It’s early morning in Ivy City. New York Avenue is slowly (but surely) filling up with traffic and while there aren’t a lot of pedestrians to be seen, there are a ton of trucks. Some are dropping off packages at Union Kitchen, while others pick things up from one of the bevy of warehouses (including Compass Coffee, New Columbia Distillers and many more) that dot the area. In the middle of the madness is Republic Restoratives, D.C.’s only women owned distillery and a boozy oasis in a sea of industry. Well known for their Civic Vodka (which you can find all over D.C., including the pastel painted rooms of The Wing), Republic Restoratives also made waves last year by putting out Rodham Rye (named after Hillary Clinton and one of the finest ryes I’ve personally ever had), as well as Borough Bourbon and Chapman’s, their foray into apple brandy.
As co-founder Pia Carusone and I sit in their bright and impeccably designed bar, The Ivy Room, we start to dig into the details. Year two has been an important year for Republic. It saw them break into three other liquor categories and they’ve been able to expand into Maryland and Virginia. As we dive into plans for year three (look out Baltimore), we get into the joys of ugly fruit, D.C.’s total lack of warehouse space and the way it feels to walk into a bar and see your own booze on the menu.
Brightest Young Things: So you are approaching year two and a lot of the coverage and a lot of the press I read about you focuses on your Indiegogo and how you started and how you both left different political lives and opened the distillery. That’s an amazing story, but, I want to know how it’s been since then?
Pia Carusone: It’s been great. Full of challenges, but nothing that has stopped us. I feel like owning a small business like this is a series of problems that you’re mitigating and trying to push through, but getting used to that. We were so tired when we opened because it was like we had just run a marathon to arrive at the start of like an ultra-marathon. It was a crazy feeling of relief, but also, oh my god now we have to actually run this fucking business.
BYT: In your mind it’s been open forever.
Carusone: Yeah we’ve been doing this for so long! And chasing after the moment that we opened the doors and made our first sale, but obviously that was just the beginning.
BYT: Has anything happened in the first two years that surprised you? Any challenges or opportunities that popped up that you didn’t anticipate?
Carusone: I would say we underestimated the length of time that it takes to close a deal on some of the bigger accounts. For example, last night was the first exhibition game at Nats Park and we’re finally there. And by ‘there’, I mean we’re just cracking in. We’ll be part of a cocktail kiosk that a few of the other distilleries are apart of, so that’s awesome. We’re talking with the Capital One Center, this takes a long time. We’ve had some successes though, with Nats Park, but Costco took a long time. The sort of enterprise accounts, the relationship building, it’s a lot of work. I’d say the surprise on the success side is how willing… People always say D.C. is a really special community for food and bev, I think when people compare it to New York, definitely. We’re smaller, there’s more of an underdog feel here, people really look out for each other, there’s not as much cutthroat shit.
BYT: Who’s the brain behind your branding?
Carusone: I mean on our team it’s me, but I’m not the designer. We work with a group of friends that work for a big ad firm that we could never afford. They’re kind of doing it on the side, so I shouldn’t tell you which one, but they’re like UK and New York people. We looked around and thought people are buying spirits, for the most part on brand, story, and visuals.
BYT: Like the person in the grocery store just trying to pick something up.
Carusone: Much the way you do wine, right? We knew we had to have a really attractive brand and as we were doing our research here we started to feel like even the really attractive brands, you crack the bottle and pour a glass and you’re a little disappointed by what you’re tasting. The goal is for customers that our products become daily use products, not special use. Not like we’re going to buy one bottle because we went to the distillery tour and it’s going to collect dust and we’re going to use Makers Mark for our nightly Manhattan. We want to be that nightly Manhattan. That requires a really exceptional and competitive product, which is not easy to do. Chapman’s Apple Brandy won Best in Category at the largest craft distillery show. Top billing for the branding, Borough won gold. Rodham won silver. We’re working on it.
BYT: Did you have an idea in mind before you went to the designers? Did you ask them to make it more minimalist or old school?
Carusone: I guess to an extent we knew we didn’t want to go old school prohibition. We’re not a speakeasy, we don’t want that branding. We wanted timeless, not to say we’re not in the current era of design that we see a lot of of, like you know the crossed arrows. We wanted to sort of get out of that otherwise. We prefer clean, and 90 degrees and then not too much embellishment, but otherwise we were pretty open. We thought a lot about silver versus copper. Our stills are mostly stainless, so the design focuses more on silver than gold. But no, we were really open. These guys have designed a lot, not just visually, but brand architecture and big names. We kind of let them play when we started with Republic Restoratives.
BYT: I’m intrigued that you guys hopped into brandy after doing vodka, rye, and bourbon, because I assume most people would do gin. I don’t know if people are hopping into brandy yet, but I’m seeing more and more of it. Do you think that’s an upcoming trend
Carusone: Brandy’s on the move. 100% it is on the move big time. Brandy is like what rye was like 10 years ago. It’s huge triple digit growth in the U.S. and there’s really not a lot of craft people doing it. Laird’s is the common brand that everyone will know, but there’s only a few people putting it out.
