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Behind the bar at The New Elroy, alongside the Jim Beam and Patron, sit several new bottles: Durante Rum, Seven 16 Vodka, E’Thal 56 Vodka, Ma’Hees Brandy, Sankofa Gin, and Whiskey Wright. They stand out because they all come from local Black entrepreneurs. Donna Durante-Miller owns the H Street NE bar, which has become a hub for sampling Black-owned spirits like her namesake rum.
Even though figures like Nathan “Nearest” Green, a formerly enslaved person who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey are present throughout the history of American spirits, the industry is dominated by White men. None of the distilleries in D.C. proper are Black-owned, even though the District’s population is roughly half Black. Six newcomers hope to shake up the market.
Given the high costs of distilling in D.C., the business owners behind the young brands distill out of Whiskey Wright’s facility near Charlottesville, Virginia. You can find the products in pockets of D.C. and Maryland, bringing locals a taste of something different—whether that’s Sankofa’s berry-forward gin or Whiskey Wright’s smoked cherrywood whiskey.
Edwin Wright laid the foundation for these brands to succeed by opening his Virginia distillery in 2018. His business partner, Ray Robinson, visited The New Elroy the same year and chatted up Durante-Miller. She spoke of her desire to produce rum and the inspiration she took from watching her grandmother make it during the summers she spent in Puerto Rico. They helped each other out. The New Elroy became the first bar to serve Whiskey Wright and the Charlottesville distillery helped Durante-Miller realize her dream of recreating her grandmother’s rum.
“It was meant to be,” Wright says. Durante-Miller shared what she remembered about her grandmother’s recipe and they refined the flavor profile over several tastings. Durante debuted in 2019. The other entrepreneurs forged similar paths.
In addition to supporting Black entrepreneurship, the incentives for Wright are financial. The biggest spirit companies have diverse portfolios. Diageo, for example, is behind dozens of brands from Johnnie Walker to Captain Morgan. Locally, distilleries like Jos. A. Magnus offer both Joseph Magnus Bourbon and Vigilant Gin. Wright wanted similar flexibility.
That reasoning gave rise to Seven 16 Vodka, whose owners are investors in the distillery. “We elected to move our portion to a new brand that had to be developed, but one that we could come up with,” says co-owner Aaron Person. They went with vodka because they like the neutral spirit and thought it would play well with consumers who don’t enjoy whiskey. Seven 16 Vodka was ready in 2019, but the pandemic delayed its release. Its name comes from the legislation that created the District in 1790. The Residence Act passed on July 16.
Renae Davis created E’Thal 56 after picking up on the business potential at a Durante rum launch party. The spirit is named after Davis’ mother, Ethel Callahan, who was born in 1956. “I can have other people help me celebrate my mom in a good way,” she says. “That’s just bringing family and friends together.” It’s 80 proof, compared to 100-proof Seven 16 vodka. They taste different because of distinct filtration processes.
Sankofa’s founders knew Person and saw an opportunity to create a fruit-forward alternative to commonly found dry gins like Tanqueray and Beefeater. “First rule of business is don’t start a business,” says co-founder Mike Lee. “Fill a void.” E’Thal and Sankofa debuted in 2020 and 2021, respectively. (Sankofa Gin is not affiliated with Sankofa Beer.)
Ma’Hees only launched this summer. Founder Glenn Stewart, Sr. became interested in distilling after meeting Robinson and seeing the potential to create a family business. The two-year brandy finishes with notes of cherry and vanilla. Because of Whiskey Wright’s small size, they source the unfinished brandy from a California distillery and age it at Whiskey Wright in French oak casks.
Given the barriers to entry in the distilling field, strategies like sharing a distillery or sourcing base spirits from existing distilleries are common and offer emerging producers a way in. A distillery license alone can be prohibitively expensive. In D.C., they cost $6,000 annually as compared to $2,000 in Maryland and $450 in Virginia. Factor in rent and opening in Virginia becomes an easy decision, especially with warehouse space being somewhat rare in the District.
