Updated: Jan. 27, 2015 at 1:05 p.m.
Alex Laufer and Alexander “Sandy” Wood spent years working in law and biotechnology. Now, they say they’ve brought the skills from those professions to a new venture: Running D.C.’s newest distillery.
The duo is making the country’s most popular hard liquors, whiskey and vodka, at One Eight Distilling, D.C.’s second distillery to open since the Prohibition era.
At One Eight, which opened two weeks ago in Northeast D.C., Laufer and Wood produce three signature spirits in a brick-and-mortar distillery that uses local grains. The distillery’s name comes from Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which established the District as the nation’s capital.
Wood described their rye-based products as spicy, unique and smooth.
“Rye is a somewhat under-utilized grain for distilling. It was a traditional crop for the mid-Atlantic area used in the colonial days,” he said.
The two entrepreneurs come from unlikely backgrounds: Wood was an attorney in D.C. for more than a dozen years while Laufer worked in biotechnology for 17 years. But an interest in the brewing process evolved into hopes of opening a business after Wood and Laufer worked together as apprentices at the Smooth Ambler distillery in West Virginia.
Wood found the distilling process a “fascinating mix of science and art,” but the craft brewery movement also piqued his interest because of its entrepreneurial spirit. Increasingly, people aren’t just drinking booze – they’re making it themselves. In June, the New Yorker reported that all but two states brewed more craft beer in 2012 than 2011, based on data from the Brewer’s Association.
“Craft distilling is probably about 20 years or so years behind where craft brewing is, [but] people were actually creating businesses and building distilleries,” he said.
By shadowing distillers in West Virginia and even Scotland, where Wood worked at a traditional distillery called Springbank, Wood and Laufer learned hands-on how the brewing process works. From there, they headed to Chicago, where Wood took a course at the Koval Distillery while Laufer completed academic training at the Siebel Institute of Technology, the nation’s oldest brewing school.
Just two years later, One Eight Distillery was born. On Jan. 8, it opened the doors of its 7,500-square-foot brick building off New York Avenue in Northeast, blocks away from Green Hat Gin, which in 2012 became D.C.’s first distillery since Prohibition.
More than 700 guests attended One Eight’s preview event.
Jared Earley, marketing director for One Eight Distilling, said tasters at the Saturday opening were curious about the Rock Creek Whiskey, which lacks the brownish tint characteristic of whiskey. The whiskey is un-aged, which lends it a white hue, though the distillery will begin serving aged whiskey in roughly a year and a half.
“‘How did you get it to be white?’” Earley said tasters asked. “We thought this was an opportunity to support the underdog and showcase this fine spirit before and during its aging process. We really wanted to show it in its purest sense.”
One Eight’s rye-based vodka, District Made Vodka, is “more interesting, slightly spicy,” Wood said. The distillery’s third spirit, Ivy City Gin, will begin its production next week and will be ready for purchase toward the end of February.
Earley said their tours and samplings have opened conversation outside of the tasting room, making many customers want to learn more about the distillation process.
After milling, which involves grinding raw material like rye into a coarse meal, the starch is converted to sugar, producing “mash.” The next step is fermentation, in which the sugar becomes alcohol and carbon dioxide with the assistance of yeast. Finally, in the distillation process, the alcohol, grain particles, water and congeners are condensed to form clear drops of the distilled spirit.
“It was really rewarding to see the educational service that we’re providing. We thought [the tasting tours] would just be like a fun behind-the-scenes sneak peek, but we really felt like folks were learning and they appreciated learning,” Earley said. He stressed that Saturday tasting hours are restricted to those 21 years old and older who have valid identification.
He added that Union Kitchen, on Congress Street in Northeast, could partner with One Eight.
“We’re really fortunate in being in an area of the District with so many collaborators from Union Kitchen to our fellow distilleries and breweries,” Earley said. “There’s really a vibrant food and beverage community here, and we were able to take those partnerships initially to get the word out.”