able to do these menus that have got a bit of a high concept behind them, or there’s a bit more explanation or context to give.
It’s not just a cocktail, and I think that the crowd here in D.C., and this modern cocktail drinking crowd … around the country and around the world, they’re hungry for it, or they’re thirsty for it.
Did you develop some of your cocktail education while studying in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh? Understand you took an epic bike trip to explore Scottish whisky distilleries.
I was [in Scotland] for undergraduate and, sadly, did not get really into scotch when I was there. … But when I’d already been working at the Columbia Room for a couple years, I went back to Scotland and took this long bike trip because I was, at the time, interested in the possibility of getting more involved with the production of spirits and wanted to go learn a little bit firsthand in Scotland.
So I essentially got an apprenticeship at one distillery called Bruichladdich, and I ended up working there for six weeks over that summer. … I decided to tack on this trip around Scotland on a bike to go see the different regions, but also a lot of different distilleries, and I think I ended up seeing 27 different distilleries.
I used to know how many miles I’d ridden; it was something like 900 at the end of the whole trip. People should take a car. It’s much easier that way, but it was a lot of fun. It was a really, really wonderful trip, and I did learn a lot out of it.
Tell me a highlight. What was something that stood out for you that made it special?
The thing that really sticks with me is, particularly on the west coast of Scotland, even having lived there, I never really traveled that much outside of Edinburgh, the city where I was studying.
And I went to the west coast on this trip, and it’s the most stunning place on earth. It’s really gorgeous. It’s wild. It’s rocky. There’s not a lot of people out there, and I just remember there was a very strong connection that you can make between the emotions and the feelings and the sensations that some of those whiskys that are made in that region, that they can elicit out of you when you’re drinking them, no matter where you are.
But when you’re sipping on them on a rock, staring out at the water and the wind whipping, and you can see all these crags and glens and sea locks, it really clicks. You really taste the origin of that whisky.
So, you’re about to take another journey. You’re going to Venice to participate in the JW Marriott Venice Food & Wine Festival. Tell me what you’re looking forward to in Venice?
I’m looking forward to just getting immersed in it and seeing this amazing storied city that I’ve heard so much about. I’ve been to Italy a couple times but never to that region or Venice itself, and it’s fascinating to me, especially again, I’m a history geek, I can’t avoid making these connections.
This was the gateway of all of these spices and flavors that became a huge part of medieval and later European culture and food culture, and this is the starting point. This is where so much of it came in to the rest of that continent. …
I feel this very strong sort of attraction to being there, to seeing it, to feeling that history all around because there’s so many things that you associate with Venice and the spice trade that we work with on a daily basis, that we use as ingredients or inspiration for different drinks or dishes.
Which of those ingredients would you want to explore more while you’re there?
I’ve been playing around with a lot in the past year or so with more resins. These were something that were used very commonly in medieval times and the Dark Ages, long before the trade was going all through Venice. Things like myrrh, frankincense, benzoin, and they’re not the most obvious cocktail ingredients, but I’ve seen other people using them in very interesting ways.
I’ve started to try and use them in different ways to incorporate them for their aroma, for their flavor, in some cases for the different textures you can get into a cocktail with them. That’s something that’s really piqued my interest because [of] a lot of the other things we use anyway.
A lot of the spices, they’re commonplace in modern Western pantries and in a lot of ingredients we use in cocktails. So that’s definitely something I’m really interested in and also just trying all the different amaro that I’ve never had before and can get access to over there. Pretty exciting.
Amaro (a bittersweet liqueur) will be the subject of one of the workshops you present at the Festival. What do you hope to reveal or explore in that conversation?
The approach that I’m taking is: I think it’s a fairly common misconception that drinks with these kinds of bitter ingredients, like an amaro, have to be very bitter, extreme drinks.
I think there’s been a certain style of American cocktail that has perpetuated that misconception because there are a lot of us out there in the American cocktail world who love big, bitter, strong boozy drinks, and those are wonderful.
I love a Negroni, but there’s so many other ways you can use these amaros, that you can use that bitterness. So I’m trying to find some modern cocktails, different ways of building drinks with these ingredients that we’ve used here and just demonstrating how you can love a cocktail with an amaro in it even if you don’t love bitter things.
How would you define the perfect Italian cocktail?
To me, and this will be nothing new to true Italian drinkers … the perfect Italian cocktail is something that is going to refresh you when you’re sitting in a sun-dappled piazza in the middle of Italy. It’s the perfect afternoon drink.
These ingredients, these cocktails are built for having one or two in the mid to late afternoon as you ease into the evening. So, again, getting away from that American tendency that has been bitter and boozy, to something that is bitter — yes, there is a bitter flavor to it — but is super refreshing.
You can knock back one or two in the afternoon getting a tan out in the courtyard, and the history of Italian cocktails is of cocktails like that. That’s how they were consuming them and so that’s nothing terribly new in terms of their traditions, but I think it’s something that is still sort of getting out there to the rest of the world.
What kind of traveler are you? How would you define the way that you approach new places?
My default is to try … and see what is the local scene that is inherent to this place. Where are people — for example, I was in Mexico a couple years ago — where are the Mexican cocktail lovers, where are they going to drink?
Sometimes you have to go digging for that, because obviously as an outsider, I don’t have all the information right off the bat, but always trying to ask and find out, get recommendations because you can get sometimes a little misled if you end up looking at the wrong list, if you don’t have any context; that context is really important. …
I know what’s great here in D.C.; I know what we’ve built sort of organically here. I try and find a way to learn what those places are in other cities. Using our connections and our friends in the bar and spirits world to get some intel before I go anywhere is always a huge part of that. I always try and go find what the locals are doing because that will give you the best flavor of what’s happening in the city.
JP Fetherston’s Featured Cocktail: The Long Road
1.5 oz Rosso Vermouth
0.75 oz Silk Road–Spiced Campari*
0.5 oz Batavia Arrack
Stir all ingredients; strain into chilled cocktail coupe.
Garnish: Benzoin Resin Mist**
*Campari mulled with spices common on the Silk Road that funneled so many goods and so much wealth through Venice through the ages. We mull Campari with black pepper, clove, cinnamon, allspice and turmeric.
**Benzoin resin mist is a mixture of Everclear and benzoin resin, a balsamic resin derived from the bark of trees in the Styrax family. It has very vanillaesque and orange blossom aromas.
Indulge your inner epicure with a weekend of exclusive events, showcasing the finest Italian cuisine, wine and spirits at the Venice Food & Wine Festival at the JW Marriott Venice Resort & Spa. Tickets are available for purchase now.