Five Spirited Washington Destinations
George Washington is best known as the first president of the United States, but he also operated the nascent country's first commercial distillery, located near his Mount Vernon, Va., home.
His distilling acumen, like his military prowess, was as spirited as it was profitable.
The same may be said for the growing number of craft distillers in the U.S. today. Today more than 600 micro distilleries dot the map from Pasadena, Calif., to Portland, Maine. That may be a drop in the mash tun compared to the more than 8,400 wineries and 3,000-plus craft breweries and brewpubs that populate the landscape, but the trend to distill locally rather than drink globally is growing, and rapidly, too.
Depending on how you define distilleries and, for that matter, metro Washington, D.C., and its reaches, the district can claim four different distillate enterprises as its own.
Three businesses are full grain-to-glass distillers, while one producer sources his alcohol elsewhere and then creates delightful and unique Italian liqueurs.
Add George Washington's former distillery to the mix, back in operation on a limited basis since 2007, and the number rises to five.
Not all of them offer the same amount of sipping opportunities, but the five spirited destinations speak to Washingtonians’ local and historic preferences when tippling a spirited glass or two.
Washington's Mount Vernon
3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway
Mount Vernon, Va. 22121
As a historic destination, George Washington's Mount Vernon offers a great deal more than a distillery. In fact, those who expect to belly up to Washington's bar and tipple a few with the ghost of one of America's founding fathers will be disappointed.
The distillery is very small part of the operation and runs infrequently throughout the year. But those interested in the history of distilling, as well as the history in general, may consider Mount Vernon, run as a nonprofit enterprise by the Ladies of Mount Vernon of the Union, a must-visit.
George Washington's distillery was recreated and remains operational today to show the entrepreneurial side of America's first president.
It's not that Washington had the country's only distillery in the late 18th Century, but he did have the largest one. Since it was the only one commercially producing spirits, it also was the most profitable.
At the time, small rural distilleries were commonplace, and an 1810 census lists as many as 3,600 stills operating in Virginia alone. Washington's distillery was by far the largest, consisting of five copper pot stills that boiled their wort 12 months out of the year.
The distillery's output grew from 600 gallons in 1797 to nearly 11,000 gallons in 1799 – the year Washington died – and that year earned the founding father a tidy profit of $7,500 ($120,000 by today's standards.)
As you might imagine, Washington was not a teetotaler, and spirited beverages played an important role in the social life of the American colonies. The first president enjoyed fortified wines like Madeira and port, as well as rum punch, porter and whiskey. He was aware of the dangers of drinking alcohol to excess and always practiced moderation, or so history tells us.
Washington also was a slave owner, and six slaves helped farm manager John Anderson, who had dabbled in distilling in his native Scotland, create what for the time was a very large yield. History tells us that slaves Hanson, Peter, Nat, Daniel, James and Timothy were among the country's first commercial distillers.
The distillery closed in 1799, but was resurrected as part of the site's restoration and reopened for business in 2007. The Mount Vernon staff produces whiskey several times a year under the guidance of former Maker's Mark distiller Dave Pickerell and with the help of the experts from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States using Washington's original recipes.
Two types of whiskey are available for purchase at Mount Vernon and by mail order pending availability. George Washington Rye Whiskey ($98) and George Washington Straight Rye Whiskey ($188) are distilled in the spring then again around the holidays, according to Melissa Wood, Mount Vernon's media relations director.
Those interested in purchasing a bottle should sign up for Mount Vernon's whiskey notification e-mails to learn when the bottles will be available for sale. Visit /www.mountvernon.org/the-estate-gardens/distillery/current-day-whiskey-production/ for more details
“Most people know George Washington as the first president, Wood said. “Most people do not know that Washington was a thriving entrepreneur. The reconstructed distillery shows a different side to the first president - one of business man.”
New Columbia Distillery/Green Hat Gin
1832 Fenwick St. NE, Washington, D.C.
Tours and tastings every Saturday 1 – 4 p.m.
John Uselton, who with fellow distiller and father-in-law Michael Lowe opened New Columbia Distillery in 2012, happily told the tale of The Man in the Green Hat, after whom the distillery's signature gin is named.
When George Cassiday returned home to D.C. after World War I, as the story goes, he needed a job. The country was in the throws of Prohibition, so a friend suggested he supply bootleg liquor to legislators on Capitol Hill. As his client list of legislators grew, the lawmakers found space for Cassiday in the basement of the Cannon House Office Building, where he carried on his illicit trade for almost five years.
Capitol Police eventually uncovered his operation and in 1925 arrested him while he was carrying a load of bottled beverages into the building. A sympathetic The Washington Post reporter witnessed the arrest and identified him simply as “a man in a green hat” is his brief arrest report. He seemingly was not prosecuted at that time.
