Cotton and Reed, D.C.’s first rum distillery, has very fancy equipment in its backroom. The centerpiece is a custom-designed 500-gallon compound pot still, which distiller Chas Jefferson says will allow them to “make just about anything on it, except vodka.” It's paired with two 500-gallon fermenters and a 600-gallon mash tun, all of which were bubbling away on a recent afternoon.
Unlike most other Washington distilleries, Cotton and Reed isn't scheduling regular tours after it opens near Union Market on Nov. 12. Instead, the owners and staff are hoping that people will hang out at the tiled bar in the tasting room, sample a cocktail or two and learn about the process that way.
The distillery's decor is a mixture of repurposed industrial equipment (rusted rollers from a tomato canning plant, a wishbone-shaped piece from the building's elevator shaft that now holds up a table) and original architectural features, such as a large skylight and high ceilings. Co-founder Reed Walker calls the airy rehabbed space — as handsome as any cocktail spot that's opened recently — “a glorified showroom for what we're doing back there [in the distillery], to show what the products can do.”
Part of the reason for this is that their rums are not the kind that you sloppily mix with Coke at a backyard cookout. The amber-colored Spiced Dry rum contains 17 botanicals, including gentian and licorice, which are evident in the dry, peppery finish. Making it involves chunks of Brazilian amburana wood that are cut by hand, toasted at 400 degrees and then soaked in the rum. Instead of having a familiar molasses or vanilla character, the result is closer to an amaro. “Someone who picks this up expecting something sweet to put in their coffee,” says cocktail wiz Lukas B. Smith, who developed the tasting room's cocktails, “is going to be surprised.”
Walker adds: “That's why we chose rum in the first place. We wanted to help change people's perception of what rum can be.”
Walker and co-founder Jordan Cotton met while working as contractors for a company that supported NASA; like many deskbound Washingtonians, they wanted to turn their energy toward something more creative. They found not one but two distillers: Jefferson and chemical engineer Jen Phelps, who now work together on day-to-day production.
Their white rum is a blend of two different distillates: The first, Jefferson says, uses saison yeast, the kind usually found in Belgian beers, for a flavor profile that’s fruity and floral up front and spicy in the finish. (Tasted on its own, there's a good amount of citrus, including a sweet orange-water in the nose and little sugar.) It's then blended with a separate distillate, which uses yeast harvested from a pineapple that unsurprisingly shows a tropical or pineapple character.
This makes the finished product ideal for mixing, as seen in the tasting room's Redbeard (rum, Campari, lemon and a spicy house-made ginger soda) or the Liquid Nostalgia, which tastes like your favorite orange drink from childhood, thanks to Smith's “Orangewellian” soda and Bonal.
The cocktails benefit from Smith's house-made sodas, tonics and syrups — the kind of mad-scientist drinks he's become known for during his time behind the bar at Dram & Grain and Compass Rose. Some cocktails are on tap; others involve pouring rum into a glass and then adding house-made sodas straight from the gun.
Sure, it's a fast way to get drinks into the hands (and stomachs) of customers, but that's not why so much has been pre-batched, Smith says. “We want to spend time talking to people about the rum, the ingredients and how to use it [in cocktails]," he explains. “We can't do that if we're shaking and stirring and pouring.”
Walker adds: “We don't want to be just a regular bar. We want people to ask questions about the drinks and the base spirits.”
It's pretty helpful when the person serving you is also the distiller or the driving force behind the flavor profile.
That said, I'd be surprised if the crowds who flock to Union Market, especially on weekends, don't begin to treat Cotton and Reed's tasting room as a neighborhood bar, since it's only a few hundred feet up Fifth Street.
Cotton and Reed, 1330 Fifth St. NE. 202-544-2805. cottonandreed.com. Open from 4 p.m. to midnight Wednesday to Friday and noon to midnight Saturday and Sunday. Cocktails start at $10 for draft options and go up to $14 for fancier versions. A bottle of Dry Spiced Rum costs $35 to take home; the White Rum is $30.