Then there are required legal endorsements, like a federal Certificate of Label Approval. “The COLA process was challenging just because that was completely brand new,” Wright says. It took several tries to get the label wording approved. After opening the distillery, almost a year passed before Wright could actually make a sale. “We were young and hungry and thought, man, we’re gonna make this and we can make a whole bunch of money. It didn’t materialize as quickly as we thought it would.”
After that experience though, Wright was able to guide others through the same steps. “We’ve helped so many other people in this business [by] giving them a lot of information that a lot of other people wouldn’t give because they want to charge a lot of money for it,” Wright says. By now he feels he has the processes down pretty well.
Getting legal approval isn’t the same as getting into stores and bars. There are further hurdles. First, you have to find a willing distributor. “You have a product,” Wright explains. “You like it and other people like it, and you just expect the distributor to take it and make you a millionaire. That really doesn’t happen.” Larger distributors sometimes help with legal endorsements, like registering the brand in a new state, which can cost $500, according to Wright. “They’ll get you into more markets more quickly.”
But making those connections is difficult when a distributor feels that they are already full up on gins, for example. “Like with any industry,” says Sankofa co-founder Alpha Lee, “it’s more important who you know than what you know.” Alpha and Mike are brothers. Without a distributor, spirit owners are left going from one liquor store to another asking to hold tastings. This proved difficult in 2020. Person was told to return when more people recognized their vodka even though tastings are how spirit owners build that recognition.
Fortunately they found allies in The New Elroy, Minnesota Liquors in Randle Highlands, and Culture Coffee Too in Fort Totten. The liquor store sells the Black-owned liquor brands and the coffee shop hosted a series of tastings in partnership with DMV Black Restaurant Week.
Wright believes the role of distributors is waning, especially because the pandemic accelerated online ordering. “With the internet, it’s becoming less of a need,” he says. “People demanded certain things and that changed the industry.”
He hopes that Maryland will soon pass legislation mirroring a new law in Kentucky that allows distilleries to ship directly to consumers in states that have reciprocal laws. Legislation like this, Wright says, would be “momentous” for smaller distilleries that feel hampered by distributor fees. Most of Wright’s customers are in Maryland. The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control board briefly allowed distilleries to ship directly to consumers during 2020, but no longer.
Like with Wright and Durante-Miller finding each other at the right time, the distillers feel they’re hitting the market right when consumers are looking to support BIPOC-owned brands. “With all the social things going on in the past two years, there’s a lot of people that wanna buy Black,” says Mike from Sankofa. While distributors haven’t come easy, neighborhood tastings, like those at Culture Coffee Too, have been successful.
Wright calls it a renaissance for Black business owners. “[The industry] is dominated by White men, but it is very attractive because you wanna drink something that is made by somebody like you and you wanna support people who are building and trying to put money in your community,” he says, noting that he doesn’t charge Black-owned brands the prices they would potentially encounter if they tried to distill elsewhere. “You can be an entrepreneur, but if you can’t help other people be an entrepreneur, then what are you doing?”
Beyond creating a high-quality spirit, Wright stresses that ownership is critical. “One of the main things we started for was giving something to our kids,” he says. “Being able to provide something down the line.”
For the others, ownership holds the same appeal. “It’s about building something,” Stewart says. “My kids, my family—I gotta give them something before I leave this earth. My people, my family never had the chance to and I have this chance now. I put in all the leg work so that when they get older they don’t have to.”
You can find bottles at select stores throughout D.C. and Maryland, according to the founders. All of them are available at The New Elroy and Minnesota Liquors. Shop for Sankofa, Seven 16, and E’Thal 56 at Riggs Liquors in Fort Totten. Ma’Hees and Whiskey Wright are for sale at Good Ole Reliable Liquors in Langdon. Durante and E’Thal 56 can be found at Kovak’s in Trinidad. Seven 16 and Whiskey Wright are on the shelves at the Georgia Avenue Food Barn in Brightwood.