BYT: I love that you guys make American Trilogy’s with it. You’ve got to mix it up because Old Fashioneds are boring now.
Carusone: Yeah, right. You want to get the sugar from something else but just, Lairds is produced with concentrate, most brandys are produced with concentrate. Coming in you know like frozen giant ice cubes of pure sweet sugar concentrate. So we’re not going that route, which has made it harder and it’s made our production run… We don’t get as much out
BYT: How long does it take you guys from the beginning to the bottle?
Carusone: We’re getting like apples grown in Adams County, PA. We’re working with a farmer there that we met through the farmers market circle down here. He’s awesome, he’s next generation farmer, he’s our age. His father and grandfather own the place, but he’s really running it and he’s an apple nerd. He knows everything about apples, the science of apples and whatever. Three Springs Fruit Farm is their name. We put it on the label because he’s a big part of this. It’s kinda his seconds, his apples that didn’t make the market because they’re bruised…
BYT: Ugly fruit?
Carusone: Ugly fruit makes good brandy because it’s already begun the process of fermenting. Rotting is really just the idea of fermentation. It gets pressed up there and sent down to us as fresh pressed cider essentially. No sugar added, and we ferment in the tanks using a white wine yeast. It sits for two months. It’s a process called resting on the lees, it’s a very old french process, but it basically means the yeast ferments, it’s very active, it smells incredible, there’s bubbles up everywhere and the yeast dies and you’re left with essentially dead yeast carcasses. It’s a dead organism and it just continues to just do its thing and it really develops a much more complex flavor, which we kind of fell into on accident.
BYT: So this was not something you had planned, this was just a test run?
Carusone: Yep. Then we were tasting and we were shocked it tasted so good. I mean it’s like you’re sticking your nose in an apple. So we decided to see if we could make it happen. This year we’re going to double our production of the 2017 harvest. We’re already halfway through, we have another pressing that will get done hopefully next month. We produced 1,200 bottles this year, so if we double to 2,400 it’s still very small production. We’ll see where it goes. It’s definitely the most unique thing we’re up to right now.
BYT: I wanted to go back briefly you were talking about D.C.’s community and especially the food and beverage industry and how welcoming they’ve been. Are there are any local distillers that really inspire you?
Carusone: For one reason or another, all of them. Michael at Green Hat has been essentially our neighbor. He’s been the older guy of the crowd and he’s an attorney. We really leaned on him for the, “Oh fuck, what do we do?” moments in this thing. Him and Alex and Sandy at One Eight. We were building out around the same time and we have similar buildings here.
BYT: What would be your dream collaboration?
Carusone: Hmm. Well I’ll tell you the one we’re currently sweating. It’s not that we can’t make it happen, we just haven’t had time is to do a cream liqueur. To use like a local, Trickling Springs is a local creamery, a local honey, a neutral based spirit and make something. Like a honey cream vodka liqueur. If you were to think of Bailey’s, minus the coffee flavor. We’re also looking at doing a coffee liqueur, which is another bit that we would really like to get into.
BYT: What’s an average day like for you?
Carusone: I’m not an early riser. I work late when there’s an event I have to go to. But even if I’m not out, I’m working at home. I’m a work after dinner type person. So I’m not here before 9 a.m. Definitely not. Usually here by 10 a.m. A night like tonight, we have an event at the bar so I’ll stay and thank the host and all that. Every day I’m in D.C. I’m here. I travel a bit, my wife doesn’t really live here, so there’s a commute to keep up the relationship and stuff like that. In terms of the team, here my work can be very mobile. I’m the one on email. Most the partnerships we were talking about, that’s a lot of email and conference calls.
BYT: And a lot of spreadsheets.
Carusone: A lot of spreadsheets. Or social posting and what not. I can work from San Francisco the month of February, it’s not hard to keep up with this out there. But, honestly, it’s a lot of email and a lot of conference calls. A lot of it. The sales team is growing, we’re expanding to Baltimore, we’re trying to look for new people and more people.
BYT: If you were to expand, would you want to stay here or would you want to buy another location?
Carusone: I’d love to stay here. This is like a dream for us, but, D.C.’s facing a challenge on how to support companies like ours.
BYT: There’s no space.
Carusone: No. That company isn’t going to make D.C. Great [pointing across the street], this one is. And Union Kitchen is. And Compass. And we’re all three in this neighborhood. Warehouse space, manufacturing zoned areas are really important to the creative economy that the leaders of D.C. Are excited about pursuing. So I don’t know what’s going to happen. If we needed to expand today, I don’t know where we’d go. I say that because in 2014 when we signed the lease here, it wasn’t like we had options. We were out of options. Our realtor was like, “I know the family that dilapidated place in the corner of New York and Fenwick, let’s see if we can figure out how to get you guys in there.” Had that not happened… I don’t know. That was four years ago and now everything’s been bought around here.
BYT: How long is your lease here?
