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Ginning Up Good Cheers

New Columbia Distillers puts D.C. back on the liquor-making map

The next time you raise a tangy, refreshing gin Rickey to your lips, be sure to toast Michael Lowe and John Uselton for bringing the most D.C. of beverages full circle.

For while they can’t lay claim to the resurgent 19th-century cooler, the co-founders of New Columbia Distillers have developed a homegrown spirit — the slyly named Green Hat gin — infused with a delicious slice of Washington history.

According to Uselton, their potent potable is a tip of the hat to George L. Cassiday, the intrepid bootlegger who kept both chambers of Congress in social lubricant for most of the Prohibition era. Uselton first learned of Cassiday’s Capitol-based operation after devouring Garrett Peck’s “Prohibition in Washington, DC: How Dry We Weren’t.”

While he and Lowe had pre-emptively decided to enshrine their hope for D.C. statehood in the distillery’s name (hence New Columbia), the pair suddenly found themselves enamored with Cassiday’s moxie. They decided, rather nervously, to approach his son, Fairfax, Va., resident George L. Cassiday, about allowing them to perpetuate the family’s legacy with their then purely conceptual product.

“To us it is almost the same as calling it George Cassiday’s gin,” Uselton said of the homage.

The parties huddled at Cassiday’s home in 2011 for a beer summit and managed to hash out an amicable agreement.

“He was really excited about it,” Uselton said of receiving Cassiday’s official blessing. The only caveat: Cassiday requested the first case from the first batch of gin — a demand the New Columbia proprietors gladly made good on earlier this year.

Still Born

Lowe said the idea to create a D.C.-based distillery was hatched in late 2010; they officially incorporated in March 2011.

Along the way, Lowe broadened his knowledge base by participating in an artisan distilling weekend workshop offered at Cornell University, while he and Uselton both partook of a crash-course in the mechanics of spirits-making that same summer at Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane, Wash.

New Columbia officially came online on Aug. 30, 2012. The nascent distillers dedicated September to recipe development, a process that would ultimately entail shelving eight preliminary efforts.

“There were a couple of those batches that went off one direction or another  . . .  but basically we were able to pull it together and we’re very pleased with what we ended up with,” Lowe said.

Rather than replicate what’s already out there, Uselton said, they set their sights on creating a gin with more “earthy qualities” — a signature of the neo-“American dry” style.

“Yes, it’s got a good bit of juniper in it  . . .  but it can include any kind of botanical in it. You’ve got a lot of freedom,” he suggested of the evolving art form.

The first production batch was ready to be bottled Oct. 1, their award-winning handiwork encapsulating the marriage of wheat grown in the Northern Neck of Virginia and a dozen carefully selected botanicals. The four core elements — juniper berries, coriander seed, celery seed and fennel seed — begin shaping the would-be alcohol from the first boil, while the remaining seasonings (sage leaf, orris root, Angelica root, cinnamon, lemon grass, grains of paradise and hand-shaved lemon and grapefruit peel) make a guest appearance only during the fourth and final distillation.

“It’s not just straight medicinal. There’s a lot more flavors happening in there,” one companion proclaimed after knocking back a few fingers of the current recipe.

That assessment is spot on.

Floral notes dominate the bouquet, though hints of citrus peek through the more time spent nosing the glass. A slow swish across the palate unlocks nuances of peppery spice, grassy botanicals, underlying citrus and soothing herbs. It’s pleasant enough for solo sipping (love the manly after burn) but was obviously created to breathe new life into familiar, and perhaps yet undiscovered, cocktails.

Uselton noted that while they’re both avid gin drinkers, he and Lowe did not want to mimic any of their favorite pours.

“If you want a really junipery gin or a really citrusy gin, which are kind of like the main branches, there’s a lot of producers out there that can make very good ones a lot cheaper than we can do it here in downtown D.C.,” he admitted.

For Lowe, staking out a new corner of the giniverse was both personally appealing and fiscally prudent.

“You’ve got to either make a vodka, gin or white whiskey  . . .  in order to pay the rent,” he said of the immediate return on investment favored by micro distilleries. “Because what makes spirits brown is spending years in the barrel.”

Lip Service

Lowe mapped out plans to begin courting the Virginia market in earnest once the calendar flips.

For now, they remain focused on keeping their most ardent fans — including neighboring retailers (Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, Hayden’s Liquor, Capitol Fine Wines, Harry’s Reserve) and dining/drinking establishments (Boundary Road, The Pug, Smith Commons, Star and Shamrock Tavern & Deli, Granville Moore’s, Art and Soul, 201 Bar) — connected to their craft spirit.

Area tastemakers appear only too happy to comply.

2Amys manager Debbie Johnson said Green Hat has inspired her to whip up all manner of curious libations, many of which have resonated with her most discerning patrons.

She had incorporated Green Hat into her just-retired “Fall Spritz,” a seasonal medley mixing gin, sparkling white wine and house-made lemon-rosemary simple syrup. (“Quite delicious for fall or really, anytime of year,” she suggested.) Johnson’s latest salute is the “Green Hat Trick,” combining gin, grapefruit juice, dry vermouth and a splash of tonic.

“It is currently on our drink specials board and is very popular,” she said.

Art and Soul has worked Green Hat gin into its “Stayin’ Put,” an inauguration special that clouds the clear spirit with berry syrup then brightens things up with a touch of bubbly.

Other cocktail gurus working wonders with New Columbia’s wares include Derek Brown (The Passenger/Columbia Room), JP Fetherston (Rappahannock Oyster Bar) and Erin Lingle (Boundary Road).

Lowe estimates they are currently cranking about 40 cases a week (full run takes about three weeks from mash to bottle) but suggested they could up their productivity to 50 cases with some fine-tuning. The pair has presciently carved out room for a second dedicated still, but Lowe doubts they’ll need to take that leap before expanding across the river.

The most immediate adaptation could be a line of seasonal gins, while the long view includes a rye whiskey (production: mid-2013; earliest release: 2016) and apple brandy (eventually).

“We want to have the luxury to have our whiskey in full-sized barrels and letting it age at least three years,” Lowe said. “In the meantime, we’ll be making gin.”

New Columbia Distillers: 1832 Fenwick St. NE; 202-733-1710; Open for tours Monday through Friday; tastings available Thursday through Saturday.

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