When New Columbia Distillers opened in 2012, it didn’t have much of a tasting room. It still doesn’t. There’s a counter where visitors can sample its Green Hat Gin, but no bar stools.
But a new law went into effect this week that allows D.C. distilleries to sell cocktails on-site for the first time. The previous law restricted tastings of spirits to three ounces per person per day, for which distilleries could not charge customers.
As the founders of D.C.’s first legal distillery since before Prohibition, New Columbia owners John Uselton and Michael Lowe never really included cocktail sales in their business plan. After all, distilleries weren’t allowed to sell bottles on-premise or even offer tastings until they successfully pushed for it three years ago. Nonetheless, New Columbia plans to apply for this new “consumption permit” so they can offer a rotating selection of punch and a gin and tonic on tap. They may even add a six-seat bar. If and when the time comes for the operation to expand, the change in law will be a big factor in determining the space they choose.
“I would not open a distillery in D.C. right now and not have a sizable chunk for a tasting room,” Uselton says.
Until a few years ago, many of the rules surrounding the production of alcohol in D.C. had been gathering cobwebs. New Columbia, along with local breweries and the distilleries that have since joined them, have succeeded in pushing a series of regulatory fixes that added up to a big transformation for the booze scene.
In early 2012, breweries successfully lobbied for a law allowing on-site sales and free tastes. At the time, New Columbia was working toward its launch, but it was a little too late in the process to join in on that legislation. So Lowe, a former regulatory lawyer for Verizon, and Uselton pushed for their own distillery-specific legislation.
“That one was the hardest. It was just us. It was just John and me. You couldn’t make a big employment pitch,” Lowe says. “Nobody was thinking about distilleries and barely even thinking about the breweries. So we met with a lot of people on the Council, and everybody nodded their heads the right way, but nobody seemed interested in pushing it.” They did, however, finally get enough interest to get the laws changed in mid-2012.
Last March, the Council amended the law to allow breweries and distilleries to sell and deliver alcohol on Sundays. The change also grants alcohol manufacturers the ability to conduct tastings seven days a week rather than the previous limit of Thursday through Saturday. Around the same time, the D.C. government created a distillery pub permit that allows restaurants and bars to produce liquor on premise. Next came a provision that allows production breweries, distilleries, and future wineries to apply for an outdoor patio. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie championed most of these changes because his jurisdiction is home to most of the District’s distilleries and breweries.
“When I joined the Council [in 2012], the landscape for distilleries and breweries was almost entirely prohibitive,” McDuffie says. He’s worked to prove that distilleries can be good neighbors as well as generators of tax revenue for the District.
McDuffie also backed the latest law, which allows cocktails at distilleries. It has its roots in legislation that passed last summer giving breweries the ability to sell pints on premise for the first time. “Once the breweries got theirs passed so quickly, it was just kind of like, ‘Hey, you know what? We should be doing this too,’” says Uselton.
At the very least, it means people who visit the distillery don’t have to stomach straight liquor if they don’t want to. “It wasn’t clear whether we could dilute it, say, add some tonic to it,” Lowe says of the previous tasting rules. “We tended to serve straight gin tastes, and we still do.”
Ivy City’s One Eight Distilling, which officially launched at the beginning of the year with a huge tasting room, spearheaded the legislation with McDuffie’s help. (The law also allows future D.C. wineries to sell their wine on-site.) Unlike New Columbia’s first legislative effort in 2012, when they were on their own, several existing and future distilleries jumped on board to testify in favor of the new rules. The legislation also had the informal support of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington and from alcohol wholesalers.
“It went through that whole legislative process pretty smoothly,” says One Eight co-founder Alexander “Sandy” Wood. “What it means to [the D.C. Council] and the city is more jobs and more tax revenue, so there was a good deal of support for it.”
Wood believes the new law will eventually double the revenue from One Eight’s tasting room, which currently only sells bottles of vodka and white whiskey plus merchandise like flasks and t-shirts. (Granted, tasting-room sales are a fairly small portion of the business as a whole.) He says he’s not exactly sure what One Eight’s cocktail menu will look like yet, but there may be cocktail flights.
The ability to sell cocktails will also broaden the kind of private events One Eight can host. Previously, if a group wanted to host an event at the distillery, they had to use a loophole: bringing in a caterer who had their own liquor license.
Republic Restoratives, also opening in Ivy City this summer, is likewise planning to have a big tasting room featuring cocktails. Co-founders Pia Carusone, who previously worked for Democratic Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, and Rachel Gardner, who has a background in natural resource development, plan to focus on bourbon. They’ll also produce a charcoal-polished vodka and other cordials.
“I’ll tell you this, it’s made our investors a lot more interested,” says Carusone of the new law. “If you know nothing about this business… at least you know that the bar revenue tends to be the revenue that restaurants lean on. To have an additional source of revenue in the form of a cocktail bar is going to be helpful.”
At the same time, the Council didn’t want distilleries to operate full bars. One of the quirks of the consumption permit is that it requires at least half of the spirits in distillers’ cocktails to be produced on premise. So, for example, New Columbia Distillers, which currently produces only gin, can make a gin and tonic, because the majority spirit would be Green Hat Gin. However, it can’t serve a negroni because vermouth and Campari make up two-thirds of the alcoholic content. They also can’t serve beer and wine.
“In my conversations with the community, that’s not what they were supportive of,” McDuffie says of allowing distillers to operate full bars. Some neighbors are wary that full bars might draw unruly crowds or that bars might be able to open without having to go through the traditional public comment period that a tavern license entails. “They’ve had the experience with clubs and things like that in that type of neighborhood… I think they’re more interested in what they already have,” McDuffie says.
Distillers say they don’t really mind being restricted to serving primarily their own alcohol: They want to showcase their own spirits anyway. Plus, Ivy City, where all the distilleries are located, is not exactly a nightlife hotspot right now, so they don’t necessarily have an incentive to operate full bars. But as more retail and housing come to the mostly industrial neighborhood, that could change.
In some ways, the restriction against distilleries operating full bars contradicts other existing laws. If you have an alcohol manufacturing license, for example, you can not also have a tavern or restaurant license—the D.C. code considers that a conflict of interest. However, if you have a tavern or restaurant license, you can get a distillery pub permit, which allows you to manufacture alcohol. In layman’s terms, a distillery can’t become a bar, but a bar can become a distillery.
“It’s just a weirdness. I don’t think it was something that anybody intended,” New Columbia’s Lowe says. He brought up the contradiction to the Council but was not successful in getting it worked out. “My impression was that it just made the Council’s head hurt, so they ignored it.”
Still, Lowe says it doesn’t really affect his business, so he’s not pushing it. One Eight’s Wood says he might be interested in pursuing more permissive legislation around serving drinks in the distillery down the line, but “we’re pretty happy with the landscape as it is right now.”
Overall, local distillers say D.C. has been relatively flexible in upgrading the law. Federal laws are a different story. Many regulations still harken back to a time when liquor was a product of organized crime and killed drinkers if improperly made.
“It’s all just very, very old and needs updating,” Republic Restorative’s Carusone says. “But having spent a number of years working in Congress, updating the country’s liquor laws are not a top priority.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery