What happens when government aid doesn't go where it's supposed to?
Small-batch craft distilleries are popping up across the country and region. They make everything from gin to rye to vodka, often with a focus on local ingredients and unique flavors. We talk with three local makers about what goes into getting a distillery off the ground and onto shelves at bars and liquor stores.
- Michael Lowe distiller and co-owner, New Columbia Distillers.
- Christopher Cook distiller and co-owner, Blackwater Distilling
- Becky Harris distiller and co-owner, Catoctin Creek Distilling Company
Behind Washington’s First Craft Distillery Since Prohibition
Part of a growing trend of craft distilleries, New Columbia Distillers was founded in Northeast Washington in 2011. Housed in a 3,500 square foot warehouse two miles from Union Station, it’s where former attorney Michael Lowe and his son-in-law John Uselton produce D.C.’s first gin since Prohibition. From fermenting and distilling to labeling and bottling, the entire production cycle takes place inside the distillery. The distillery’s signature spirit, Green Hat Gin, pays homage to D.C.’s most famous bootlegger, known to many as “the man in the green hat.”
Video shot, edited and produced by Jared Angle
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Craft distilling was once a booming American industry. In the 1800s, the U.S. had around 14,000 small distillers, with 2500 in Virginia alone. And even George Washington made his own whiskey. By the start of prohibition, though, the number of craft distillers had shrunk to 600, and at its end in 1933, only a handful remained.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut today, almost 80 years later, craft distilling is enjoying a resurgence. Local entrepreneurs are distilling small batches of vodka, gin and rye whiskey, putting their hand bottled products on the shelves right next to global brands. Here to give us insight into the world of craft spirits and the ins and outs of the artisan distilling process from still to bottle, is Michael Lowe. He's a distiller and co-owner of Columbia Distillers in the District. Their spirit is called Green Hat Gin. Michael Lowe, good to see you.
MR. MICHAEL LOWEWell, thank you, Kojo. I'm delighted to be here.
NNAMDIGlad you could join us. Also in studio with us is Becky Harris. She's a distiller and co-owner of Catoctin Creek Distilling Company. Becky, what's up? Good to see you again.
MS. BECKY HARRISIt's nice to see you too, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Christopher Cook. He is a distiller on Maryland's eastern shore, he's co-owner of Blackwater Distilling, which produces Sloop Betty Vodka. Christopher, good to see you.
MR. CHRISTOPHER COOKGlad to be here.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join this conversation on craft distilling. Have you tried any of the region's craft spirits? Tell us what you think. 800-433-8850. Becky, the words craft, artisan, and micro are attached to a lot of different products these days. What does it mean when we're talking about spirits?
HARRISWell, that's certainly an interesting question, because that is, in my perspective, as a craft artisan microdistiller, I would say that it would be something that was handmade by a small company, generally locally focused and operated. You know, that's something there isn't necessarily a true definition for, on a kind of global scale, I would say, and so it's something -- I think it's something that lies close to home, is how I see it.
NNAMDIChristopher, Michael, Catoctin Creek is the first legal microdistillery in Loudoun County, Va., since Prohibition. New Columbia Distillers is the first in the District, and Blackwater Distilling is Maryland's first distillery in about 40 years. Why are we seeing this distilling renaissance now?
COOKI think a lot of it has to do with, you know, traditionally, in Europe, this never went away. And you know, as Becky alluded to, with the definition of craft distilling, I think there's a gourmet-ification of products across the country, whether you're talking about maple syrup or olive oil, and people really have gravitated to the idea of that handcrafted element, something that's small batch. They also, I think, are strongly in favor of supporting local – products, instead of buying vodka, for instance, in France, like Grey Goose, you know, why not buy that vodka, you know, on the eastern shore.
COOKIf the taste profile is similar, if the quality is similar, you know, people are actually looking instead of buying from that great big company, buying something that's handmade, with lots of care. And, you know, Becky and a lot of her products are organic, our product is organic, and there's a lot of, you know, care about that.
NNAMDIMichael, anything you'd like to add to that?
LOWEI think everything Chris said is definitely right. I mean, it's, you know, a large part of the growth of craft distilling is the great interest in handmade, high quality, local food and beverage products. And it's across the country. I mean, a lot of it started on the west coast, as you know many sort of consumption oriented trends tend to do, and it sort of started, I think, back in, say, the '70s with the small, boutique wineries, and then during the '80s, you started getting the growth of microbreweries. Again, meeting the same sort of, you know, non-mass production market.
