Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
For Lukas Smith to truly take his cocktail-making all the way as a bartender, he would have had to risk jail time.
Sure, he’s made his own bitters, fermented his own shrubs, infused his own vermouth, carbonated his own sodas, and frozen his own specialty ice. But the most important part of the cocktail, the very heart of it—the spirit—was the one thing he couldn’t produce in his previous gig at Dram & Grain.
“The world of spirits is wide, but there’s always some kind of compromise I’m having to make with the base spirits,” Smith says.
That’s ultimately what wooed him away from the acclaimed cocktail bar in the basement of Jack Rose Dining Saloon to rum distillery Cotton & Reed, which is slated to open near Union Market later this month.
“It was a romance sort of, old-school. We lit a couple candles, put on some Tom Jones,” Smith jokes. In actuality, distiller Chas Jefferson first approached Smith about joining the team. Then, Cotton & Reed founders Jordan Cotton and Reed Walker, who have backgrounds in the aerospace industry, visited Smith “probably 20 straight times” to check out his Tuesday experiments at Dram & Grain and pitch him on joining the distillery.
“At first I was kind of like, ‘Pfff, what are you talking about? Get out of here,’” Smith says. “Basically, what sold me on it was the ability to make things and to use the most advanced equipment to do it… As hard as I’ve pushed myself in the past year or so, it’s going to be a totally different level.”
D.C. has some of the most permissive laws in the country when it comes to drinking at distilleries. Other states limit visitors to a small taste of the spirits—if they allow consumption at all. D.C. was the same way only a few years ago. When the city’s first (legal) distillery in more than a century, New Columbia Distillers, debuted in 2012, it wasn’t even allowed to sell bottles or hand out tastes on-site.
Local laws have since loosened, and last May, new rules allowing distilleries to serve cocktails went into effect. Regulators have also created a distillery pub permit that will allow restaurants and bars to produce alcohol. (The first distillery pub, District Distilling Company, is set to open this summer.) Meanwhile, production distillery hours have expanded to as late as midnight. As a result, the business model for D.C.’s alcohol manufacturers has swiftly changed to become much more bar-centric. The latest crop of alcohol production facilities have beautiful tasting rooms that feel not much different from any other bar you’d visit on a Saturday night.
But perhaps more importantly, distilleries are hiring established bartenders to join their teams. (Some distilleries are already operated by a bartender, like Don Ciccio & Figli.) These cocktail masters aren’t just mixing up drinks: They’re also getting a say in what comes out of the stills. For the first time in D.C.’s modern cocktail history, the gap between the people making the spirits and those serving them is nonexistent.
At Cotton & Reed, Smith is using his experience working with botanicals in bitters and other cocktail ingredients to help develop the formula for the distillery’s first two products: a white rum and a dry spiced rum.
The spiced rum recipe will use 17 spices, including cumin, black pepper, and fenugreek. And while most spiced rums on the market are heavily sweetened, this one won’t have more than a touch of caramel to balance some of the more bitter botanicals.
Traditionally, rum is made with a very neutral, “efficient” distiller’s yeast, but Cotton & Reed plans to use a Belgian saison yeast strain typically used for beer and a pineapple yeast strain that Smith has been experimenting with for the past year. The saison yeast is meant to add fruity, floral, earthy aromas not traditionally found in rum, while the pineapple yeast creates, well, pineapple aromas. Jefferson, the distiller, says they hope to create a “beautifully layered rum that you really can’t find on the market.”
Beyond the flagship products, Smith plans to eventually use the distillery’s eight-gallon pot still for more experimental spirits that will be used exclusively in Cotton & Reed’s front bar. “It’s something we’ve joked around about a lot… If I get a wild hair in the morning, it’s going in there,” he says. Smith plans to eventually collaborate with other bartenders so they can realize their own bar projects, too.
Bartender/distiller Nicole Hassoun has similar plans at Jos. A. Magnus & Co., the distillery in Ivy City that produces gin, whiskey, and vodka. The former bartender at the Gin Joint inside New Heights Restaurant was initially contracted by the distillery to help out with the gin and then to build the bar’s cocktail menu. But not long after its September launch, Hassoun was promoted to head distiller. (She’s also now a partner in the business.)
