A Taste of Green Hat Gin and a Bit About Why it Took so Long to Get Here by Jeremy Barr

Jeremy Barr is a writer and journalism student. A native of suburban Maryland, he now lives in Mount Vernon Square. He last wrote about his experiences finding a group house.

On Saturday, I tasted Green Hat Gin, billed as the city’s first legally distilled spirit in a century, for the first time. It is produced by Ivy City-based New Columbia Distillers, which began selling .75 liter bottles in early October. I picked up my bottle — part of batch #9, according to the label — at Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, which sells it for $35. (John Uselton, co-owner of New Columbia Distillers, used to be the store’s beer buyer). An employee told me that demand for the product is such that they keep it near the front of the store, rather than on their floor-to-ceiling sale walls.

Seeing as that the city now has three breweries — with the addition of 3 Stars Brewing this summer — I got to thinking about why New Columbia Distillers is by its lonesome. I also wondered why it took so long for the country’s most-stressed out city to have a locally-produced spirit to turn to.

Luckily, DC’s has its very-own alcohol historian. I reached out to Garrett Peck, who literally wrote the book on the city’s hooch history. Prohibition in Washington, DC: How Dry We Weren’t tells the story of a city flush with liquor — dispersed at more than 3,000 speakeasies — at a time when its lawmaker residents had outlawed it.

Continues after the jump.

The book introduces George Cassiday, known as “The Man in the Green Hat” (so, Green Hat Gin) because of his penchant for wearing a green fedora. A legendary bootlegger, Cassiday hawked liquor out of Congressional office buildings before being arrested, bottles in hand.

Over email, Peck shed some light into why he isn’t surprised by how long it took for DC to get its first distillery:

“The microdistillery boom didn’t really start until fairly recently, around 2005. That may seem shockingly late, given how popular craft brewing has been for decades, but it’s true. In that sense, DC isn’t all that late to the microdistillery party, since this is an industry in its infancy.”

Finding adequate space to house brewing and distilling operations has been an issue. “These are quasi-industrial [operations] that require special zoning; DC doesn’t have much industrial space anymore,” he said.

Peck pointed out that many distillers have a background in brewing, as “to distill anything, you first have to brew a beer.” And in that sense, DC was behind the curve on building a craft brewing industry.

“The craft brewing market began bubbling up in the late 1970 with home brewers and small brewers like Sierra Nevada. Most cities developed significant craft brewing industries – heck, just look at Baltimore up the road – but DC lagged significantly. Our last brewery (Christian Heurich) closed in 1956; we didn’t get a craft brewery until 2011 (and since have added two more – with our fourth, Atlas Brew Works, coming online in 2013).”

The permitting process for DC’s first microbrewery in more than half a century, DC Brau, presented challenges. But new companies, including New Columbia Distillers, have been able to learn from their forerunners’ travails, Peck said.

Concerns about demand for beer also contributed to the delay.

“No one really knew if DC would be a beer drinking city again. It’s long been a cocktail and wine city, but would people take to beer? Yes, as it turns out, we do.”

I think we can all agree with that.

11 Comment

  • Great article. I read Peck’s book a while ago and highly recommend it. It’s so cool to realize that there were speakeasies scattered throughout the city, often in buildings we still use.

  • I love that it’s locally made, but I was really not a fan of the gin’s flavor. I’m bummed!

    • I actually really like the mix of botanicals they use in Green Hat, and a martini drinks smooth (although it’d be nice if they could eliminate the slight gasoline finish on the tail end). Overall, a solid entry for those who like contemporary style gins — think Hendricks (though if Hendricks is an A, this is a B+ with room for slight improvements). I’ve picked up a few bottles since initially tasting it.

      Even more importantly, they have opened the doors for future distillers in the district.

    • i am also not a fan. very disappointed.

  • Why doesn’t this review of Green Hat Gin actually review anything about the taste of Green Hat Gin?

    • Because that was not the point of the post (i.e. it’s not actually a “review of Green Hat Gin”.) Perhaps the title misleads a bit, but the second paragraph reveals the author’s intent.

  • The gin has a very distinctive, funky, buttered popcorn-like flavor . . . and not much of the juniper flavor typically associated with gin. My wife and I bought a bottle just before the holidays and it’s now gone, having had a few guests try it. Some loved it. Some thought it was too funky and weird. I dig it and look forward to future creations of New Columbia Distillers.

  • Also bummed! I didn’t like it at all. It is not the flavor I wanted from a G&T. I thought it tasted like perfume.

  • Another disappointed drinker. Agree with the funky buttered popcorn (plus vanilla?) flavors as well as a bit of an oily back end (the gasoline finish?). Might be better in sweeter drinks like aviations and Negronis, but not my hat for martinis, G&T, gimlets. Leopold Brothers and Bluecoat are doing American gin much much better than this.

  • Agreed that this is not the gin for a G&T, but that’s just a reason to branch out into more inventive gin-based cocktails.

    For those Petworth/CH/Park View residents interested in trying Green Hat, it’s for sale at Lion’s Liquors on Georgia. Great to see a revamped (and now awesome) local liquor store stocking local spirits.

  • Hopefully i care for it as i am a gin drinker…

    also how do i go about getting one of those low batch # bottles?

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