LOWEYou know, the higher end market, people who are interested in, you know, very high quality, specialized, experimental products, in some cases. And then during the '90s, it continued on into craft distilling. And it's been increasing quite a bit here in the last 20 years...
NNAMDIIncreasing quite a bit. Becky, how big is the craft distilling industry today?
HARRISYou know, it seems to change every day. I think every few months, you get a newsletter from one or another places saying that there's been, you know, 30 or 40 a month, I think is what I was reading, nationwide. You know, which kind of boggles my mind, as knowing what it is to start a small distillery, to think that that's going on on such a scale. You know, I suppose perhaps it is in some parts of the country. I think what – another attraction of the craft distilling movement is the desire to have something that you find close to home, that maybe isn't available everywhere.
HARRISAnd there's that kind of attraction of, you know, back when craft beers were something that they didn't distribute nationwide, but if you were somewhere, you would drink some beer there, or have this spirit here, and have it be part of the character of that place in your own personal life.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Would you consider replacing your brand of choice with a craft spirit? Why, or why not? Call us, let us know. 800-433-8850. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You know, as the micro brew industry grew, Michael, you talked about how it grew, kind of, sort of like the craft brewing industry. What parallels do you see between craft brewers and craft distilling?
LOWEWell, there's a lot in common, certainly the, you know, the craft brewing movement, as I was saying, sort of got going really in the, probably in the '80s, and has continued gangbusters since then. But, you know, a lot of what's involved is, you know, a local character, just like Becky was saying. You know, a local character, something that is, you know, unique to the particular milieu and to the availability of ingredients, locally.
NNAMDIWell, craft distilling may allow for variances among batches, but how hard is it to maintain a level of consistency with handcrafter spirits, Christopher?
COOKI think it's -- when you go through recipe development, on a small level, using smaller quantities, it's a little dicier. But when you formalize the recipe development process, you know, a lot of folks don't realize the amount of care that goes into selecting a carbon blend, for instance, when you're going through filtration, and how that has an impact on taste profiles. And really, from a craft distilling point of view, you're really trying to remove the least desirable elements of that taste profile and retain the positive ones.
COOKBut all those things are documented. And, you know, your batch size is usually uniform, you're doing the same batches, you're using the same quantities. And then there's, you know, the little bit of magic touch. We've got a great production manager and distiller who, you know, he has -- there's a little bit of a feel to it that goes to it, you know. It's a lot of science, but there's a little bit of art, I think most folks would agree. But that's, you know, I think the consistency is there, and widely recognized.
NNAMDIWell, I have checked, and federal law prohibits amateur distilling, better known as moonshining, so how do you get around these regulations in order to learn the trade, Becky?
HARRISThere's actually the availability nationwide at a number of small distilleries that will offer classes, courses, ways to distill legally and learn the craft legally, so that you don't have to risk your felony by doing it in your garage or your basement. So that's really I think a very common first step among small distillers.
NNAMDIWell you and Scott at Catoctin Creek know how difficult it is to get started. Your business is about four years old now. Have you started teaching the trade to others?
HARRISWe did for quite a while. We actually used to offer, I think three or four times a year, we were offering workshops, kind of, say, distilling 101, if you will. It was more -- it was a day long course, it wasn't, you know, it was basically kind of like, is this for me? And unfortunately, the -- well, or fortunately, I guess, we have the good problem of having so much tours and sales now that we have been unable to hold them for a while. So we're thinking possibly in a new venue, perhaps down the road again.
NNAMDIHere is Lawrence in Sterling, Va. Lawrence, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
LAWRENCEHey, Kojo. I actually have already replaced my favorite, one of my gins with Catoctin Creek's Watershed Gin.
HARRISOh, thank you.
NNAMDIThere you go.
LAWRENCEAbsolutely fantastic. And I'm kind of wondering, I had a friend actually bring back from Europe a aged gin, it was aged in like oak and juniper barrels. I was wondering if you guys would consider doing an aged gin?
NNAMDIWould you consider it, Becky?
