Get our free newsletter
At 4 p.m. on a Sunday, Lukas B. Smith is making the rounds at Union Market. He stops by Buffalo & Bergen for a knish, and then it’s off to Peregrine Espresso for a doppio espresso. The barista hands him his shot, but right before he chugs it, he pours in a generous amount of sugar.
“Sugar makes the bitter better,” he says. “I’ll need this because pretty soon this place [Union Market] clears out, and my squad shows up.” According to Smith, a lot of his regulars are the staff and vendors who work at the market.
Smith, now buzzed from his caffeine-sugar kick, pushes through the chaos of Union Market, outside, and across the street to his bar, Cotton & Reed. Whether or not they’re in Smith’s “squad,” people notice him as he walks. Maybe it’s his big bushy beard, or maybe it’s the fact that he wears a straw cowboy hat with a bright tangerine-colored scarf and Crocs.
“He’s kind of like the summer version of Santa Claus,” says Jordan Cotton, who co-owns the distillery with Reed Walker. “We like to call him the herbal Santa Claus.”
That’s because unlike with his coffee, he’s adamantly opposed to putting anything too sweet into his rum—instead he uses 17 botanicals. That’s the Cotton & Reed way. Craft rum, they say, should be alive with herbs and spices, not saturated with sugar.
Take one sip of their dry-spiced rum, and your palate will begin to understand. Their rum tastes herbaceous and bitter, earthy and spicy, with a subtle finish of citrus and sweetness.
“When I describe our rum, I like to say we’re practicing the art of mind-trickery,” Smith says. “By bombarding the senses with multiple ingredients, what we’re really doing is tricking the brain into thinking our rum is slightly sweet, even though there’s hardly any sugar.”
That approach is something that Cotton & Reed prides itself on and something far different from the sugarcane or molasses fermented rums of the Caribbean. The distillery not only has the distinction of being D.C.’s first rum distillery, but it’s also challenging our assumptions about rum, rum cocktails, and rum distilleries.
According to the American Craft Spirits Association, there are more than 1,315 craft spirits producers in the United States—the most since Prohibition. Still, there are far fewer craft rum distilleries than whiskey, gin, or vodka, Smith says.
Visit Cotton & Reed, and the first thing you’ll notice are the rum cocktails. The staff treats the distillery like a bar—drink sales are actually where 88 percent of their revenue comes from. In a back room behind two double doors, they make a white and a dry-spiced rum, both of which are intentionally subtle. It gives Smith and his fellow bartenders room to experiment with cocktail accompaniments. For example, Cotton & Reed makes a riff on a classic gin and tonic, only with rum.
By Sunday evening, Cotton & Reed is getting its second wind, Smith says. The crowds and vendors from Union Market start to trickle in, and there’s a disco ball spinning with a lively mix of bluegrass and funk playing.
The playlist is curated by Doug Atwell, a well-known Baltimore bartender from Blue Pit Whiskey & BBQ in Hampden. Atwell does weekend stints at the bar. Smith says it’s a benefit of being so close to Union Station and the MARC train.
“The rail makes it easier to bring bartending talent from both cities closer together, and it’s my hope to get up there soon for a few shifts in return,” Smith says.
Another bartender, Chas Jefferson, also happens to be Cotton & Reed’s master distiller. That’s something that usually catches patrons by surprise, he says. Previously, Jefferson was an experienced sommelier and worked as a wine rep, at one point doing a stint as a bartender for Iron Gate Restaurant.
About four years ago, he joined the Cotton & Reed team after responding to a Craigslist want ad. Today, he’s responsible for tasting each batch of white and dry-spiced rum. “While most people think of me as a bartender or wine guy, I used those experiences to help get me to where I am now,” Jefferson says.
He fixes a drink that Smith created, a cocktail called the winterized daiquiri. This classic cocktail is turned upside down after it’s topped with some Port City Porter beer. The idea behind the drink, Smith says, was to create a drink that challenges commonly held assumptions, mainly that daiquiris should be frozen and served on a beach lounger. There’s hardly any sugar in this drink, mostly lime juice and stout, which acts as a natural sweetener.
“People think of rum and think Caribbean style, and they think of rum cocktails and think frozen sugary drink,” Smith says. “I think sugar is the lowest common denominator for a cocktail.”
By bending the rules on rum and rum cocktails, the Cotton & Reed team is able to create an entire menu of unique cocktails. For instance, their version of a Moscow Mule calls for ginger, Campari, and white rum. Their take on a Lion’s Tail is made with rum, lime, and an allspice dram that they make in house—it’s a Jamaican liqueur made with anise, fennel, Sichuan peppercorn, cinnamon, and clove.
What most people don’t see at Cotton & Reed is production day. On Mondays and Tuesdays when the bar is closed, the staff puts in 14-hour shifts, and engineer Jennifer Phelps has the data to prove how long she’s been working. She carries with her a running log of times, at 30-minute intervals, when she’s measuring the rum’s alcohol proof and temperature.
“I want to be able to track just how well ‘Jill’ the still is doing,” she says. “And I want to be able to make adjustments to the production, so we can refine the product further.”
“Jill” is a 500-gallon compound pot still, and next to it are two large fermenters and a mash tun. Right now, Cotton & Reed can produce about 2,400 bottles of rum every two weeks—not huge for a distillery.
They use an 80/20 rule for production—80 percent of the distillate is fermented using a Belgian saison yeast, and 20 percent is fermented with a pineapple yeast. The two distillates are blended together to get a white rum made from yeast strains more commonly found in beer.
For their spiced rum, Cotton & Reed soaks each batch in Brazilian hardwood, a material called amburana. It’s a product that’s typically used to age Cachaça (a sugarcane spirit popular in Brazil). The small pieces of wood are cut, then toasted and soaked in the rum to give it a molasses character. They’re also sustainably sourcing small amounts of sugar from the Gulf Coast of Louisiana.
As for what’s next, the co-founders say they’re looking at how the distillery can better serve their bar service, and they hope to expand upon the two styles of rum that they’re producing now. While the allspice dram is in use behind the bar, they’re working to brew and bottle it by early spring.
“We have new products that we’re constantly testing at the bar,” Walker says. “You can try them, as we experiment,” he says. “That’s different from how other distilleries do it. Really, we want people to understand that rum can be something unique, and that distilleries can look and feel different too.”