Though Derek Brown has always been a self-described foodie and booze geek, his first days behind the bar after an initial career in finance were, according to the man himself, “terrifying.” Brown, the bar manager at Underdog (55 Stone Street; 917-409-0251), would have switched gears had it not been for the encouragement he received in his early days. As Brown recalls, a friend who helped land him his first gig helped ease his transition into bartending. “Anyone will forgive you for making a bad cocktail, no one will forgive you for being a dick. Don’t be a dick. Probably the best bar advice I’ve ever been given,” Brown says.
Brown’s understanding of what makes a successful cocktail, along with mentors like Cameron Bogue, helped him ascend through the industry; these days, his career sees him making milk punch and mint syrup with complete confidence. For Underdog’s first feature menu, Brown and his team decided to take twelve different spirits and break them down into old fashioneds, one of which involved rum. “I learned so much about my palette by making old fashioneds. It is such a delicate, nuanced baby. Four ingredients, super simple, but it’s really easy to screw up,” Brown explains. The rum old fashioned resonates with Underdog’s crowd too, perhaps because many guests didn’t realize rum could be so delicious when used correctly.
“You have that night, and everyone’s had that night. Bad college drinking; people tend to be a little more forgiving of whiskey. The smell of rum probably until I was 25…I couldn’t deal,” Brown recalls. However, after sampling a quality rum by itself, Brown’s opinion on the spirit changed, and he notes that a rum old fashioned is a great way to get to know it – it’s so much more than a mixer for cola. It’s also a great gateway drink for those who are looking to understand the balance of spirit and how it plays off bitters and sugar. “If you can make someone a really balanced old fashioned, the trust level has gone up by about 500 percent,” Brown remarks. The appeal of rum in an old fashioned is that the base of the spirit is sugarcane, and since sugar is a key ingredient, the two naturally work well together. Brown suggests using sugar with a high ratio of molasses as they tend to pack more flavor.
Brown has some great advice on how to make the most of rum — or of any cocktail experience: “Just because we care deeply about what we do doesn’t mean that you have to. Hopefully we can introduce you to something new and you can have a great time and come back with your friends and you’re like ‘this is awesome; I enjoyed myself. I branched out. I didn’t have that one drink that I always drink.’
When Brown is able to step out from his Stone Street lair, he enjoys visiting bartenders including Sother Teague at Amor y Amargo, Ivy Mix at Leyenda, and Natasha David at Nitecap.
Here’s one of Underdog’s recipes for a rum old fashioned:
Rum Old Fashioned by Derek Brown
2 ounces Afrohead Premium Aged Rum
2 bar spoons of demerara sugar syrup (Brown recommends syrup as opposed to raw demerara sugar due to textural preference)
Dash of orange bitters
Dash of orinoco bitters
Orange peel for garnish
Add all ingredients to an old fashioned cocktail glass. Depending on the heat of the rum (the higher the proof it is), stir the first ounce for a long stir, then put in a second ounce for a short stir. Enjoy.