HARRISYou know, that's a really cool and, and cool process, and I have, you know, definitely looked at it with interest. As the production person, what I find is that my co-owner, Scott, has to run roughshod over me from time to time and say, we can't do that, we need to make our base products and focus on keeping up with our demand. So, you know, I think down the road it would be really cool to play with a lot of those kind of things, and possibly. I won't rule it out, but at this point, we're not looking at it in the immediate future.
NNAMDIWould you consider it, Michael?
LOWEYes, indeed. And we actually are considering it. One of the great things about being a very small operation and not having any real tight expectations on what exactly your product looks like...
LOWE...other than being good. Yes, it is freedom. It gives you the opportunity to experiment with things. And we're thinking of perhaps for later in the year, doing an aged gin, you know, aged for a few months in wood. We haven't settled on it, for sure, but it might be fun. There are a few of them out there, and they're nice products.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Have you visited a local distillery? What encouraged you to make the trip and how was it, 800-433-8850? Distilling involves both fire and highly flammable materials so many tend to think of it as a dangerous process. What kind of safety precautions do you need to take when you start distilling, Christopher?
COOKI think it -- you know, we don't use open flame. I think that's prohibited by federal law. Certainly in Europe you still have that and I'm sure a lot of moonshiners around the country do that.
NNAMDII was about to say traditional moonshiners.
COOKYeah, but I think any time you're dealing with 190 odd proof product to being with, you're going to have the flammability part of it. And so everything, you know, from light fixtures to electrical outlets have that safety rating that's attached to them. But, you know, I think generally it's something that's pretty widely governed in terms of the regs that surround the safety aspect of handling it. But it's nothing that's that volatile that it's going to, you know, run a direct risk.
COOKAll of our heating today, you know, with the (word?). I mean, you've either got a steam jacket and a built-in boiler or you've got an external boiler that's heating it.
NNAMDIHere is Robert in Washington, D.C. Robert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBERTHey, thanks very much for having a great topic. I've got a couple things to ask your guests. I wanted to ask the representative from Catoctin Creek a couple of things, what the botanical mix is on the gin and what grain is used to make spirits. And the gentleman there that made a comment about carbon filtering. And I work with brass distillers and represent a product like that. And folks have told me that carbon filtering really just covers up certain flavors. And they find that you can make a more pleasing product if you simply eliminate the undesirable parts of the distilling instead of forcing it through a carbon filter just to kind of cover it up. So I wonder if they could just comment on those two things.
NNAMDIFirst you, Becky.
HARRISYou know, we do have probably eight or nine different botanicals that we use in our watershed gin. The primary of course is juniper, as the regulations say that has to be the predominant flavor element. Our style of gin is more of a modern style or a new western so that it's blended really into the botanical blend of what we would call vegetal or green flavors. A lot of those -- some of those include cinnamon, anis, coriander and I think three or four others that we use in that blend.
LOWEWell, as far as botanicals we use 12. And as Becky mentioned, juniper has got to be there or it's not gin. But, you know, you've got baking spices you can have included. You've got herbal flavors and citrus and some earthy flavors and some florals. So there are a number of different things you can combine and that's one of the great things about making gin in particular is...
HARRISIt's what makes it fun.
LOWE...it gives you, you know, sort of free range. You can come up with a recipe that appeals to you and you hope appeals to customers.
NNAMDIRobert, thank you for your call. From gin to vodka, Christopher, a lot of people think vodka is made from potatoes, but that's not how you and your brother do it.
COOKNo. I think if you look around the country there are a lot of folks that -- you look at the surplus crops in the area. We know folks up in New Hampshire, there's a General Stark vodka where they use apples. That's a surplus crop that's at Flag Hill Winery and General Stark's vodka. There's another one, Maine Distilleries and Cold River Vodka. It's two brothers, you know, in that distillery and they use potatoes. That's been a surplus crop up there.
COOKIn our area that's not the case, so -- and I think if you look around the world you'll see that most vodkas actually are green based.
NNAMDIWell, we tend to think of vodka as flavorless, but you say your ingredients bring out the flavors in the spirit. What's the distillation process for Sloop Betty Vodka like?
LOWEYeah, well, it's 80 percent wheat. We use a red winter wheat and it's 20 percent sugar cane to distill it.
NNAMDIHow'd you end up using sugar cane?
COOKOur production manager actually is background -- is with rum distilleries. And the base product for most rums is sugar cane. When you look at a lot of grain vodkas that are out there, a lot of them tend to have a little bit of an after-burn taste to them. The sugar cane neutralizes a lot of that burn and makes it a more mellow smooth product in the end.
