News & Politics

Betsy DeVos’s Investment in DC Distillery Draws Boycott Threats

Jos. A. Magnus says the education secretary is not a stakeholder, but "some members of her family are."

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Photograph by Flickr user Gage Skidmore.

An investment in DC distillery Jos. A. Magnus & Co. from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos bubbled up to the surface Sunday night after DeVos’s muddling appearance on 60 Minutes. DeVos has a stake in the distillery valued between $500,001 and $1 million, according to the financial disclosure document she filed in January 2017 after being nominated for her position.

While the investment has been public knowledge for more than a year, it went mostly unnoticed until DeVos stumbled to explain her support for charter schools and other alternatives to traditional public education. But once the information appeared on Twitter, it metastasized into outright boycott threats from DC residents unsettled to discover that a local liquor brand has financial ties to a high-ranking member of the Trump Administration. (Which, as you might’ve heard, is deeply unpopular in Washington.)

Political boycotts aren’t new in Washington, but lately they’ve been quicker to develop, often with unexpected targets. After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last month that left 17 people dead, people looking to strike back at the National Rifle Association pressured bike shops to drop merchandise from brands like Giro, CamelBak, and Bell, whose parent company, Vista Outdoor, is a major firearms and ammunition manufacturer.

Magnus’s associations with GOP politics weren’t exactly a secret. One of its founders and master distiller, Brett Thompson, is also a partner at the Republican lobbying firm Banner Public Affairs. He also owns Alexandria’s Pork Barrel BBQ.

Magnus, which opened in 2015, sells a line of high-end whiskies, gins, and vodka. The company gets its name from Joseph A. Magnus, a 19th-century DC distiller, whose great-grandson, Jimmy Turner, restarted the family business after discovering an ancient bottle while cleaning out his parents’ house. Magnus’s flagship whiskey sells for $92 a bottle, and it’s also sold a special-edition made from a blend of 18-year-old bourbons for $1,000.

With a family net worth estimated at $5.1 billion, DeVos is the wealthiest member of President Trump‘s cabinet. Most of her wealth comes from her husband’s family’s ownership of the multi-level marketing firm Amway, but she and her husband, Dick, also have hundreds of smaller investments in entities like charter-school companies, the Orlando Magic, and a host of venture-capital funds.

Jos. A. Magnus is not the only liquor company that Betsy DeVos has an interest in: Her financial disclosure form also lists Coppercraft Distillery, a company in her hometown of Holland, Michigan, that was purchased in October 2015 by Windquest, a holding company controlled by her and her husband. Windquest is behind the investment in Jos. A. Magnus; DeVos’s financial disclosure states that “Direct interests in Windquest Group, Inc….are owned by Dick and Betsy DeVos.” Betsy DeVos was the chairman of Windquest until her government appointment, and no longer appears on the firm’s website.

Thompson did not respond to multiple requests for an interview to clarify the DeVos investment, but in a statement emailed to Washingtonian, Magnus puts some distance between itself and the education secretary.

“Ms. DeVos is not one of our investors, although some members of her family are,” writes Thy Parra, the distillery’s marketing director. “In any event, we’d love to have you stop by to sample some of our award-winning bourbon and gin!”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.