Drinking local has gotten far easier in recent years: Between New Columbia Distillers, Don Ciccio & Figli, One Eight Distilling and Jos. A. Magnus and Co., there's plenty of gin, vodka, white whiskey, vermouth, amaro and even aquavit being produced within Washington. Head west to Purcellville and you'll find great rye whiskey and brandy at Catoctin Creek. But there's been one gaping hole in our local liquor lineup: For some reason, no one is making rum.
That will change early next year, when Cotton and Reed opens in an 80-year-old warehouse at 1330 Fifth St. NE, just down the block from Union Market. Partners Jordan Cotton and Reed Walker, with distiller Chas Jefferson, plan to launch with a white rum, made with cane sugar, caramelized sugar and molasses from a farm cooperative in Louisiana. The product line will eventually expand to include spiced rum, rums aged in sherry and bourbon barrels, an apple brandy and even a rum-based version of the popular Jamaican liqueur allspice dram.
"Rum's not necessarily the most popular product yet," says Reed Walker. "We think the taste profile [of our rum] will help expand that."
Says Jefferson, who researched local yeasts and their effect on wine and alcohol production while a student at the University of Mary Washington:"I want to create a rum that has the same sort of flavor arc that fine wine does." His interest in yeast led him to develop a rum that uses a saison yeast, more commonly found in Belgian and Belgian-style beer, in its fermentation. This gives the rum "fruity, floral and honey notes," Jefferson says. "It finishes with an almost rye-like profile. I don't think [using saison yeast] is done by anyone else."
The rum is designed to be used in cocktails, so Cotton and Reed includes a large bar and tasting room as part of its 3,500-square-foot space. The cocktail program will be helmed by Lukas B. Smith of Dram and Grain, who will craft drinks showcasing the rum and also advise the distillery on other products: "spiced rum and allspice dram for now, and vermouth, bitters and amari down the line," Smith says.
Like other brewery and distillery owners in Washington, Walker and Cotton met when they were working in jobs far removed from the distilling industry: In this case, the two were "contractors working at a company supporting NASA," Walker explains. After deciding they'd rather be making rum and brandy, stirring up what Walker calls "the creative juices you don't get working with an Excel spreadsheet," the duo designed their own 500-gallon still, which was custom built by a manufacturer in Portland, Ore. But they didn't have a distiller, so they made an unlikely decision and posted a "help wanted" ad on Craigslist.
Around 100 people applied for the position, and Cotton and Walker eventually narrowed the choice down to two people: Jefferson and Jen Phelps, a chemical engineer who received her Ph. D from Yale. Reed and Cotton would up hiring them both. Jefferson handles distillation, while Phelps is responsible for quality control. With her technical expertise, Cotton says, "she's highly qualified to establish consistency from batch to batch. That's hard for new distilleries."
Construction "should wrap up in January," Cotton says. They're keeping the warehouse's industrial vibe, following the motto of "Don't fight the building." When it turned out that the custom still was taller than the ceiling, the layout was changed so that the still fits into an old elevator shaft.
Once the stills are running, the distillery will be the only place to buy the rum for a few months, with the bar staying open from 1 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Within a couple of months, Walker says, they'll start sending rum out to bars. Their plan is to spend about a year making sure the rum is consistent – they want to become "masters of rum," Walker says – before moving on to brandy, allspice dram and other products.
If all goes well, it will only be a few years before we can stock a home bar with spirits from the Washington area. That's an idea that deserves a hearty "cheers."
Cotton and Reed is currently running an Indiegogo campaign to help fund the bar. It raised more than $31,000 -- 78 percent of its goal – in a single day.