Ivy City distiller Joseph A. Magnus recently laid off about half of its full-time employees, including master distiller Nicole Hassoun, and has temporarily closed its tasting room and bar for renovations.
The company faced calls for a consumer boycott last year due to its financial ties to Trump Administration Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, but general manager Ali Anderson says the turnover is part of a new national growth strategy.
There are now four full-timers left at the company. The first job Anderson is looking to fill a D.C.-based regional sales position to free up more of her time on a national level.
Anderson says the company terminated five full-time employees, along with the nearly 10 part-time employees working at its interior tasting room and cocktail lounge, dubbed The Murray Hill Club. Those operations shut down a few weeks ago, and Anderson hopes to reopen with a new look and pared-down cocktail menu by Memorial Day. Production, blending, and aging is still happening at the location (2052 West Virginia Avenue NE).
One affected staffer, who requested anonymity, says the layoffs were “unexpected,” adding there was “shock” about Hassoun being let go.
Peter Boardman, who comes from Philadelphia Distilling Co. (Bluecoat Gin), is taking Housser’s post. Boardman arrived last year around the same time Anderson was promoted from sales director. The company also added a new vice president of production, Thom Spelde. Master blender Nancy Fraley remains on board.
“We are grateful for all those staff who helped us in our startup phase,” says Anderson, who was promoted from sales director last month. “Now we are really transitioning to a more national stage. So we had to bring on experienced staff to help us do that.”
Boardman will help oversee production and the construction of a new barrel warehouse facility in Virginia to meet demands related to heightened distribution.
“We took on some big states at the end of the year,” Anderson says.
The company’s bourbon and gin products are sold in 27 states and D.C. Recent additions include Ohio and Michigan.
Last year’s revelation on 60 Minutes that DeVos is a partial investor in the brand prompted some people to call out the D.C. distillery on social media.
“I think we have all moved on from that,” Anderson says of the initial backlash related to DeVos’ ties. DeVos chairs a large backer of Jos A. Magnus: Michigan-based investment and management firm The Windquest.
“While Windquest is one of several key investors, they do not dictate my strategy as a GM,” she says, adding DeVos “is not” and “won’t be” a board member at the bourbon brand.
Anderson says the company has invited bar staff to return to work when the updated D.C. tasting room and cocktail lounge reopens with a new look a few months.
“We want to make it a little more in line with our pre-Prohibition heritage,” Anderson says. The company was started by the great-grandson of distiller Joseph Magnus, who started bobbling bourbon in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1890s.
Artifacts from that era — on loan from the Magnus family archives — will be displayed across the refurbished space. The renovation “is not going to be crazy with walls knocked down or anything,” she adds. Expect slimmed-down cocktail offerings, both classic and Prohibition style.
“We want to start fresh with what the upscale brand should be,” she says.
Its star bourbon, sourced from the MGP distillery in Indiana, gets aged in a mix of sherry and cognac barrels. The spirit picked up the prestigious Double Gold medal and Best Special Barrel-Finished Bourbon at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2016. A limited edition bourbon, J.A. Magnus Reserve ($1,000 a bottle), was released in 2017 with only 192 bottles made. The company also makes a London-style dry Vigilant Gin.
Around 150 local bars serve Magnus products, Anderson says.
“We are grateful to have a great reception nationally and we want to sustain that and are appreciative of our D.C. roots here,” she says, adding “we don’t want to be everywhere. We are curating everything.”
Some aren’t pleased about how the brand is handling expansion.
“Look further into our investments and see how that’s changed the distillery. It’s not the culture we were brought into, from a local D.C. distillery to [where it is] now,” the anonymous employee says.