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Off the Beaten Turf: DC’s First Gin Distillery

by Shilpi Paul

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Michael Lowe of New Columbia Distillers

Over the past few years, DC residents have been treated to increasingly tasty restaurants, ambitious cocktails, and artful lattes. The DIY food-and-drink movement has been growing as well, with DC Brau and Chocolate City brewing up locally-made beers and various artisanal picklers, meat smokers and cheese makers setting up shop at Union Market.

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The still, straight from Germany.

Now, in a short, Ivy City warehouse, the city has its first gin distillery since prohibition. Located at 1832 Fenwick Street NE, just to the northeast of Union Market, sits New Columbia Distillers, an outfit that has been producing its signature Green Hat gin since last October.

“People in the District are very enthused about the new food and drinking opportunities that are showing up,” owner Michael Lowe told UrbanTurf. “We’ve been very fortunate to be right there to take advantage of it.”

Lowe, a former lawyer, and his son-in-law John Uselton spent a couple years learning the distilling process (both enrolled in an apprenticeship in Spokane, Washington), finding a location, acquiring machinery, navigating DC’s bureaucracy, and perfecting their recipe. Since opening, they’ve been able to distribute Green Hat at 70 bars, restaurants and liquor stores around the District. “There are probably another dozen liquor stores we’d like to get into, and a hundred bars and restaurants,” said Lowe.

The gin is also available for sale at the distillery, which is filled with tall, shiny machines that churn, boil, ferment and distill. The still (pictured above) was made by a company in Germany that has been producing the machines for 140 years, which explains their industrial look, vaguely reminiscent of a steam-engine-powered locomotive.

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The gin’s herbal brew.

Hundreds of pounds of wheat, grown in Virginia, sit in one corner of the warehouse. After passing through a series of tubes and machines, the ingredients end their journey at the other end of the warehouse at the “gin cow,” a machine with mechanical udders that shoots out the finished product.

The recipe took a few months to perfect: the gin is infused with 12 different botanicals, from lemon grass to cinnamon to sage to juniper berry. After first working in small quantities to strike the right combination, Lowe and Uselton spent another month working different proportions through the massive machinery to find a winning recipe.

On Saturdays, New Columbia throws open its doors for three hours (1-4pm) for tastings and tours. Groups of volunteers also sign up in advance to join Lowe and Uselton for the final steps: filling bottles with the gin, labeling the bottles, stamping on the batch numbers and, of course, tasting.

Lowe and Uselton are often in the warehouse and are happy of offer informal tours when they are around; on Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoons, visitors can even get a taste of the product. “I would say we’re getting 40 to 50 people coming through on a busy Saturday,” Lowe said.

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The exterior.

Finally, where does the name Green Hat come from?

“We named it after probably Washington’s most famous bootlegger, a man by the name of George Cassidy, known as the man with the green hat,” Lowe explained. “During prohibition, he was the bootlegger to Congress. He actually had an office in the Cannon House office building.”

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This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/off_the_beaten_turf_dcs_first_gin_distillery/6489

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