If neighborhood development in the District were the senior prom, Ivy City would be one of the last girls asked to the dance. The 1.7-square-mile triangle in Ward 5, once a thriving, predominantly African American community, is now dotted with blighted houses and vacant properties covered in graffiti.
Because it runs alongside what was once the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Ivy City also has a concentration of old warehouses that served as distribution centers and storage facilities during the first half of the 20th century. These spacious properties - and their comparably affordable rents - have made Ivy City a breeding ground for emerging local booze producers: In the past three years, the neighborhood has evolved into a liquor cabinet of sorts with the arrival of One Eight Distilling, manufacturers of vodka, gin and whiskey; Atlas Brew Works, makers of craft beer; and New Columbia Distillers, producers of Green Hat Gin and a pioneer in the neighborhood.
When it opened in 2012, New Columbia Distillers (1832 Fenwick St. NE) became the first distillery to operate in the District since Prohibition. A family affair, it's run by Michael Lowe, his wife, Melissa Kroning, daughter Elizabeth Lowe and her husband, John Uselton.
The distillery is housed in an unremarkable brick warehouse that - save for a small neon-green poster of a top hat - is devoid of flair on the exterior. (If you have trouble spotting it, follow your nose to what smells like a Grateful Dead concert: New Columbia Distillers is next door to a medical marijuana cultivation facility.)
Inside is a different scene. A complicated maze of pipes sloshes with gin in its early stages, carrying what will eventually become a smooth liquor from the mash tun (a big pot where wheat, water and yeast combine) to the copper still, a $200,000 piece of equipment that looks as if it could take off for the moon. There, harsh chemicals are stripped from the liquid, which is infused with juniper berries, citrus peels, sage leaves and fresh rosemary. Then it rests.
"Gin is like chili. It's better a few days after you make it," Michael Lowe says. "We let it sit for two weeks before we bottle it so the herbs and spices open up."
The name for the spirit, Green Hat Gin, is a tip of the, er, hat to a notorious D.C.-based bootlegger, George Cassiday, who was known to wear an emerald fedora. During Prohibition, Cassiday operated an undercover distribution center in the House Office Building, where the majority of his clients were based.
When authorities discovered his operation in 1925, he simply moved the enterprise to the Senate Office Building. It's nice having friends in high places.
"Cassiday's son lives in Fairfax, and he has a couple of kids," Lowe says. "Even if legally we're entitled to name it Green Hat Gin, we wanted the family to be happy we were doing it. But they were all delighted we were honoring their grandpa's criminal career."
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