Prohibition started in Washington, D.C., in 1917, three years earlier than it did in most parts of the country, fueling an active (if less-violent than “Boardwalk Empire”) speakeasy and bootlegging scene.
These days, there’s a spirited distilling revolution afoot again, though this time it’s legal, with artisanal hooch makers setting up stills in former warehouses and car dealerships. These alcohol entrepreneurs are concocting everything from Louisiana sugar-fueled rum to bitter Italian-style amaro.
Much of the action is happening in the Northeast quadrant of the city, not far from local breweries and the popular Union Market (the foodie epicenter of D.C.). Here are seven places showcasing D.C.’s “still life.”
Story: D.C.’s first post-Prohibition distillery opened in 2011 and named its signature tipple—Green Hat Gin—for the distinctive fedora of a local 1920s bootlegger. As the brainchild of two couples—Michael Lowe, his wife, Melissa Kroning, daughter Elizabeth Lowe and her husband, John Uselton—the way-beyond-bathtub hooch often stars seasonal botanicals, including celery, rosehips, even cherry blossoms, resulting in surprisingly herbaceous spirits.
Space: In a factory-cool space filled with copper and stainless steel tanks, staff dole out samples and cocktails (a D.C. Negroni using Green Hat and made-on-site rosé vermouth) and lead free tours. (Sat. 1-4 pm)
Sips: The trademark gin smacks of celery and herbs and works as well on its own or in a G&T. Capitoline Vermouth, also distilled here, comes in white and rosé varietals and makes a light aperitif or blending ingredient. 1832 Fenwick St. NE, 202.733.1710
Story: Husband-and-wife team Scott and Becky Harris oversee the region’s oldest distillery, set in a converted 1921 Buick showroom in downtown Purcellville, Virginia. Becky’s a former engineer, which explains the smartly made concoctions. Most products are both kosher and organic.
Space: The best seats at the U-shaped bar come with views of the burnished copper stills (“Big Boy” and “Barney”). Hooch is poured as samples or in highballs like gin-and-tonics. Frequent classes, bottling workshops, cocktail dinners and free tours add to the experience. (Tues.-Thurs. 1-5 pm, Fri. 1-7 pm, Sat. noon-7 pm, Sun. 1-6 pm)
Sips: A woody, caramel sipper that’s good on its own or in a Manhattan, Roundstone Rye has nabbed national honors like a 2016 “Good Food” award. The soothing, warm 1757 Virginia Brandy is the state’s first commercial grape brandy since colonial times. 120 W. Main St., Purcellville, Va., 540.751.8404
Don Ciccio & Figli
Story: Inspired by his family’s now-shuttered distillery on the Amalfi Coast, Italian-born Francesco Amodeo crafts amaros—bittersweet digestifs—with botanicals like nuts, fruits and herbs. Many of the varieties come from century-old recipes handed down to him.
Space: Exposed brick walls and a slick wooden bar make a snug zone for sampling the libations. (Sat. 1-4 pm)
Sips: Try the popular limoncello (for which Amodeo and his wife hand process all the citrus) and unusual Fico D’India, a zingy tipple made from prickly pear fruit. Many show up in cocktails mixed at local restaurants like Southern-tinged American haunt The Dabney in Shaw. 6031 Kansas Ave. NW, 202.957.7792
Jos. A. Magnus & Co.
Story: A team of D.C. cocktail and club vets opened this gin and bourbon distillery in Ivy City last year. The spot’s signature bourbon was inspired by a pre-Prohibition one crafted by Joseph A. Magnus, a Cincinnati spirits maker.
Space: Two bar rooms—the spacious Magnus Room and the snug Murray Hill Cocktail—boast speakeasy décor (leather chairs, a curvy vintage bar, displays of antique hooch bottles) and views into the tank-filled production room. Tours, samples and a menu of cocktails by the glass or pitcher create a festive vibe during weekend hours. Frequent classes on infusing and mixology add to the appeal. (Fri. 5-9 pm, Sat. 1-9 pm, Sun. 1-5 pm)
Sips: Vigilant Gin, produced by innovative co-owner Nicole Hassoun, proves a dry, aromatic quaff with citrusy notes. Cocktails, which change often, include blends like the Cranberry Key Lime Old-Fashioned using Magnus bourbon and lime ice. 2052 W. Virginia Ave. NE, 202.450.3518
Story: Sandy Wood worked as a lawyer and Alex Laufer toiled in biotech before they shook up their careers in 2014 to found this Ivy City distillery, where vodka, whiskey and gin are on the menu. The place gets its name from Article One, Section Eight, of the U.S. Constitution which called for the establishment of a district to serve as the nation’s capital.
Space: A redbrick warehouse holds the 2,000-square-foot tasting room where cement floors, long tables and ceilings with exposed pipes summon a Brooklyn-esque vibe. Free tours showcase the Dr. Seussian copper and steel distilling tanks and wooden cask-filled storage zones. (Sat. 1-5 pm)
Sips: The diverse lineup ranges from unaged Rock Creek White Whiskey to the dry, juniper berry-forward Ivy City Gin. Visitors sample them neat or in cocktails. A rotating cast of local food trucks parks outside most Saturdays. 1135 Okie St. NE, 202.636.6638
Cotton & Reed
Story: Reed Walker and Jordan Cotton met as NASA contractors and then bonded after hours over a love of micro-brewed beers and craft spirits. Their new distillery, opening soon near Union Market, focuses on small-batch rums with wine-like profiles.
Space: The pair transformed a 1930s ice storage warehouse with cement-block walls and exposed pipes into a tasting room with a small bar. Plants, muraled walls and a custom 500-gallon still will set the scene for rummy cocktails and tours.
Sips: In a process unique to Cotton & Reed, sugar sourced from Louisiana gets fermented with Belgian Saison yeast to produce a dry, white rum and a spiced rum. Both are designed for cocktails and boast a longer, less-sweet finish than a product like Bacardi. 1328 Fifth St. NE, 650.302.1487
Story: Friends since babyhood in Saratoga Springs, New York, Pia Carusone and Rachel Gardner are launching the District’s first female-owned distillery in spring 2016, concentrating on vodka first and then bourbon. The pair invested in a 1,000-gallon reciprocating still (nicknamed “Friggin’ Figgins”), signaling their ambitions to eventually sell nationally.
Space: In a one-time brick warehouse, massive paned windows and original cement pillars are accented by reclaimed wood and a long steel bar. Classes, tastings and cocktails will be on offer six days a week.
Sips: The pals’ Eastern corn vodka is charcoal-polished, which makes it clean and crisp. Eventually, cordials and bourbon will be added to the mix. 1369 New York Ave. NE