“Cassiday eventually moved his operation into the Russell Senate Office Building, where he operated for another five years,” said Uselton, who formally worked in the food and beverage industries. “He began writing articles for the Post about Prohibition and why it wasn't working that spread to newspapers across the country, and he always signed his work ‘The Man in the Green Hat.’”
Prohibition was repealed on Dec. 5, 1933, but there were no distilleries operating with D.C. until Uselton and Lowe, a former regulatory lawyer who came out of retirement to make gin, opened New Columbia. He pair served apprenticeships at Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane, Wash., to learn their trade. Uselton and his wife Elizabeth Lowe and Lowe and his wife Melissa Kroning own the business, according to the New Columbia website.
New Columbia is a “grain-to-glass” operation, buying grain from northern Virginia growers and distilling it on site into four kinds of gin that vary based both on their strength and botanicals.
Green Hat Distilled Gin, the pair's signature brand, features a juniper nose, hints of citrus, black pepper and coriander. Spring/Summer, a seasonal variation available in March, maintains the juniper and citrus backbone, but adds cherry and clover blossoms that give the gin a light, floral quality suitable for summer drinks.
Fall/Winter exchanges spring flowers for a earthier base of caraway, dill and rye, which Uselton likens to a blend of gin and aquavit, a hearty Scandinavian liqueur. The distillery also produces Navy Strength, a 114-proof gin that has its own backstory.
“In the British navy, part of the sailors’ pay came in drams of rum or gin,” Uselton said. “To make sure the gin wasn't watered down, the sailors would add gunpowder to it. If the gunpowder still burned, they new they had gotten their full-strength share.”
Uselton, who is currently barrel-aging the distillery's first batch of apple brandy a back room for future release, admits he hasn't yet tried the gunpowder trick.
One Eight Distilling
1135 Okie St. NE, Washington, D.C.
Tours and tastings every Saturday from 1 – 4 p.m.
Brand name creation can be challenging, but it's rare to find a name both literal and obscure at the same time. One Eight Distilling, located mere blocks fro New Columbia, has done just that.
One Eight is named for Article One, Section Eight of the U.S. Constitution, which, among other things, provides for the establishment of a specific district to serve as the nation's capital, according to Alexander “Sandy” Wood, CEO and co-founder of the distillery.
Wood is a former immigration lawyer who abandoned the bar to start a business that would eventually help stock bars. Partner Alex Laufer is a one-time biotechnologist, caterer and Wood's former roommate from their undergraduate days at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
One Eight's Ivy City Gin celebrate the neighborhood in which the distillery is located.
“It wasn't any one particular thing that brought us here, we just found the business of distilling spirits compelling,” Wood said. “We put together a business case and one thing just led to another.”
One Eight began its planning and development in 2013, distilling its first batch in December 2014. This past January the distillery opened its doors to what Wood described as a very appreciative Washington audience.
“Everyone was very receptive and very thirsty,” Wood said. “Lawyers are famously thirsty. We’re the second distillery to open in D.C. and we’re getting great traffic at our Saturday tastings.”
Laufer is head distiller, with Wood, as expected, handling the legal and paper work. Both men trained at different distilleries, and Laufer took a distilling course at Chicago's Siebel Institute of Technology, one of the countries leading sources of beer and spirit-making expertise. Wood spent time at Springbank Distillery, one of the last surviving producers of Campbeltown single malts in western Scotland.
“They make some lovely scotch here,” he said.
Alexander “Sandy” Wood (left) and Alex Laufer opened D.C.'s second distillery just this year.
The pair choose to work mostly with rye, the region's traditional distilling grain, and it forms the basis of both their District Made Vodka and Rock Creek White Whiskey, an un-aged distillate available now at the distillery's tasting room. Wood and Laufer currently are aging both rye and bourbon in barrels at the distillery, a process that helps give whiskey its familiar auburn hue.
“District Made Vodka is the first vodka to be made in D.C. since Prohibition,” Wood said, “Later this spring we’ll be releasing our gin. We’re still tinkering with the recipe.”
Using rye to make vodka is a little unusual, Wood admits, and many distillers steer clear of rye because it's more difficult grain with which to work. However, the distillers at One Eight think it is worth the extra effort.
“Rye has a peppery flavor that we found appealing,” Wood said. “However, it converts less sugar to alcohol than either corn or wheat, so its takes a little more effort.”
The company may be new, but distribution throughout D.C. has been very successful thus far. Wood said the stage is set to broaden One Eight's sales network to include Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
“The next big thing will be our in and we’re super-excited about its release,” Wood said.
Catoctin Creek Distillery
20 W. Main St., Purcellville, Va. 20132
Tasting room open Tues. – Fri 1 – 5 p.m., Sat. noon – 7 p.m., Sun. 1-6 p.m. Reservations required: www.catoctincreekdistilling.com/store/distillery-shop
It's been said that farmers make wine, but engineers make beer and spirits. At Catoctin Creek Distillery, located one hour from downtown D.C. (Photo credit: Firefly Imageworks) in the heart of Virginia's wine country, that description in a literal one.