NNAMDIMichael, I wanted to get back to botanicals for a second. How do you decide which flavor to highlight and which flavors to tone down?
LOWEWell, it's sort of distiller's choice and my partner and son-in-law John and I are both sort of minor collectors of gins. And so we had a number of gins that we liked the direction of and some that we didn't. And so that sort of guided us when we started doing our first experiments -- you know, recipe tests in my kitchen, which wasn't distilling, which we're not allowed to do in the kitchen. It was basically just infusions of different potential botanicals.
LOWEAnd so we tried to get a nice balance rather than a real distinctive strong note. But what we have -- you know, one distinctive note that is unusual and that's celery seed, which comes out faintly but balanced, we hope, with the other notes, the herbals, citrus and so on.
NNAMDIBecky, we heard from a caller about trying to produce an age spread and that's expensive and difficult for young distilling companies. So is that why we're seeing a lot more white whiskies on the market?
HARRISOh, absolutely. And, you know, you're even seeing some white whiskies that are going to be coming out from some of the major players, Jim Beam and some of those guys on the...
HARRIS...Jack Daniels, yeah. There's a number of them that are supposed to be coming out. You know, I think it's a -- and also an embrace of a spirit that was a traditional American spirit that was really commonly consumed and an interest in what people were drinking back -- you know, back in the days. We tell people, you know, in colonial times, Civil War times, people weren't waiting to age their whiskey for a long time. They were drinking it right off the still. And George Washington would sell it right off the still.
NNAMDIIndeed, un-aged whiskey has historical roots in this particular region. Tell us about your Mosby Spirit and the tradition of clear whiskey in Virginia.
HARRISWe were kind of inspired by, you know, the history of rye whiskey in the area. And what we wanted to do was kind of do a modern interpretation of that traditional spirit. So our spirit is probably a lot cleaner than a lot of those traditional spirits that you get. It's got a -- it's really almost like an eau de vie of rye. So we're really looking to get the best qualities of the rye green and to just get that flavor. And so that's why you get those really interesting kind of peppery notes and things like that.
COOKYeah, I'd just like to throw in there that historically if you look back before prohibition and the rye whiskies that were in the area, you see a lot -- and you saw historically a lot of these companies that were here 200 years ago, they migrated to Tennessee and Kentucky but they started here. I mean, this is the real culture and historical aspect of it is in this part of the world, or in this part of the country. And now, you know, finding rye that's not a cover crop is very difficult in this area.
COOKSo really from a craft distilling point of view, the un-aged is very attractive because it doesn't -- from a cash flow perspective it doesn't require the aging. But there are logistical issues that anybody is faced with when they're looking to do rye. And that's actually finding a farmer that's going to grow it for you.
NNAMDIAt Blackwater Distilling your next project is a rye whiskey, correct?
COOKThat's right. Well, we're going to do two. We're going to do a -- we're going to source local honey into a honey vodka. And the honey will come from Kent Island. And then we're going to do a rye whisky in parallel with that.
NNAMDIHere's Michelle in Derwood, Md. Hi, Michelle.
MICHELLEHi, hi everyone. We go to Vermont probably every year or so and we always get the Sunshine organic vodka and their maple liqueur when we can get that. So we've been using that for quite a while. And lately hear that there's local things are available. Could you tell us how we can procure those things? Do we have to go to distilleries or are there outlets that carry those products?
NNAMDIFirst you, Michael.
LOWEWell, we are -- Green Hat Gin is only distributed right now in the District of Columbia but we're in probably about 25 liquor stores -- high-end liquor stores in the District, and then bars and restaurants. But we hope to be expanding into Maryland and Virginia in the next few months.
NNAMDII've drunk it. If you are really, really lucky, Michelle, it will be expanded to Maryland. How about you, Becky.
NNAMDIWait a second.
HARRISWe are pretty widely available through the District, Maryland and Virginia. ABC stores in Virginia and most private liquor stores in Maryland and D.C. also carry us, as well as a lot of restaurants.
COOKIf you got to sloopbetty.com, it's S-L-O-O-PBETTY.com, you'll actually -- there's a store locator link and it's organized by county. We're also available at Total Wine & More stores, special order in Virginia and throughout Maryland. We'll also be in Illinois pretty soon.
