Bartending While Sober Is Pretty Hardcore

Derek Brown's new company, Positive Damage Inc., leans into his punk rock past to help Americans think and drink more mindfully.

Derek Brown
Derek Brown. Photo:

Nicholas Karlin

Most of what Derek Brown needed to know about life, he learned from punk and hardcore music. That includes finding the courage to be publicly sober while also being one of the most respected bartenders in the business. In a phone interview a couple days after his 48th birthday, Brown was feeling a little rough. Not from overconsumption; rather, he'd celebrated by going out to see a couple D.C. bands he'd loved growing up (Soulside and Verbal Assault, if you're keeping score) and stayed out to catch up with friends he hadn't seen in a few years. "Punk's not dead!" he cheered, "...but I could use a nap."

Brown's childhood was steeped in trauma, in part from growing up with a father with an alcohol use disorder and also from the death of his foster sister in a drunk driving accident when he was just five years old. It was a difficult environment, but he eventually found some refuge in punk rock. The chaos and clangor of shows somehow stilled him. "It was a community that was not perfect because it was a bunch of kids putting on shows and jumping off the stage and yelling and screaming, but it was very real," said Brown. 

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The very first time Brown heard the Sex Pistols, the music immediately resonated with him. Nobody in his life talked like that. "We had a peaceful suburban sort of thing, but within the house, our parents argued all the time," Brown said. "Having a band going, 'Fuck all this fucking fucked-up crap!' I was like, that's how I feel. Where have you been?" 

Punk and hardcore gave voice to how Brown felt, but beyond the release and validation in the volume, he found something unexpected: positivity. Bands like Youth Of Today, Minor Threat, and especially Bad Brains showed him that their music wasn’t just about yelling and being angry. "This is about finding who you are, being great to people, trusting who you are and who you want to be," he said. "It gave me confidence in the things I felt and saw and a lot of young people don't get that opportunity. It carried on in my career."

Brown, who'd dabbled a little with drinking in in teens, especially found clarity in the straight edge community, a subculture of hardcore where fans eschew alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and in some factions, caffeine, prescription medication, and sex. "Punk is a way of making the internal external," he explained. "Even when what's inside of you is ugly, there's this idea of a positive mental attitude, that your mindset can determine your reality. Instead of having spiked hair and drinking and passing out, bands were like, 'What we're gonna do is love this community and share things that we think are positive.'" 

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"Some of that was people standing up and saying, 'I don't want to drink.' It turned into this entire movement," Brown continued. "They had songs about not drinking, doing drugs, or smoking. I needed to hear that when I was young because I did see a lot of problems at home."

Even with this reinforcement, he struggled for stability in other aspects of his life. Brown dropped out of high school, moved out on his own when he was 16, and started picking up jobs in restaurants. There, the dysregulation of his upbringing felt familiar and away from the straight edge scene, substance use didn't seem quite so taboo. "There is a lot of abuse in kitchens, but this was a little bit more loving than abusive. I learned how to think and drink in restaurants, and there's a lot of problems with that." 

For a while, Brown moved around, trying sometimes to go to school, but mostly picking up work at restaurants and bars, traveling until his money ran out. When the bartender at the cafe where he was working moved on, Brown stepped in, despite not knowing the first thing about making drinks. Fortunately, his first order was a vodka soda (he still checked looked it up on his phone to make sure he was doing it correctly) and from there, he learned on the job from his customers, many of whom were in the industry. "I thought to myself, I don't know who the best bartender in the world is, but I don't know why that shouldn't be me." 

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Brown studied intently — even obsessively — and for this, he credits his neurodivergence saying, "It's a superpower, I can get into deep work and I can really focus on learning something." He dove into cocktails, as well as cramming for exams to become a sommelier, though he came to realize the latter wasn't quite his speed. "I love the intensity that somms bring to their job, but I'm a bartender at heart. A lot of it was going back to those punk days, which is kind of self-taught. You don't need to know how to play your instrument, just pick it up and go."

Derek Brown
Derek Brown.

Nicholas Karlin

As Brown was finding success and career momentum, alcohol was becoming a double-edged sword. He was drinking a fair amount, but not in a way that stood out from his industry peers. "I was now finding this community and teaching people how to drink, and it was kind of messed up," he said. "Alcohol was there at the best and worst moments of my life. I treated it like, OK, you've done the worst you could to me, you can't hurt me. It turns out I was wrong."

The accolades and opportunities kept on coming. Brown wrote about cocktails for The Atlantic, consulted on bar programs around the country, and traveled to Japan to study bartending. In 2010, he opened the Columbia Room in Washington D.C. to tremendous fanfare, earning James Beard nominations and a clientele of industry insiders. "I started to feel like I was part of this larger community, larger than life in some ways, because I was really excited that I was given attention," Brown said. But his excessive drinking had become normalized. “In the industry, it wouldn't be weird to have 60 drinks a week."

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After a few years, the consumption caught up with him. Brown served as a judge for a worldwide competition where over the course of three days, he sampled 200 spirits as a part of his duties. He sipped and spat, of course, but you can't help but absorb some alcohol. He went out drinking with peers and friends afterward. From there, Brown went to Tennessee to sample another 80 spirits, then Kentucky to tour distilleries. 

"I was in the bathroom because I wasn't feeling great. My entire body was soaked in sweat like I had taken a shower. I didn't know what was happening. I felt hollow inside, so embarrassed. I tried to put myself together, dried my clothes with the hand dryer on as they knocked on the door," recalled Brown. "I told them it must have been something I ate. My liver was about to shut down and I thought it wasn't the fact that I consumed 600 drinks in the course of a few weeks."

He wasn't done yet. "I was behaving in a way that I don't recognize now, I was behaving badly.  I was doing plenty of drugs, too. Maybe I wasn't in a ditch somewhere, but I wasn't far from that ditch." 

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Out one night with a friend, Brown decided to drop some acid. He took a hit, decided it wasn't working, then took a second and possibly a third, he can't recall. 14 hours later, he found himself in a bathtub blasting classical music, trying to calm down. "The experience I could only describe as soul-scraping. I was so low, I felt terrible in every way. And I thought that was it." 

Finally, in outpatient treatment, he accepted that he had a problem with alcohol, but that it wasn't the only issue at play. Brown received a dual diagnosis of bipolar depression and substance use disorder. With that came a roadmap toward a healthier way of being."I had really lost that spirit of punk. I was hiding everything internally, even from myself," said Brown. "I got this opportunity to speak to therapists and have therapeutic interventions of drugs and that started me thinking differently about my life." 

The timing could not have been less convenient. That year, 2017, the Columbia Room was voted Best American Cocktail Bar at the Tales of the Cocktail Awards, and Brown was named as chief spirits advisor for the National Archives Foundation. He knew he couldn't stay on this path, but he wasn't quite ready to walk away. Brown decided that writing a book, Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World, would be the last call for his career in the beverage world. 

"I was gonna be like, this is all I know about bars and restaurants and maybe I'll just go off and do something different because I was really scared," Brown said. "I didn't know how to say to people 'I've been telling you all this time how to drink and now I'm just kidding. Don't drink.'"

 Terrifying as it was, Brown began to have conversations with close friends who were incredibly supportive, and the further he ventured out from his inner circle, the more solid the ground beneath him felt. "A lot of people are hurting. It might not be the same thing that I'm hurting from, but they understood. It was so heartwarming to know that people could accept my story."  Other respected bartenders, like Jack McGarry and Josh Harris, were also out there talking about sobriety, and that solidarity changed everything for Brown. "It made me realize that I could still do the thing I'm doing. I could love the thing I love without compromising my mental health or my health in general."

He knew he still had work to do on himself, and was still drinking a little bit, but New Year's Eve 2019 felt like the right moment to cap an era. A friend's wine-collecting father had recently passed away, and she sent Brown a bottle of 1982 Château Lafite Rothschild, which he and his partner in life and business, Maria Bastasch, drank with some Chinese food. "I went to sleep and that was that — my last drink of recreational alcohol. I felt really good about it. Maybe my sobriety is a little different than most people's and it was a long and winding path to get to it but when I did, I felt comfortable. I realized I don't need this anymore." 

He isn't ruling out ever drinking again. Brown still has to taste alcohol occasionally, but the difference is that he doesn't feel like he needs it anymore, and knows his hard-won expertise is not for naught. The principles of flavor balance that he'd been teaching all along also apply to low- and no-alcohol cocktails. He calls this approach "mindful mixology" — also the name of the book he published in early 2022 — and through it, he has found a new community. 

"I think alcohol is a wonderful piece of social technology for people who can enjoy it and feel comfortable with it. It isn't for me right now, but I can still talk about it," said Brown. "I'm gonna be the pied piper of no- and low-alcohol cocktails. It feels like the punk rock community, like the origins of the cocktail movement and it keeps growing." 

Brown's book (with a foreword by F&W Game Changer Julia Bainbridge)came out in January 2022, and in February, he sold the Columbia Room to the team from Death & Co., confident that they would continue to include low- and no-alcohol drinks on the roster. Along the way, he went back to college to study positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, a move he calls, "a wonderful cap to my straight edge days," and earned a certificate in wellness coaching from the National Association of Sports Medicine with an eye toward a new venture.

Recently, Brown left his job as director of education at the non-alcoholic spirits company Spiritless, where he'd worked since early 2021, and in early October, announced his new company, Positive Damage Inc. Its mission: teaching America how to drink — and think more deliberately about why and how they're doing it. Brown is working with bars and restaurants to help them develop no- and low-alcohol programs, train bartenders, and work out recipes, sourcing, and costs. Corporate clients are engaging his services to host spirit-free happy hours that are "not focused on not drinking, but rather on what you can drink and what delicious options are out there," and the very institute that trained Brown has hired him to develop an online curriculum for their coaches and trainers.

Brown is well aware that his mission and message won't strike a chord with everyone, but that's OK. "I think that there's different circumstances for everybody, but I think the first step is to realize that your life is beautiful and precious, and you have to ask yourself, can I sustain what I'm doing? Will this keep me alive? Maybe there's a different approach." And Brown's method may not be what works for them. 

Some people need to get into recovery, counseling, or try out a meeting. Some may opt for the social camouflage of a Dry January or Sober October to test the waters. "Nobody has to know your story unless you're ready to tell it. These months are a great excuse and for some people it's a lifeline. 'Yeah, I'm doing Dry January, nothing weird about that.' And those four weeks have transformed their entire lives," said Brown. "It's this temporary, arbitrary landmark where I'm going to put a flag and say, I'm gonna stop for a little while, take some inventory and, think, what, what has this done for me? Maybe do some journaling, talk to some friends. spend some time with myself, meditate — there's lots of options out there." 

And if the people around you don't support your decision for whatever reason, no hard feelings. As always, Brown brought it back to basics, a seminal Teen Idles song with the lyrics, "We've got no time for judgment. Not interested in what you say. Keep up your verbal criticism. We'll go out and play." 

"That song is kind of the motto of hardcore punk rock," he laughed. "It's called 'Get Up and Go'."

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