“I’ve always searched for how to do things myself. That was the fun part of bartending for me,” Hassoun says. She even started her own line of tonics called Chronic Tonic to pair with gin. But working for a distillery has allowed her to make the one thing that everything else in a cocktail is based on. “It was like if I was a chef, and I got to not only have a farm, but I learned how to butcher… Then I could really understand on all levels exactly how a cocktail needs to be put together.”
While Jos A. Magnus has an all-star team of whiskey veterans who are primarily responsible for perfecting their brown liquor recipe, Hassoun has full creative control over other spirits. “Anything I can wake up and dream about, when I talk to [my partners] about it, they say, ‘Try it.’” She can distill the perfect gin for a drink she has in mind and have it on the menu the next day.
While she’s been primarily focused on Jos A. Magnus’ staple brands (Vigilant Gin and Royal Seal Vodka), Hassoun’s goal is to make small batches of more experimental gins and liqueurs specifically for the cocktail bar that will rotate every month. Right now, she’s playing around with seasoning gins like she would season a dish. For example, she might make a spirit with lemon, black pepper, and herbs that could be used to spice up some salmon. She’s also looking to create a gin botanical bouquet inspired by an Emirati spice mix called bzar, which is a little bit like garam masala.
Meanwhile, at Republic Restoratives, founders Pia Carusone and Rachel Gardner hired bartender David Strauss, who’s worked at Barmini, Le Diplomate, and Founding Farmers and will also oversee cocktails at forthcoming Morris in Shaw. Carusone and Gardner were in the early stages of planning their distillery when the law changed to allow cocktails, and they quickly realized they would need a partner who knew how to set up and run a bar. “We have glass coolers—we wouldn’t have done that,” Carusone says. “He was like, ‘Why would you ever serve a cocktail that’s not in a frosted glass?’ Like, oh right, yes.”
Strauss is not yet involved in the distilling process at the just-opened Ivy City Distillery, but he plans to work with distiller Rusty Figgins to come up with some new products down the line. Eventually Republic Restoratives will sell whiskey, cordials, and other spirits, but in the meantime, Strauss has just one brand of alcohol to play with: Civic Vodka.
One of the biggest differences in bartending at a distillery is that you can’t have a full bar. D.C. law requires that the majority of a drink be made with spirits produced on site. So, for example, a gin-only distillery can’t serve a negroni because Campari and vermouth make up two-thirds of the cocktail. (Distilleries can serve beer and wine for private events.)
“When it was first brought up, I didn’t know if that was going to be limiting… but it actually turns out to be quite freeing,” Strauss says. With the main ingredient already chosen for him, he can focus on creating the flavors around it to make variations on just about any cocktail, he explains. “It seems like the well is limitless in terms of what we can turn out with just one product and a really simple bar.”
Most local distillery owners aren’t clamoring to serve everything and anything anyway, because they’re interested in primarily showcasing their own spirits. But there is talk about pushing for even looser laws in the future.
“If I want to be able to use Chartreuse, I should be able to use Chartreuse. Basically, the creative license of the operator is being restrained arbitrarily,” Smith argues.
Regardless, drinking cocktails still-side is helping fuel the distillery business. A lot of people don’t want to drink their liquor straight, and distillers have found that being able to showcase products in a cocktail helps sales. Cotton & Reed has been hosting various events and pop-ups in recent months, including Saturdays at Darnell’s through June 25, to get the word out about their brand in advance of the opening. “That’s the kind of thing where if we weren’t also a cocktail bar in addition to a distillery, it wouldn’t make nearly as much sense,” Cotton says.
The law allowing cocktails at distilleries changed while the Cotton & Reed team was looking for real estate. Suddenly, having a space near the crowds of Union Market made much more sense. Previously, they’d been looking at more industrial neighborhoods without a lot of foot traffic. Cotton & Reed now expects around half of its business to come from the bar in its first year, although it will become a smaller portion as they ramp up distribution in the future.
Accordingly, the bar will take up a significant portion of Cotton & Reed’s square footage. But you can see the still from pretty much anywhere you sit. “What we make back there is what you’re drinking here. And we made it back there with what you’re drinking here in mind,” Cotton says. “It’s very much about that interplay.