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Follow the little red llama markings to find D.C.’s newest distillery, tasting room, and bar opening this Friday. Then ready your tastebuds for some sweet heat. “Chacho is polarizing and I’m totally fine with that,” founder Daniel Ziegler readily admits. “When people like Chacho, they love Chacho.” Chacho Spirits replaces Don Ciccio & Figli at 6031 Kansas Ave. NW in Manor Park.
Ziegler was inspired to make Chacho after sampling aguardiente, the national drink of Colombia distilled from sugarcane. But instead of flavoring the spirit with anise, as is customary in Colombia, Ziegler infuses Chacho with fresh jalapeño for vegetal earthiness and a proprietary all-natural jalapeño extract that keeps the spice level consistently intense.
“If you go to Colombia and don’t have aguardiente, it would be like going to Mexico and not having tequila,” Ziegler says. He first tried aguardiente on a trip to Colombia in 2012 with two buddies. It was the Cincinnati native’s second trip outside of the U.S. and he couldn’t have predicted that a night of partying would lead to a business venture.
“Everyone could tell we were there to have a good time,” Ziegler recounts. Locals encouraged the entourage to try aguardiente, so they brought a couple of bottles back to their hostel before sightseeing. “We came across a local woman with a llama on the sidewalk. She was letting parents put their kids on it in the touristy part of town.” He wanted a turn. “I started riding it through the streets of Bogota drunk on aguardiente for the first time. The llama’s name was Chacho.”
Fast forward almost a decade from that trip and Ziegler’s brick-and-mortar business is days away from debuting. But Ziegler started selling Chacho five years ago. More than 100 bars and liquor stores already carry it and Ziegler thinks it’s gaining traction as a shot bartenders like to pour for their friends.
Ziegler started out using friends as taste testers while he finessed the formula using a pot still he bought off Craigslist. “For two and a half years, I was moonshining out of my kitchen, first in NoMa and then in Columbia Heights,” he explains. Then he graduated to producing Chacho in a distillery in Iowa and shipping it back to D.C. He signed the lease for the new space seven months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit D.C. and spent the past year readying the bar and production area for patrons.
There are distant plans to distill on site, but for now the plan is to keep importing the neutral cane spirit from South America. What remains is bringing down the proof, infusing the spirit with jalapeño, bottling it, and labeling it. In addition to standard Chacho, Ziegler makes a barrel-finished version that has a slightly higher ABV, a caramel color, and toasty bourbon notes. Chacho is currently using barrels from local distilleries like Republic Restoratives and Catoctin Creek.
A bottle of standard Chacho costs $25 and the barrel-finished version costs $30. But there’s much more to try when you visit the distillery’s bar, helmed by bar manager Greg Long. Look for a list of “Around Town” cocktails. They pay homage to the local bars that first served Chacho. There’s also a selection of familiar cocktails like a margarita, mojito, and Old Fashioned made with Chacho. See the bar menu below.
“I don’t need to be the most popular bar in town,” Ziegler says. “The goal is for people to come, learn about Chacho, see the applications, and then go to bars and liquor stories and drink it at home.”
Food trucks are part of the plan once business is buzzing. In the meantime, Chacho will serve a few items from a Colombian restaurant Ziegler grew fond of during the construction process, La Fonda Paisa in Silver Spring.
The bar area is a “boot-strapped” labor of love, according to Ziegler. Most of his venture is self-funded but he got some help crossing the finish line from a handful of investors, including Jonathan Murray. “Everything in here I built myself with the help of friends and family except the stools and the piano,” he says. The bar itself and other pieces of furniture are made of wood pallets, while the tables are fashioned from construction electrical reels. Ziegler and his pals even made a life-size Chacho the llama that patrons can hop on for a selfie.
At one end of the bar is a gallery of Colombian art that’s for sale. “Driven by my love for travel, I went back to Colombia in November 2020,” Ziegler says. He connected with some artists online in advance and he used his intermediate Spanish to seek out others while he was visiting. “I bought a bunch of paintings up front. It’s my first of hopefully several ways of trying to give back to the culture and country that inspired this whole thing. I’m marking them up 50 to 100 percent, with 100 percent of those proceeds going back into buying more art—one from the same artist, and one from another.”
Patrons can walk through the production area that displays art for sale from D.C. artists. That’s where Chacho will pour tasting flights that include the original Chacho, the barrel-finished Chacho, a new product Ziegler is working on, and traditional aguardiente so customers can understand his spirit’s origin.
To start, the bar at Chacho will be open Fridays from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Saturdays from noon to 10 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 8 p.m. They’ll take reservations while capacity limits are still in place. If the demand is there, Ziegler says they could expand on their hours of operation. Only indoor seating is available and the bar is on the second floor without elevator access.
As people come through he hopes to clear up the biggest misconception about Chacho—that it’s like tequila even though it’s closer to rum. “Every single person, if they like it, goes ‘This is the best tequila I’ve ever had!’ I don’t give a shit what you call it. If you’re drinking it, you can call it whatever you want.”
Ziegler knows how he’ll mark success. “I want people to go out and ask for a Chacho margarita,” he says. “If they ask for a Chacho margarita instead of a spicy margarita, that’s when I know mission accomplished.”
Chacho Spirits, 6031 Kansas Ave. NW; chachousa.com