NNAMDIAnd of course you can get them all at the aforementioned distilleries. We're going to take a short break but our number is 800-433-8850. Do you think there should be a limit on how much alcohol production can happen locally? Call us, let us know, 800-433-8850, or send us a Tweet at kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about craft distilling with Michael Lowe. He's a distiller and co-owner of New Columbia Distillers in the District. Their spirit is called Green Hat Gin. Becky Harris is a distiller and co-owner of Catoctin Creek Distilling Company. And Christopher Cook is a distiller on Maryland's eastern shore. He's co-owner of Blackwater Distilling which produces Sloop Betty Vodka. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIMichael, of course some of the region's distilling history dates to prohibition. The name of your gin recalls a colorful D.C. figure. Who was George Cassiday?
LOWEGeorge Cassiday is probably the most famous bootlegger from prohibition era D.C. He was the in-house bootlegger to Congress. At the same time that Congress was enforcing prohibition on the entire country George Cassiday had an office in the basement of the Cannon Office Building from which he distributed illicit booze to 80 percent of Senators and Representatives. And so when we heard that story and thought about it, it was sort of a no-brainer. We had to honor D.C.'s own very special bootlegger with the name of our gin.
NNAMDISo was he himself, the man in the green hat, was he a gin drinker himself?
LOWEActually at the time I think he did some gin. He actually got busted outside the Senate with five bottles of gin in 1930. But a large part of what he distributed was whiskey and he brought it down wearing his characteristic green fedora, brought it down on the train from New York or Philadelphia.
NNAMDIYou didn't know him, of course. He was gone, but you did manage to contact his son, Fred...
NNAMDI...who seems to be proud of the whole operation. Fred is not a particularly big gin drinker himself but he tasted it and said, it's the best I've ever tasted I have to say. I do have to endorse that. I got a bottle of Green Hat, I think it was in December. By January it was gone.
LOWEWell, Kojo, that is a problem we can...
COOKDid you share?
LOWE...we can remedy.
NNAMDIShare? Come on. It's that good. Yes, I see you have another bottle there. We'll have to have a conversation about that very shortly. But joining the conversation now is John in Washington, D.C. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNIs this me?
NNAMDIYes, John, that's you. You are you.
JOHNHi. I'm calling in and this whole topic, I guess, is close to my heart. One, I think alcohol's a great equalizer. Everybody enjoys it no matter what -- pick a party, with your background and with whatever your differences are, I think it's one of the great equalizers. In any event, I'm calling because I wanted to know what kinds of steps would you suggest to your callers to sort of look at if you're thinking about opening up a distillery?
NNAMDIWhat kinds of steps, Becky?
HARRISYou know, that's definitely -- it's a long process. It's one that you really have to kind of do your homework. We do hear...
NNAMDIFirst you start out as an engineer and have somebody persuade you to get into this business.
HARRISThat helps as well. We actually recommend -- we do hear from a fairly large number of people on a regular basis. I'm sure both of you gentlemen have the same thing going on. And what we recommend is there are some really good online resources that will help you in working up a business plan. The business plan is ultimately the do or die kind of thing of your business. It gives you a road map to figure out, you know, is this feasible, is what I want to do feasible, and it -- I often recommend the American Distilling Institute.
HARRISThey have a lot of good beginners' forums and resources for beginners. So that's where I would send you, John.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. You too can call us at 800-433-8850, or you can send email to email@example.com. You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow if you'd like to join this conversation. Becky, Maker's Mark recently announced that it would start watering down its bourbon by three percent to keep up with demand. After customers overwhelmingly disapproved, they recanted their decision. How do you maintain quality and meet growing demand?
HARRISYou know, that's a real challenge. We at Cactoctin Creek have really looked at it as from a standpoint of that we don't -- we have kept our distribution fairly tightly located here in the -- in Virginia, Maryland, and the District, and have turned down quite a bit of opportunities for distribution outside of that area just for that reason alone. We really don't want to disappoint our home market for the sake of getting some opportunities elsewhere that may not be available.
HARRISThat also being said, we are looking at putting a fairly sizable expansion plan into effect in this coming year. We are currently in about 2000 square feet, and we're hoping to triple that by summer. Keeping my fingers crossed, because there's a lot of work that needs to be done to make that happen.
NNAMDIMichael, a lot of people are eager to buy craft spirits just because they're local, but does the fact that they're handcrafted mean that they stand out in taste or quality?