Married couple Scott and Becky Harris, who opened the distillery in 2009, are engineers by training in and trade. Scott graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, with a degree in software engineering and spent 20 building software systems in the telecommunications industry and for the U.S. government. Becky graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison with a degree in chemical engineering and created industrial processes and production systems for companies like Amoco and CIBA.
“I spent 20 years in government contracting and that led me to a great love of drinking,” Scott said. “I was turning 40 and maybe it was a midlife crisis, but I knew I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in a cubicle. So we made a plan.”
The plan resulted in the opening of Virginia's first distillery since Prohibition. It's located in the Loudin Valley, considered D.C.'s wine country.
Catoctin is an Indian name meaning “a place of many deer” and refers to the neighboring mountain range and the creek, which flows into the Potomac River at the Chesapeake Watershed.
Becky relies on her chemical engineering training as head distiller to produce a line of organic and kosher spirits. Her most popular distillate, Roundstone Rye, is made from organic grain in a pre-Prohibition style using a recipe of the time.
Using organic grain gives the whiskey a more authentic flavor, since all grain grown in early America was organic. Rye was the favored grain of the mid-Atlantic region, but it wasn't the American colonies’ first distillate. (Photo credit: Jay Cliburn)
“When the country first started, most settlers were drinking rum distilled all along the coast from cane sugar brought from the British West Indies,” Scott Harris said. “During the Revolutionary War, the Brits got pissed off at us and cut off the sugar supply, so local distillers turned to rye.”
Catoctin Creek makes a line of popular spirits, including Watershed Gin, Short Hill Mountain Peach Brandy and Mosby's Spirit, the closest thing to traditional moonshine. The distiller barrel-ages some of its products, storing the casks in a nearby barn much the way early distillers did.
“The hot and cold weather drives the whiskey in and out of the wood like a sponge, which gives it depth and character,” Scott said. “Plus, not having 30-gallon containers full of explosive alcohol in the distillery helps with fire regulations, as well as freeing up space.”
The distiller distributes up and down the East Coast, as well selectively throughout the country, recently entering the California market.
“We also have foreign distribution in Singapore and will soon be entering Germany,” Scott said. “That's our next big step and we’re very excited.”
Don Ciccio & Figli
6031 Kansas Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.
Private tastings by appointment Saturdays from 1- 4 p.m.
Spirits-maker Francesco Amodeo had to climb a mountain in his native Italy to discover how to blend one his most popular liqueurs. It utilized a recipe that the Franciscan monks who created it weren't easily going to give up.
“I went to the Convento di Francesco di Tramonti in Polvica to ask for the recipe to their special herb liqueur, but they refused to give it to me,” said Amodeo, founder of Don Ciccio & Figli, a Washington, D.C., liqueur bottler. “Instead, they gave me a bottle and told me I should figure it out for myself.”
A year later, after multiple tries, he created Concerto, one of the eight traditional Italian liqueurs his firm blends in his D.C. facility using alcohol produced by a Connecticut distillery. Amodeo sells his line in markets from California to Chicago and New Orleans to Atlanta.
The dark liqueur is produced by soaking a “concert” of 15 herbs and spices, barley coffee and espresso in grain alcohol for 60 days, resulting in both a balanced and truly unique flavor. The ingredient count has been reduced from the original 27 spices because the flavor would have been too strong for American palates, Amodeo said.
The distiller returned to the monastery with a sample of what he had produced, but the monks still refused to give him the recipe. However, they did show him the process by which the liqueur was made because he had proven himself worthy in their eyes.
Although launched in D.C. in 2012, Amodeo traces the company's roots back to the work of his grandfathers, who lived and worked on Italy's Amalfi coast. Their small distillery, which opened in 1883, operated for nearly 100 years until a massive earthquake closed it permanently in 1980. A hospitality industry veteran and trained sommelier, Amodeo has brought back the tradition of his family and the long lost recipes of traditional Italian liqueurs.
“Limoncello is really the only one that survived in today's market,” said Amodeo, who has a limoncello in his line. “We wanted to bring the historic styles back to life to give bartenders new ingredients to try.”
Amodeo's line includes Nocino, made with unripe green walnuts and spices; Finochietto, produced using fennel; and Fico d’India, made with the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, which grows wild along the Amalfi coast. Amodeo employs six researchers in Italy, who comb the country for traditional liqueur recipes.
The most notable entry may be the Amaro delle Sirene, known for its aroma of eucalyptus, gentian and rhubarb and flavors of anise and coffee on the palate.
The last Amaro was produced in Italy in 1931, and Amodeo's is pleased to bring it back for a whole new generation to try.
“With just one taste people can understand the meaning of our concept,” Amodeo said.