This Community-Oriented Distillery Wants You to Drink Up Washington, DC

This Community-Oriented Distillery Wants You to Drink Up Washington, DC

How two DC distillers created a booze business that's forming the city they want to live in.
September 13, 2016, 9:00pm

Fifty thousand dollars in 36 hours. $75,000 in a week. Eventually a grand total of $119,643. It's the type of crowd-funding success story that many entrepreneurs dream about. And it was all for booze: a sustainable, community-oriented, female-owned whiskey and vodka company. In Washington DC, Republic Restoratives co-founders Pia Carusone and Rachel Gardner are trying to create the city that they want to live in, fueled by local spirits.

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"We both grew up in a very small town. Our parents were friends and our fathers did business together, and their offices are right across the street from each other on Main Street in Saratoga Springs, New York," says Carusone. "[So] we get what it's like to be a part of a community as business owners, and look out for each other… we're creating the city we want to live in. We're really excited to be a part of it."

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Aging barrels at the distillery. All photos by the author.

The Republic Restoratives co-founders are keen on collaborating with other DC businesses and entrepreneurs, splitting the building they call home with prominent DC food incubator, Union Kitchen.

The duo is blending their unique backgrounds—Carusone's politics and consulting experience and Gardner's sustainable natural resource development—for a fresh approach to running their business. Together, they believe that good booze is at the center of good times and a great community.

"The crowd-funding campaign that we ran is not too dissimilar from grassroots fundraising," explains Carusone. "In terms of needing to find a way to motivate people and connecting them to the work that we're doing and making them feel that they actually are a part of it, which they are."

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Republic Restoratives co-founders Rachel Gardner, left, and Pia Carusone, right, in their tasting room.

Since Republic Restoratives opened several months ago, Carusone and Gardner have been hitting the ground running with an impressive allotment of novel ideas, at the top of which is the aforementioned sustainable focus. "We really tried to incorporate principles of environmental sustainability into every level of what we're doing," says Gardner. "We are pretty resource conscious."

For instance, they have a 1,000 gallon water tank on the roof which they re-circulate to cool and condense the vapor after distillation. "Our calculations project that we'll be able to save 7 million gallons of water per year," says Gardner. The team is using everything from industrial fans for both air circulation and to cool things down a touch in the summer at the warehouse, to tankless hot water heaters and bain marie kettles for their still, which is heated from mineral oil rather than water.

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Their first product available for sale is Civic Vodka, a smooth corn vodka that's filtered for a week in activated coconut shell carbon at a consumer friendly price: $29. But there's much more on the way, including bourbon, rye whiskey, single malt whiskey, and fruit brandies.

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While utilizing their shared strengths and skills in the beginning, Carusone and Gardner quickly recognized what they didn't know and hired a master distiller. "We just thought, 'You know what? We're not experts in this so let's have somebody help and make us experts,'" explains Carusone. First impressions are huge for craft companies looking to connect with local consumers, and they didn't want to flop. "Mistakes always happen, but we didn't want them to be so large that they were going to affect the future of the company," she says.

They tabbed Rusty Figgins to help design their facility and show them the ropes. "Rusty designed this still. He's a total jack of all trades," says Carusone. Figgins also helped troubleshoot logistical aspects of the operation, such as the pump system which takes the spirit straight to the second floor warehousing room, allowing their barrels to be filled in the same place.

But the still itself is worthy of a closer look. Dubbed the "Friggin' Figgins Reciprocator," it's a reciprocating still, a unique setup made from stainless steel and split into two equal halves, leading to faster, more efficient heating, and added longevity. It's the largest still of its kind, with only a handful of others in the country.

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Copper is used only where it's needed to remove sulfur and other compounds which produce undesirable flavors from the vapor. "What we have are copper bubble plates: six plates in that system with nested bubble caps and an inordinate amount of surface area," Gardner explains. Before anyone balks at a still being made from steel rather than copper, consider that many of the large column stills powering the major bourbon players in this country have long been rigged in just this way, with copper only in place where it's interacting with the vapors.

Another unique choice is that they plan on aging their bourbon entirely in 132-gallon puncheon casks, two and a half times larger than the American standard 53-gallon barrel. "Google tells us we'll be the first puncheon-aged bourbon in the world," says Carusone. The trend with craft spirits is to use small barrels rather than large ones, as it increases the spirit's interaction with the wood, speeding the aging process. Therefore, this is another divergence from the direction of many startup distilleries, and a refreshing, innovative move in the other direction, but it's going to take some time to get that product to shelf.

"We're hoping to have an early version out in two years," says Gardner. "But something Pia and I promised each other in the beginning is that we're not going to rush it, and we would never put something in the bottle that we're not proud of or that we wouldn't drink ourselves."

republic restoratives Distillary in Washington DC

In the meantime, they'll begin releasing a series of sourced whiskeys which they're finishing in different casks. This process allows them to play with blending barrels in the warehouse, have a whiskey on the market and in their own on-site craft cocktail bar, The Ivy Room. They're taking advantage of fairly recent changes to DC law, which allows distilleries (as manufacturers) to obtain a special permit for making and selling alcoholic beverages.

"A year and a half ago, you couldn't do this," says Carusone. "We were already in the middle of our plans when the law changed to allow us to actually operate what is basically a bar."

Cocktails are around $9, and in a town like Washington, DC, it's a very a welcomed deal.

"We feel very strongly that [the distillery] makes a difference for DC in terms of its direction for its future," says Carusone. "Are we a city that has a diverse business base and economy, with manufacturers and makers doing all sorts of cool stuff? Or are we quasi- suburban sprawl filled with Targets and Starbucks? We hope it's the former."