LOWEWell, it certainly can. It's not a guarantee that they're going to be the best spirits, but I think each of you, you know, do our very best to come up with something that is unique and that deserves customer loyalty. And, you know, that is, you know, a difficult matter to maintain. I mean, you mentioned earlier the fact that it's batch, how do you keep consistency? Well, you know, you keep consistency to the extent that it's the best way to go. And sometimes it's better to do a little tweaking and a little experimenting on the edges of your product.
LOWEThat's on the other side, sort of the advantage of a batch production. It gives you that flexibility to, you know, see if there's a little bit of a change that might make things better here or there.
NNAMDIBy the way, if you go to our website kojoshow.org, you can see a little bit more about how the distilleries look and what the process is, and I think a little bit more of Michael Lowe in the video that I was looking at, correct?
LOWEYes, I think so. We were very pleased to have your crew come visit last week.
NNAMDIThat's at kojoshow.org. Christopher, you advertise your product as organic and Kosher. How do those certifications affect the taste profile of your spirit?
COOKWe -- initially when we did recipe development, we were looking at corn, we were looking at rye, different wheats, different ratios of wheat to sugar cane, which is when we wound up using, and then for each one we did an organic and a non-organic taste comparison. And we were actually -- my brother John, and actually all of us I think on some level were a little skeptical that an organic product going through the distillation process was going to be significantly different, but in this particular instance, and that may not be for a different spirit or a different recipe even, but in this particular instance, there was definitely a difference -- a positive difference in the taste profile between the organic and the non-organic.
COOKThe Kosher certification is something I think that, while we're not Jewish, there's certainly that demographic that is attracted to that. But more than that, I think people look at the Kosher certification as a badge of quality. We're inspected on a regular basis, and it's just one more way that we can say that, you know, our processes are fairly transparent, and we're -- we have some oversight on that.
NNAMDIGreg in Salisbury, Md. wants to talk about another demographic that might be interested in distilling. Greg, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GREGYes. My question to your guest is do you have to be a drinker in order to be a craftsman or a distiller?
NNAMDIA teetotaler distiller, is that possible? Is it likely? Is it, I guess, appropriate? Is it desirable? Pick any one.
LOWEWell, Kojo, if I could weigh in there. I think it might be difficult, because a large part of developing a recipe, and maintaining the quality of your production process is tasting. I mean, each batch, you know, to make your cuts, to exclude the heads and the tails that you don't want to be part of your process, that's largely a sensory determination, and so you're, you know, dipping a finger in there and tasting as you go along. Somebody needs to do that. It doesn't necessarily have to be the owner, but somebody needs to be tasting the product to make sure you're getting what you're intending.
NNAMDIWell, Greg, in the same way that some claim to smoke without inhaling, maybe you can taste without drinking. I don't know if that's even possible. Becky, what do you say?
HARRISYeah. I would say you don't necessarily have to imbibe overenthusiastically, but you can, you certainly, you know, I have to taste my product through the course of the day it's just basically wetting my finger and wiping at across my tongue. It's not like having to do a shot every 20 minutes or anything. Very -- very small quantities.
NNAMDIWhat do you say Christopher?
COOKI think I would agree. I think it's just from a quality assurance perspective. You're going through a process, and that's one step in the process. I mean, I think, you know, the thing that -- one of the things that pulled me into this was the idea of working with my hands. I've been in the IT industry for a long, long time, and we do things that are virtual in terms of our end product, and this is something that's not. It's made with your hands, but this is one step of the process.
COOKIt's, you know, whether you're smelling it, whether, you know, you're using different botanicals with the gin, and tasting is part of that.
NNAMDIAnd Greg, others might say of course I taste it, that's the whole point. But were you thinking of hiring your own tasters?
GREGWell, the reason why I was asking is one thing -- well, I've been sober since '03, and one of the things I do miss about it is the social aspect, and if you were to get into something like that, how could you have a party and then invite people without tasting? You know, that was one of the reasons why I was asking.
NNAMDIOkay. I do understand your dilemma so to speak, Greg, but it sounds as if it's similar to the dilemma of socializing under any kind of circumstance. But thank you very much for your call. Here is Bart in Silver Spring, Md. Bart, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi Bart, are you there?
BARTHey. Hey, Kojo.
NNAMDIGo right ahead, Bart.
