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To be named Best Cocktail Bar in America, as the Columbia Room was this past year, a couple of marquee bartending names are a must. It’s got those in Derek Brown and JP Fetherston. But a secret weapon doesn't hurt, either. And the bar’s got one of those too in Brian Robinson, a local collector who supplies the bar its stash of hundred-year-old absinthe, pre-Prohibition rye and the like. (Image: Farrah Skeiky)
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Meet Brian Robinson, the Indiana Jones of old booze

To be named Best Cocktail Bar in America, as the Columbia Room was this past year, a couple of marquee bartending names are a must. It’s got those in Derek Brown and JP Fetherston.

But a secret weapon doesn't hurt, either. And the bar’s got one of those too in Brian Robinson, a local collector who supplies the bar its stash of hundred-year-old absinthe, pre-Prohibition rye and the like.

It’s a hobby he’s indulged in for 20 years, since getting his first taste of authentic absinthe as a student in Spain.

“I started researching the history of absinthe and all the misconceptions around it,” Robinson says.

That obsession ultimately led him to the Wormwood Society, an association for American absinthe enthusiasts, which he now helps run.

But it also led him down many more historical rabbit holes, filled with Madeira from the 1700s and Napoleonic-era Cognac. He tracks down these “dusty bottles” at estate sales, auctions, sometimes even forgotten shelves of liquor stores.

At his home in Loudoun County, his collection has swelled to 3,500 bottles, so he was a natural fit as the curator of Brown & Co.’s “spirits library.”

“We’d been friends for quite a while,” he says of Brown. “I’d be at a bunch of his events. At a certain point, I’d bring in some vintage spirits for him to taste.”

At the closing party of The Passenger, which housed the first incarnation of the Columbia Room, Brown asked if he’d seed the vintage collection, and keep it stocked with hard-to-find hooch.

“Brian Robinson has two special talents," says Brown. "One is drinking more than you and, two, is drinking way better than you. I drink anything he puts in front of me and am glad he's on our team.”

A financial adviser by day, Robinson ironically says he’s never collected for profit.

“Anytime I buy a bottle it’s because I’m interested in what it’s tastes like,” he said. “If I can, I’ll buy two.”

But yet, even as he builds out an entire room in his basement to house it all, he adds: “Now my wife doesn’t think I’m as crazy, because I’ve monetized the collection.”

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