George Cassiday’s bootlegging career began relatively innocently—a clandestine whiskey drop for two Southern congressmen—but soon his impeccably tailored suit and green felt hat became well known on Capitol Hill.
In 1920, fresh off a tour of duty in World War I, the West Virginia native walked off a French freighter and into one of the worst job markets in US history. With Prohibition in full swing, a well-paid friend explained that bootlegged booze was bringing a pretty penny. Especially with DC politicos.
Cassiday would wheel his heavy luggage, overfilled with liquor, into the House Office Building, tip his trademark topper to the door guards, and make his rounds of discreet bureau drawers and library shelves—responding to 25 calls a day, on average, from thirsty lawmakers.
After five years, Cassiday’s cover was blown. As agents carted him away, the sergeant-at-arms on the scene told reporters that “a man in a green hat” had been busted for bootlegging. Cassiday was banned from the House, never to supply again, they reported.
Instead, Cassiday took his green hat and white whiskey across the Capitol lawn, where he liquored up the Senate for another five years. When his New York City suppliers’ stashes dried up, he cooked up his own hooch and sold it out of the Senate Office Building’s stationery room. His recipe was crude: a gallon each of rye, grain alcohol, and hot water, plus a few drops of coloring.
By the end of his hooch-slinging career in 1930, Cassiday estimated that he was keeping 80 percent of the House and Senate in drink. “If they got a kick out of it with no bad side effects, they were well satisfied,” he wrote in a 1930 Washington Post article.
Handcrafted liquor has a much different connotation these days. Small-batch spirit makers—those producing fewer than 100,000 cases a year—are setting up shop around the country, much like the craft-brewery renaissance that sprang out of the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s.
While craft liquors have taken off in the region, this fall an industrious duo—retired lawyer Michael Lowe and son-in-law John Uselton—began to do what no one has done in the nation’s capital in more than a century: distill spirits within District lines.
Lowe and Uselton’s baby, New Columbia Distillers—the city’s first microdistillery—opened in October in a developing neighborhood off New York Avenue, Northeast. If all goes as planned, they’ll soon be brewing 2,000 cases a year of the sort of small-batch gin and rye whiskey that was stocked behind the bars of pre-18th Amendment DC. “We want to be able to say we’ve made a little bit of history,” says Uselton.
In a nod to DC’s past, their inaugural spirit is branded Green Hat Gin.
Craft distilling is a tough market, especially going up against industry giants such as Jack Daniel’s and Tanqueray, which sell 10 million and 2 million cases a year, respectively. The good news for Lowe and Uselton: DC likes to drink.
“People don’t realize that DC has always been considered the biggest drinking city in the country,” says Derek Brown, owner of two DC specialty-cocktail dens, the Passenger and the Columbia Room. “Sure, in the past few years, we’ve seen a renaissance of sorts, with all these craft bars coming in, with the breweries, but it’s always been a part of the fabric of this city.”
Before Prohibition turned DC dry for 17 years, the highest concentration of bars the country likely has ever seen, called Rum Row, stretched along what’s now Pennsylvania Avenue. Almost eight decades after Repeal Day, a typical DC drinker downs three gallons of distilled spirits a year, second only to residents of New Hampshire, according to the Beer Institute.
Lowe and Uselton want to capitalize on the thirsty local market, but they have a steep learning curve. Both started out as beer guys. Uselton was the beer buyer for Schneider’s of Capitol Hill; Lowe dabbled in home brewing after retiring from a 30-year legal career. “We chatted about doing a brewery, but I knew that a few were in the works in DC,” says Uselton. On a whim, Lowe took a weekend distilling class at Cornell University.
“I looked at a bottle of whiskey and thought, ‘I can never do that,’ ” says Uselton. “I thought it must be a ten-year process and more than I could handle.”
But when Lowe came back from Cornell, he had good news. “Seeing the process in action made me realize that this isn’t magic—not at all,” says Lowe, whose strawberry-blond mustache and round, wire-rimmed spectacles make him look like a booze maker out of central casting. “It’s art, certainly. But it’s doable.”
An apprenticeship out west at Spokane’s Dry Fly Distilling with Don Poffenroth, a marketing executive turned craft distiller, cemented the men’s interest.
Many hopeful spirit makers see distilling as the latest get-rich-quick scheme, says Poffenroth, who believes it’s anything but. It can take years to get into the black, and most distillery start-ups come with a seven-figure price tag.
Scott Harris, co-owner of Loudoun County’s Catoctin Creek distillery, has doubled production every year since opening in 2009 and is set to produce 40,000 cases annually of white and rye whiskeys, gin, and brandy. But he admits it was tough getting started. “The trick is getting your product out there, branding it, selling it,” says Harris, who worked in telecommunications before opening the distillery. “It’s going to become more difficult as the market becomes more saturated with craft distillers.”