The shiny tanks and twisting pipes look like the inner-workings of a submarine or a spaceship.
The equipment, configured in the middle of a warehouse in the Ivy City neighborhood, is nearly as exotic. Nothing like it has existed in D.C.—legally, at least—in more than a century.
New Columbia Distillers will begin production of gin and rye whiskey this month. The distillery is owned by retired attorney Michael Lowe and his son-in-law John Uselton, who was previously a beer buyer for Schneider’s wine shop on Capitol Hill.
“It didn’t come with a manual,” Lowe says of the custom-made still and mash tun imported from a company called Carl in Germany. He points down to some pipes near the base of the still: “It took us an hour at least, with three of us working on it, to get this in place.” The duo has taken a hands-on approach to every aspect of the distillery, even constructing its jigsaw puzzle-like apparatus using only photos as a guide (and some friends and family for an assist). A rep from the manufacturer stopped by only at the end of construction to make sure they’d done it correctly.
The distillery is the latest addition to D.C.’s growing craft booze scene. Last summer, the city got its first brewery since 1956, DC Brau, which was soon followed by Chocolate City Brewery and 3 Stars Brewing Company. But a distillery? New Columbia is the first in a long, long time.
One reason might be craft distilleries’ youth relative to craft wineries, which took off in the 1960s, and craft brewing, whose imprint grew noticeably in the 1970s and ’80s. Today, there are only about 300 craft distillers around the country. Washington lags behind most major cities in joining the trend. Bootlegging laws help explain why craft spirits have been slow to arrive: A home brewer can experiment making beers at home, and then ramp up operations at a brewery. “With distilling, you can’t do that. You can’t practice at home,” Uselton says. “It’s a felony.”
Uselton, 39, and Lowe, 62, had both played with home brewing. When Lowe retired as a lawyer for Verizon in 2008, he picked up cocktail-making as a hobby. He got some cocktail books, started modifying his own recipes, and would serve his latest drink whenever Uselton and his daughter came to dinner. Meanwhile, Uselton already had experience in liquor retail as well as working in restaurants. They began to talk about going into business together, and in December 2010, Lowe enrolled in a distilling course at Cornell University. That solidified their plans. The two then decided to do a week-long internship at Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane, Wash., the following August.
Because they can’t legally produce gin at home, they’ve experimented with recipes by adding botanicals to watered-down Everclear. The two set up a lab of sorts on Lowe’s dining room table with 40 mason jars containing alcohol infused with different herbs and spices. Their library of ingredients includes coriander, cubeb berries, lemon peel, grapefruit peel, ginger, cinnamon, rosemary, frankincense, lemongrass, and more. They start with varying amounts of juniper, then use an eyedropper to mix and match different combinations and portions of botanicals.
Uselton and Lowe won’t disclose the exact ingredients in their gin, but they say it will be crisp “with a little more body and a little more earthiness to it.” Uselton says the gin will have a citrus quality, but will not be “citrus-dominant.” Down the line, the distillery will make several seasonal gins.
New Columbia will also produce rye whiskey, which it will age for three to five years in charred American oak barrels along the wall of the distillery. Most rye whiskey is “Pennsylvania-style,” but Uselton and Lowe will be making what’s termed “Maryland-style” with a little bit more spice and higher rye content.
As for when you’ll actually get to taste their stuff, there are still some weeks to go. The distillery is currently awaiting final health and building inspections. Once it gets the final sign-off, which will be sometime this month, it will take two to three weeks to produce the first batch of gin. Uselton and Lowe plan to self-distribute their liquor to area bars, restaurants, and retailers. They will also have a tasting room on site.
New Columbia claims to be the first D.C. distillery in a century, but it actually may have been even longer. Local liquor historian Garrett Peck, the author of Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t, says that he has been unable to find any reference to legal distilleries in D.C. in the decade leading up to Prohibition or at any point after.
“We didn’t really have a distilling culture, even though we’ve long had a cocktail culture in the city,” Peck says. “These were farm products, and D.C. wasn’t a farming town.
That’s not to say there wasn’t plenty of illegal distilling going on, especially during Prohibition, but it tended to involve small-batch home operations. A 1922 photo from the Library of Congress’ online archives shows four law enforcement officials surrounding a still and bottles from a raid. “The largest still in captivity,” the caption reads.
After Prohibition, only a small number of distilling businesses could resume production—and most were located in Kentucky or Pennsylvania. “D.C. just never had distilling, so there was no real reason for anyone to pick it up here,” Peck says.
It’s not without reason that it’s taken this long for someone to finally attempt to open a legal distillery. Even as recently as a decade ago, the culture for a craft distiller to succeed here didn’t really exist. There was hardly a locavore movement to drive people to eat and drink regional products. There was no D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild. And the word “mixology” had barely entered the lexicon. “Not that it couldn’t have been successful, but it would have been much more difficult,” Peck says.
One of the game-changers for D.C.’s cocktail scene and craft alcohol movement, Peck says, was the opening of PX in Old Town Alexandria six years ago. The boîte required reservations and made every drink by hand with fresh ingredients. Unlike many bars, PX focused on drinks, not food. “When that place opened up, suddenly every other bartender wanted to have a bar like that,” Peck says. PX raised the bar for the way drinks were made. It was no longer about the soda gun in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other. Bartenders—ahem, mixologists—began to take inspiration from the kitchen.
When asked about the cocktail culture six years ago, PX owner Todd Thrasher laughs: “There was no cocktail culture,” he says. “People drank, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t think people would go to a bar specifically just to have a cocktail.”
At the same time, craft spirits were a rarity. Thrasher says the rise of craft distillers has helped the cocktail movement and vice-versa. “I don’t think without that big cocktail movement, local distillers would even be thinking about opening in D.C.”
Just as so many cocktail bars riff on the speakeasy culture of the ‘20s, Uselton and Lowe are trying to play up D.C.’s Prohibition history in their product. Their first gin will be called Green Hat Gin, a nod to bootlegger George Cassiday, who supplied members of Congress with illegal liquor between 1920 and 1930. Cassiday set up shop in the House’s Cannon Office Building and later in the Senate’s Russell building. He wore a green fedora, giving him the moniker “The Man in the Green Hat.”
Uselton and Lowe learned about Cassiday from Peck’s Prohibition in Washington, D.C., which came out in March 2011. Lowe took Peck out to lunch at Northside Social in Arlington and told him they wanted to pay homage The Man in the Green Hat, to whom Peck devotes an entire chapter.
Peck then put them in touch with George Cassiday’s youngest son, Fred, a retired U.S. Air Force Reserve sergeant who lives in Fairfax County. They met for beers at ChurchKey in Logan Circle. Fred recounted stories of his father: how he didn’t even know about his dad’s bootlegging past until he was a teenager, and how his mother had burned a book listing all his customers in Congress. Uselton and Lowe told Fred about the plans for the distillery and the Green Hat Gin.
“It was an homage to my dad that was long overdue,” Fred says. He told them he’d be happy to help out at the distillery any time, even if it was just to clean up the place.
Fred also gave them his blessing to use his father’s moniker—on one condition. When the gin is bottled up and ready to go, he wants the first case. CP
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery