Matt Strickland isn’t tired of getting of getting free bottles of liquor, per se… but his sunlit Glover Park apartment is definitely running out of space. It’s a champagne problem, the kind of thing you don’t really need to think about when you’re not the head distiller for one of D.C.’s award winning distilleries. But unfortunately (and fortunately) for Strickland, he is. And he does.
Strickland, who worked at Corsair Distillery in Tennesse before he moved to D.C., has been the head distiller of District Distilling Co. since the beginning. The beautiful dark red row home turned distillery and restaurant on U and 14th is his office and his playroom. It’s the place where he produces heavy hitters like their Wild June Gin and one offs like their white crème de menthe.
His home, though, is more like a booze library, featuring shelves overspilling with unusual liquors. The first thing he pulls out is a big, squat and round bottle of Kaoliang Chiew, a brand of baijiu (a distilled liquor made of fermented sorghum). Strickland pops it open as he talks about picking up the bottle in Chinatown. The cashier tried to steer him to something else and then attempted to set him up with a fancier, tamer version, but he wanted a bottle of the real stuff. If the taste is half as strong as the smell, it’s some formidable drink.
But that doesn’t bother Strickland. He’s an experimenter at heart. The kind of person who is always down to try something new. During our visit he was especially excited about Kavalan’s port finished whisky, a Taiwanese whisky that has only been available in the U.S. for the last year. Other exciting additions to the liquor shelf include a couple of small bottles from Diageo’s Orphan Barrel project, which focuses on rare and hard to find whiskeys.
Of course, his true love is scotch. “I always have a good scotch on hand,” he says adding that he’s been into rum these days too. There are far too many scotches for him to narrow it down to just one forever favorite, but when it comes to rum he recommends El Dorado 15 (aka every bartenders go-to) and Plantation Overproof rum (which he always has in the house). Besides scotch and rum, he’s never without a bottle of Chartreuse but it has to be the original Élixir Végétal formula.
As vast as Strickland’s collection is, there are a couple of things you won’t find. “There isn’t any vodka in the house,” he claims. And while you might spy a few bourbons, they don’t do much for him. “People get excited about bourbon… but bourbon is boring.” In comparison to most of the stuff Strickland has on hand, we have to agree.
Although, if you are a bourbon fan, Strickland has some advice for you: Get a bottle of Old Grand Dad 100 proof, according to him, “It’s essentially a younger and higher proof Basil Hayden.” For scotch newbies he recommends starting with unpeated spirits and lowland malts like Auchentoshan, then moving onto other scotches like Aberfeldy 12 or something from Macallan.
But Strickland doesn’t spend all his time drinking at home (not with kids, dogs and District Distilling’s production schedule). When his wife and him aren’t having a daiquiri or a Manhattan (“I play around with a lot of cocktails,”) at the house, they head out to spots like Left Door and Maydan. And when it comes to other local distilleries, Strickland has nothing but positive things to say, “Everyone in town does something I think is good,” he says as he talks about his relationships with the folks at One Eight, Republic Restoratives and New Columbia.
As he rifles through a shelf filled with whiskey glasses and children’s sippy cups, we ask a little bit about his reading list. Strickland is a serious studier, with a degree in fermentation science that he jokingly (and not-so-jokingly) calls “a Masters in wine.” He’s reading trade magazines and blogs on the regular (like The Spirits Business), not to mention books like Dave Boom’s The Way of Whiskey. As fun as the booze business can be, he takes his job, and his impact on the industry, as seriously as possible.
“If you’re not studying, you’re not getting better and if you’re not getting better, get out.”