Friends from childhood, launching Republic Restoratives Distillery in May 2016 provided lesbian co-founders Pia Carusone and Rachel Gardner the opportunity workaday professionals in D.C. frequently long for but don’t often have the chance to create.
For Carusone, who worked as chief of staff to Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, the assassination attempt on her boss in 2011 proved a moment of reflection for the now entrepreneur. “You can’t help but ask yourself, ‘what has my life amounted to, what would I regret’ following an experience like that,” she explains.
“Rachel and I had been talking about starting a business of some kind,” explains Carusone, noting that the shooting incident prompted Gardner, also a government employee, to ponder similar questions while they continued engagements in civic service or on political issues.
Each married and living with their same-sex spouses in the District, “We wanted to contribute to the city we both love,” emphasizes Carusone. Gardner had previously taken a liquor distillation class, which would serve as catalyst for the duo in discerning a business path and plan.
They discovered that recent reforms to D.C. liquor laws designed to encourage the development of local distilleries, breweries, and wineries were offset by the difficulty assembling private financing or bank loans. As smart and savvy as they are now knowledgeable about the industry and operating a business, Carusone and Gardner instead launched an online appeal for financial support.
The result is the largest crowd-funded craft distillery in the world and first woman-owned in D.C. history.
Having proved their innovative mettle soliciting small investor backing, commercial bank and private investment funding would soon follow.
They joined the growing ranks of local independent alcohol producers in the District, creating and capturing an emerging consumer appreciation for, and attraction to, hometown spirits and community enterprise. “Restaurants and bars had begun connecting patrons to their culinary product by emphasizing locally sourced ingredients,” notes Carusone, “and now you see the same with spirits.”
“If you don’t have local products on your bar, you’re likely not at the top of your game” in the current hospitality scene, Carusone asserts.
Republic Restoratives entered the marketplace with Civic Vodka – a dry, crisp, corn-based ferment with a subtly sweet taste that compares well. Borough Bourbon was next, distilled five years with high wheat content and notably smooth flavor. Rodham Rye whiskey was intended as a celebration of women for launch during the presidential inauguration of namesake Hillary Clinton. As it turned out, the defeated Clinton was later presented with Bottle #1 of the distinctive pour.
A fourth product was introduced this fall – Chapman’s Apple Brandy, commemorating Johnny Appleseed’s surname. Picked and pressed in Adams County, Pennsylvania, by seventh-generation Three Springs Fruit Farm for dual-oak resting and distillation at the D.C. warehouse, this refined concoction blending four unique varietals offers a taste of the harvest.
Republic Restoratives self-distributes to 200 local establishments and its spirits are available at a growing number of retail stores. “Direct distribution allows us to get to know our clients and quickly respond to their needs,” says Carusone, “building a sense of community in the process.”
The most surprising challenge for lesbian entrepreneurs Carusone and Gardner, along with transgender sales director Whit Kathner who rounds out the founding team, is that no LGBT venues, accustomed to marketing-subsidized deep-discounting by corporate brands, are customers.
“Supporting our local community is the single most important thing you can do,” Carusone says. “Try our products, come to visit us at our Tasting Room, and suggest that your favorite bar or restaurant give us a try.”
Republic Restoratives Distillery is located at 1369 New York Ave., N.E., adjacent to the iconic former Hecht Co. building in the Ivy City area. The production facility features a Tasting Room craft cocktail bar open Thursday and Friday 5-11 p.m., Saturday Noon-11 p.m., and Sunday Noon-5 p.m. Private event bookings are accommodated and special food-and-drink paired tastings are offered. More info: RepublicRestoratives.com.