Carusone: It’s ten years with a ten year option. I think it kicked off in 2015 so 2025.
BYT: So you’re not worried.
Carusone: Not really. I figure by then we’ll figure it out. Or not. I don’t know, but you can’t worry too much
BYT: What would your dream Ivy City look like?
Carusone: Local businesses.
BYT: What does local business mean to you?
Carusone: Manufacturing businesses like ours, and Compass is opening their big roastery, would be awesome, but more space for people that are trying to make it. Maybe they’ll try and fail a little bit, but they’ve got the money, they’re looking to rent. People have money and they’re looking to spend, they just can’t do $50 a foot or whatever bullshit people are trying to sell. And they can’t sign ten year leases they just can’t. I think there’s a lot of possibility there. Obviously the food and beverage stuff is interesting and sexy
BYT: It’s what your passionate about
Carusone: I am, but I know from a development perspective, that’s good, it brings money. But artists, musicians, the whole thing. I feel like that’s what makes a neighborhood. That’s what makes a city. I live in Shaw and there’s all this drama happening with The Shay, all that retail space.
BYT: We’re just watching things open and close there.
Carusone: It’s like, no shit because they’re all faceless. Even the facade of that building, you can’t make it look interesting.
BYT: What’s the worst part of your job?
Carusone: What do I not look forward to… I guess some of the stuff we just talked about honestly. That’s what I stress about, what’s the future of the city? What’s the future of the company as it relates to city? That’s the big picture. I think it’s also the big picture financial pressure, that if it were to change it’d be hard for us. We got really really lucky here from a rent perspective because we got in so early. We couldn’t keep up with what they’re charging across the street. I’m really happy with the products, I’m really happy with the team and the culture we built here, but that’s a big picture threat. And that’s why doing a distillery in an urban area is obviously harder. Doing it in the rolling hills of Kentucky, where land is given away essentially, is a lot easier. At some point in the next probably two years, maybe sooner, we’ll need to find even just a shitty warehouse to just store things. We’re actually already renting a container from Douglas for dry storage for glass. This business is such the economics of quantity kind of thing. The price breaks are astronomical when you start ordering bigger quantities, which we want to do, but it’s all about storage. I mean like all of these brands have their own bottles. That’s a lot of glass. And then all the other shit, caps, labels.
BYT: The stuff you don’t dream about when you open a distillery.
Carusone: Totally, but when you can get like 50% price break, you’re like, “We’ll, we’re going to figure it out.” We’re going to use that price savings to rent a container and drive the forklift across New York Avenue. When the sun is rising and the traffic isn’t bad, I’m like “go! go! go!” across a four lane highway with a forklift full of glass.
BYT: What’s the best part of your job?
Carusone: It’s walking into a bar or restaurant, not really knowing that we’re involved, sitting down, getting the cocktail menu and seeing us in a named cocktail. Knowing the various people involved in making that happen. Our sales team is so, they’re awesome. We’ve got a really different system we’re doing in terms of how people hire brand ambassadors and we’ve spent a lot of time reinventing that. Looking at what everyone else is doing and doing it better, we think. So that’s a lot of fun. It’s like, “Oh wow that means Amy or Emily was over here and knows the bar team.” and I’ll text them and they’ll say, “Oh yeah!” At the beginning of the company, there wasn’t a bar that I didn’t know personally and now I get to go somewhere and I’m like, “Well look at that, we’re on the menu somewhere.” That’s awesome. These people know us and love us and I don’t even know your name, so that’s fun.
BYT: It’s like hearing your band’s song on the radio.
Carusone: Exactly. It’s a volume game for us. We have to sell a lot of product to make money. We take checks in at such a low volume, the checks are for $150. It takes a lot of $150 checks to run a company like this. So different than other places who are just doing big sales.
BYT: Nothing comes easy. Last question, is there anything else on the horizon or anything you really want to do but haven’t had the time or energy to do yet?
Carusone: Well, besides the cream and the coffee, which are two things that have been dogging us for the past two years in terms of we want to do them. Part of it is you see we really invest a lot in the branding and want to make sure we’re not stretching ourselves too thin. We need to be able to supports these brands also. Other things we’ve been thinking about, obviously gin would be easy to do there’s a lot of gin out there. Something like 7% of the population drinks gin, so we’ve kind of let everyone else do it. We’ll probably do it at some point but…
BYT: It’s just not next on the list
Carusone: Doesn’t feel like it, but sales team would love it. It’d be very easy to sell with the gin and we’ve got a recipe we love.
BYT: So you’re there?
Carusone: We’re there. We tested it three years ago and we just decided to hold it for a little while. This brandy thing has been kind of fun, we’re kinda thinking about like what other brandy’s we can do. We’ve got to use local, we’re not going to bring in fruit from somewhere else and there’s only so much you can do with the environment of the atlantic. There’s a few things we’re going to test this season. I think the first two years were marked by us launching these brands, I would say the next phase is launching our markets and becoming a presence in Baltimore, Richmond and being stronger regionally.