The first legal (a very important distinction) distillery in the District in more than 100 years is kind of a big deal. Inspired by the city's Prohibition history and the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do attitudes of Congress, New Columbia Distillers named its gin after a bootlegger who provided the lawmaking men with a bit of a buzz. The distillery's Green Hat Gin is small batch with year-round, fall/winter, and spring/summer blends.
Even though the distillery just hit its first year anniversary, it's already making its mark on the city's cocktail scene. From 14th Street to H Street to Maryland, Green Hat Gin is appearing on many cocktail menus, and is even on tap (within cocktails) in a few spots. To talk about the spirit behind New Columbia Distillers' spirits, Michael Lowe, co-owner and distiller, and Saul Mutchnick, the man of many (not just green) hats, sat down for a few shots of gin and a well-mixed cocktail.
Why did the distillery decide to make gin?
Michael Lowe: Gin is making a serious resurgence. For decades, it was overshadowed by vodka. You know, after Ian Fleming wrote about vodka martinis, it took off from there. And we almost make a vodka on the way to making our gin, but we consider vodka kind of boring. It's weird to work hard on something and then have no flavor for the finished product.
Green Hat Gin is popping up everywhere. What are some of the newer places that offer your spirits?
Saul Mutchnick: Etto is a huge supporter, but there are many other restaurants like Doi Moi, 2 Birds 1 Stone, The Passenger, and Red Hen that use our gin. Teddy and the Bully Bar have the Sheeney's Rickey on tap that uses Green Hat. Mockingbird Hill has a kegged gin and tonic with custom tonics that JP Fetherston developed. Cleveland Park's Pulpo has Green Hat as well.
ML: And there are other places that use to the Green Hat like Smoke & Barrel, District Commons, and Poste. But for a complete list, we have a map on our website.
What about restaurants and bars outside of the city? Are you guys making any inroads in NoVa, MoCo, or even Baltimore?
SM: We're on the special order list with the Virginia ABCs [Alcohol Beverage Control stores]. And we're in the early stages of distribution in Maryland with a presence in Silver Spring's 8407 kitchen bar and several Baltimore and Bethesda restaurants.
ML: You know, in many states, distillers can't sell directly to restaurants and bars. Fortunately, DC is one of the few places where it's allowed to sell directly from the distillery.
How do you guys feel about other players jumping into the distillery game, such as the team behind Founding Farmers and Boundary Road?
SM: We've heard about a distillery coming next year and a few more coming down the pipeline.
ML: We feel that a rising tide raises all ships. And as long as people are making things the right way, then we welcome the additions. Even if there were six other distilleries in the city, small batch spirits would still have a tiny market presence.
SM: And there's always going to be the choice between speciality and generic products, but with the more people spreading the message about local products, the better. A
ML: And we know that if there's someone making 500,000 cases a year, there's no way they are doing it the way we're doing it.
How did you guys develop the recipe? How many iterations were there until you guys perfected it?
ML: To develop a recipe, we sit down and come together to figure out what's good to include. We make a test batch and figure out if we need more of this and less of that. And we keep doing it until it's right.
And now you guys are making the fall/winter style gin? How does that differ from your spring/summer blend?
ML: Our gins are made with a whiskey drinker in mind. They have these layers of complexity, and none of the gins have that strong juniper character that many other gins have. Our fall/winter gin is a very hearty gin, with caraway, star anise, and a range of traditional gin botanicals. Our spring/summer gin has clover flowers and rose petals with rosemary being the main herbal notes. The spring/summer gin will be available next April.
How do you guys drink your Green Hat gin?
ML: We really designed the gin with a whiskey drinker in mind, but with enough complexity, so you can drink it neat. But like 98% of gin is drank in cocktails. I haven't run into cocktails where Green Hat doesn't work. The savory flavor works great in a French 75. But I prefer a 6/1 or 8/1 martini with a twist.
SM: The spring/summer gin is great for aviations and fizzes. The year-around gin is perfect for a gin & tonic. And Fever Tree is a great tonic to use with the gin.
What's next for the distillery?
ML: We're working on developing recipes for rye whiskeys. So we hope that by January or February, we will be able to start with a few batches of whiskey. It will need to age in barrels for 3 to 5 years, but it depends on how it plays out. We know that for us, gin will keep the doors open, and we don't want to stray too far from that. Gin will always be number one.
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