Monday, January 26, 2015

On the DC Distilling Trail

Ivy City is littered with scrappy warehouses, pot-holed streets and, well, ivy, which climbs up abandoned buildings and wire fences. But this industrial neighborhood off New York Avenue in Northeast DC is home to a thriving scene: urban distilling.

Michael Lowe explains how Green Hat is made.
New Columbia Distillers kicked off the DC spirit buzz a few years ago with their Green Hat gin. (“DC Distiller Brings Spirit Back to the Capital”). Owner and founder Michael Lowe got bored with retirement after a career as an attorney, so he decided to open a distillery, which is located at 1832 Fenwick Street NE. After an apprenticeship in Washington State, he is proud to be at the helm of this “grain to glass” distillery. “We wanted to control the whole process,” he said, everything from the source of the raw ingredients to the final botanical blend.

Green Hat gin starts off with soft red winter wheat from Virginia — 1,200 pounds per batch of gin. Lowe uses a custom copper pot still from German maker Carl to distill their spirit. So far Green Hat has bottled two spirits. The “Spring/Summer” gin, their staple, is flavored with a blend of 12 botanicals. It has a really spicy and floral aroma, and a pleasant citrus and pepper twist on the palate. The “Fall/Winter” blend is a more intensely herbal gin, with less grapefruit and citrus peel and more spice, stemming from the addition of caraway, dill and star anise.

The standard gin works well with the classic citrus-dominated cocktails, a tonic, a fizz or a Tom Collins. I’d be happy to sip some of the winter blend on the rocks or perhaps mix up a martini with some vermouth and a stuffed olive.

Paying homage to the mid-Atlantic’s long history of producing rye whiskey, Green Hat will put out a District-made rye in the next year or two. Right now it’s sleeping in American white oak barrels, and Lowe said the tasting panel is waiting until it’s ready to bottle. A Navy strength gin is also in the works.

Green Hat Gin is currently distributed in DC, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, but Lowe hopes to expand beyond this central area. You can currently find Green Hat at lots of DC-area shops and restaurant bars. Tours and tastings are available on Saturdays from 1-4.

It's not ready yet, but I'm looking forward to trying Green Hat's next spirit, a whiskey made from Virginia rye.

When you visit, leave time for the second leg of the trip. Right around the corner, the folks at Ivy City’s second distillery, One-Eight, are also working on some white spirits. Apparently, the route to a DC distillery goes through the attorney’s office. One-Eight is also the product of an attorney-turned-distiller, Sandy Wood, who left law for spirits.

One-Eight derives its name from Article 1, Secion 8 of the U.S. Constitution, which establishes DC as America’s capital city. Located at 1135 Okie Street NE, One-Eight has a great spot in a large brick building with a spacious tasting room, a long bar and a series of dining tables.

When I showed up during their Saturday tour and tasting, they were pouring two spirits, their District Made Vodka and Rock Creek White Whiskey. (Their Ivy City Gin was unavailable when I visited in late January, but will be available for tasting and purchase in February 2015.)

I’m not much of a vodka fan, but the One-Eight vodka is quite tasty and much more distinctive than your average mass-produced import. Made from corn, rye and malted rye, it shows a peppery kick on the finish. The Rock Creek White Whiskey (which is white because it isn’t aged in barrels) is made from rye grown in the surrounding states. It shows a rich and creamy body with flavors of malt and white pepper.

One-Eight opened to the public on January 10, but they’re already doing an excellent job connecting with locals. Open for tastings and tours on Saturdays from 1-4, the place was packed with interested guests during my visit.

If you’re hungry after sipping on some spirits, you can grab some food from one of the food trucks parked outside. And One-Eight has a lot more in store, including the release of a single malt whiskey, a bourbon and a barrel-aged rye.

If I was a bartender, I’d want all of these DC spirits on my bar. I’d come up with some DC-themed cocktails and spread the word that cocktail drinkers can go local.

We’ve yet to see DC’s full potential as a hub of urban distilling. Two more distilleries are slated to open in Ivy City this year alone.

We may not have voting rights in Congress, but DC spirits are alive and well. And it’s only going to get better.

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