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49-year-old was an award-winning bartender, now he practices ‘mindful drinking’.

By Renée Onque for | Oct 31, 2023

Photo of Derek Brown owner the Columbia Room, a bar in Washington D.C., until 2022.
Derek Brown owned the Columbia Room, a bar in Washington D.C., until 2022.Courtesy of Derek Brown

For 22 years, Derek Brown dominated the hospitality industry in Washington D.C. as a bartender and even owned his own bar in the nation’s capital until 2022.

But despite his success, Brown’s relationship with alcohol was a bit complicated.

“My life has really been shaped by alcohol in a lot of different ways,” Brown tells CNBC Make It.

Growing up, his foster sister lost her life in a drunk-driving accident, and his father struggled with alcoholism and has been in recovery for nearly 40 years. “So, alcohol was really present at the very early stages of my life in a way that was kind of negative,” he says.

Then, at age 16, Brown started working in restaurants and eventually ventured into bartending which helped to propel his career.

“The way I learned how to drink was really from the bar and restaurant industry, which is a wonderful place for many reasons. But [in the industry], about one in five people have a substance-use disorder or alcohol-use disorder,” says Brown.

I came to this point where I realized maybe I was drinking in a way that wasn’t sustainable.

Derek Brown


“That became very normalized to me, so I continued to drink up to my late thirties and forties at a rate that would make most people kind of be like ‘What the?’ It wasn’t unusual for me to have 50 [to] 60 drinks a week,” he says.

“It was part of my whole lifestyle. But at the same time, I was winning awards.”

In 2015, Brown earned the title of Imbibe Magazine’s “Bartender of the Year.” Two years later, he received an award for the “Best American Cocktail Bar” at the 2017 Spirited Awards for the bar he owned called Columbia Room.

“Alcohol’s been there at the best and the worst points of my life. So, I think my life was uniquely shaped by alcohol,” Brown says. “But I came to this point where I realized maybe I was drinking in a way that wasn’t sustainable.”

After a moment of clarity where Brown realized “I wasn’t my best self,” he gravitated towards mindful drinking.

What is mindful drinking?

“Mindful drinking is a self-led strategy to drink or not to drink alcohol in accordance with your goals, health or otherwise,” says Brown, founder of Positive Damage Inc. and expert on no- and low-alcohol cocktails and mindful drinking. The practice involves “trying to align the way that you drink with the way you want to feel.”

Mindful drinking isn’t one-size-fits-all, he adds. For some people, it can look like having only one drink at social outings, and for others it can mean not drinking at all, he explains.

You can go through different stages of your mindful drinking journey, notes Brown, who is also a writer and author of Positive Damage, a newsletter about drinking mindfully. You may choose to have a drink during the holidays and opt for mocktails during other times of the year.

In his own life, mindful drinking for Brown means not drinking for the most part. He started by limiting himself to two to three drinks a month; then “in 2019, I just said ‘I don’t need it anymore.’”

I haven’t written it off. I can drink any time I want. I just don’t want to.


“A big part of that was because I had addressed my mental health in a way that I felt good. So, alcohol in a way, for me, was self-medicating,” he adds.

“When I got to the point where I felt at a baseline that I was happy, at least in the sense that I was in a place in my life where I could weather the storm, I stopped drinking in 2019.”

Since then, Brown hasn’t drank recreationally, but he has taste-tested drinks as a part of his job: “I haven’t written it off. I can drink any time I want. I just don’t want to.”

‘I feel on a daily basis, just better than I ever have’

Now that he drinks less, Brown is able to focus on addressing his nutrition and everything else that he puts into his body. He’s also prioritized improving his sleep by shifting from his typical four hours of sleep a night to at least eight or nine hours.

Mindful drinking also led Brown to meditation and therapy which helped him identify the void he was attempting to fill with alcohol. When he attends parties these days, he’s more present, has better quality interactions and doesn’t feel the need to stay until the party is over, he says.

“I feel on a daily basis, just better than I ever have, but it doesn’t mean that everything’s perfect,” Brown says.

“It was a door for me to start addressing my sleep, my nutrition [and] movement,” he adds. “Those things really did start to open up this new world for me that I just didn’t see before. And I feel great about that. I don’t feel great every day, but I feel like I have a chance now to feel every day.”

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