BARTGreat show. You and Diane are a national treasure, and really enjoy...
BARTIn Southern Frederick County, there's a long history of distillery. I guess back in the 1800s they were known for their rye whiskey. Whiskey Creek Golf Course was named after the distilling heritage right there. I guess the water that came through Bush Creek right there was ideal for that type of whiskey or whatever. So I thought that was pretty...
NNAMDIAnyone care to comment on Bart's comment, Becky?
HARRISIt's pretty common I think in the area. I know in Loudoun there are a number of places of whiskey-related names. Whiskey Hill is the name of an old house in Loudoun that we've heard about from other people, and I believe there's a place called like Stillhouse flats which is right on the Potomac up there. There's quite a bit of local history even in Loudoun that has to do with moonshining in one form or another.
NNAMDIBart, thank you for you call. We got a tweet from wine compass who says, "I would like to know from the craft distillers what was the major impediment in starting your distillery?" Each of you jumped into craft distilling with little background in the trade. What did you find was the biggest challenge of starting up a distillery? Starting with you, Michael.
LOWEProbably -- it's a very capital intensive business. You've got to either build a building or get a building and renovate it appropriately for the utilities you need. You've got to buy equipment. You know, there's a fair range of prices and sizes depending on what it is your planning to do, but that costs a bit to get going. And then there are regulatory obstacles you've got to overcome, at least in DC, especially in connection with the construction process. But there's also federal regulation, there's state or district regulation, and any number of other issues. There are probably a dozen, you know, major topics of things you've got to have in mind as you're getting going.
COOKYeah. I would agree. It's a very capital-intensive industry to get into. You know, we source our bottles from France of all places. And so when we buy bottles, just for an example, we're buying a cargo container of bottles. That's a lot of money up front. The same thing with caps. You know, on the federal side, you have to have a premises to get your DSP license. So you're paying rent -- and it can be your residence. So you're paying rent essentially in the early going with no cash flow coming in, or maybe minimal cash flow coming in if you're selling anything on the retail side. And I would say cash flow is the number one risk and impediment to getting into the business.
NNAMDIAnd it's not just financial and procedural. Becky, your husband Scott has been quoted as saying that it's an exhausting business, the distilling process itself is definitely blue collar work and labor intensive. Secondly marketing your product to restaurants and liquor stores is a long and difficult process. But we got an email from John who writes, "As a resident of Purcellville, I have watched Catoctin Creek Distillery help revitalize the downtown area here. Can the distillers, especially Becky, since she's actually doing this now, talk about how their efforts both in the region and nationally can help communities economically revitalize areas have fallen on hard times?"
HARRISIt's interesting, I was discussing this not long ago in regard as well to kind of the improvement of the rural economy is also related to what we all do here. We all work with different kind of purveyors of grains or fruits. In our case, we do some fruit brandies, and in all those cases we're working with people who are growing these things. And so our ability to source these locally is very important, and that create opportunities for people to start businesses in those areas as well.
HARRISBusinesses of supplying grain, businesses of supplying fruits. Milling is something that's very difficult to find on a local basis. All these things are opportunities, and I think the spread of this kind of industry on a micro scale adds opportunity for people to take advantage and service other industries. Let alone in Purcellville alone we also have, you know, say tourists, we have quite a bit of people who come out for the wineries in the area, and we're going to be located right in the old part of downtown.
HARRISWe're renovating an almost a hundred-year-old building, and we're really excited about that. We hope that that not only brings more people to see us, but brings more people to see all the other businesses around us. So I think there's a lot of opportunities, and I like to see it when local governments kind of embrace these things and help you to grow the business and, you know, make those opportunities happen.
NNAMDIPurcellville, that's how it's pronounced. Becky Harris is a distiller and co-owner of Catoctin Creek Distilling Company. Becky, thank you for joining us.
HARRISThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIChristopher Cook is a distiller on Maryland's eastern shore. He's co-owner of Blackwater Distilling which produces Sloop Betty Vodka. Christopher, thank you for joining us. Nice to meet you.
NNAMDIAnd Michael Lowe is a distiller and co-owner of New Columbia Distillers in the District. You can see him in the video at our website, kojoshow.org. Their spirit is called Green Hat Gin. Michael, thank you so much for joining us.
LOWEThank you, Kojo. It was great fun.
NNAMDIUnhand that bottle. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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