Craft distilling gins up attention in
Washington, D.C.

By Jenny Hopkinson

About halfway down a side street just off New York Avenue in the Ivy City neighborhood of Washington, D.C., is a low-slung warehouse with a black door. The building is unremarkable except for a small sign above the doorbell that simply says “Ring bell for gin.”

All photos by Jenny Hopkinson

Distiller Michael Lowe inspects a batch of Green Hat Gin going through the
still at New Columbia Distillers.

New Columbia Distillers, the brainchild of the father and son-in-law team of Michael Lowe and John Uselton, became the first distillery in D.C. since the end of prohibition when it opened last fall in that Ivy City warehouse. The first production batch of Green Hat Gin – named for the prohibition-era bootlegger to Congress who was known as the man in the green hat – was bottled on Oct. 1, 2012, and production has been growing to meet the demand ever since.

“Being first has helped us great deal, it got us a good deal of local attention, local press attention, and that got customers interested in what we are doing, and fortunately they’ve by-in-large liked our gin,” Lowe said. “So we are very pleased with how things have gone.”

Craft distilleries, like New Colombia Distillers are popping up all over the country, according to American Distilling Institute President Bill Owens. Craft distilleries are small-scale operations that produce less than about 34,000 cases of alcohol each year. By comparison, Tanqueray gin, owned by London-based beverage giant Diego plc, produces roughly two million cases each year.

'The internet changed everything'

The microbrewery and brew pub scene is already well established in the Washington D.C. area.

In 2003, there were only 69 craft distilleries in the United States. Now there are at least 600, a number that includes New Columbia Distillers, and the industry is expanding by about 30 percent each year.

“We are part of the general renaissance that has happened with coffee roasters, bakeries, breweries and other local businesses,” Owens said. “People want to buy local.”

There is already enthusiasm for locally made alcoholic beverages in the District. DC Brau, the first brewery since prohibition in Washington, D.C., opened in 2011 and has since been joined by three others -- in addition to three brew-pubs -- just within the city limits.

And New Columbia Distillers won't be the only maker of spirits in the District for much longer. One Eight Distilling is aiming to open in the spring, producing wiskeys, vodkas and other types of alcohol in addition to gin, just down the street in Ivy City.

Perhaps more important for the growth of craft distilleries, however, is the newfound ability to gather information on how to set one up, Owens said.

D.C. Distillery Survey

“The Internet has changed everything,” Owens said. Between purchasing a still and gaining regulatory approval, setting up a distillery is on average a two-year and $500,000 process – and one that has to happen before its clear if the final product is any good. Further, while it is legal for individuals to brew their own beer, the U.S. Department of the Treasury strictly regulates hard spirits, and it is against the law to distill without the proper license.

Because of those legal parameters, “libraries didn’t carry this information,” Owens said. As a result, prior to the advent of the Internet, those interested in distilling had nowhere to find out how to go about it.

For New Columbia Distillers, gaining regulatory approval from the city and the Treasury Department took a bit more than a year, though Lowe said: “it helped that I was a regulatory lawyer for about 30 years, so I wasn’t too intimidated by the process. But it still takes time.”

'What's more interesting than making whiskey'

In many ways Lowe, who picked up making gin as a hobby after in retirement, fits the profile of a craft distiller.

People getting into the industry are often doing it as a second career, Owens said, especially as compared to micro brewing, which attracts “a lot of kids with tattoos.” Many craft distillers are former doctors, engineers and lawyers, who “want to do something interesting, and what’s more interesting than making whiskey?”

Or, in Lowe’s case, gin.

Michael Lowe explains the process of making Green Hat Gin.

Lowe and Uselton are both fond of gin and have small personal collections. So when they decided to open a distillery, focusing on that spirit was a natural choice.

As an added benefit, gin is fairly easy to distill. Unlike whiskey, it does not need to be aged – a process that can take several years – and a batch from start to finish can be ready in just a month. The distillery, which makes summer and winter seasonal gins in additional to its regular version, runs about two batches a week, and has produced about 2,000 cases in its first year.

Barrels at New Columbia Distillers are put aside to age gin or other spirits.

That’s not to say that New Columbia Distillers will never branch into other liquors. Lowe says he is tinkering with a recipe for whisky, but given that once it is distilled it will need to age for several years, that spirit won't be ready anytime soon.

In the meantime, Green Hat Gin is available at more than 100 bars, restaurants and liquor stores across the D.C. area.

“People ask about Green Hat Gin all the time,” Terry Brown, wine manger at Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, said. “A lot of times people just come in and ask for the D.C. gin.”

The Massachusetts Avenue liquor store probably sells about five or six bottles a day, with higher amounts sold on weekends, Brown said.

“It’s good, it’s very good, and local, and that’s nice.”

Questions, comments, coctail recipees: