If you peruse state and local liquor laws in the U.S., you may be surprised by the differences from state to state and even from county to county or city to city. Designed to oversee the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol, some local laws haven’t changed since the Prohibition era (1920-33).In fact, our nation’s capital, which has become a foodie mecca in recent years, seemingly was behind the times when it came to serving alcohol in breweries and distilleries—the hottest trend in drinking establishments in other areas of the country. In fact, until 2012, Washington, D.C., did not allow breweries to sell or offer free samples onsite. By early 2015, the D.C. Council approved a “distillery pub permit”, which finally allowed restaurants and pubs to manufacture liquor onsite. By May 2015, the local government approved Washington’s distilleries to sell cocktails on premises though these locations still cannot have full bars (at least half the spirits served in a cocktail must be made onsite).
This new rule opened the door to create a new type of distillery—one in which patrons were welcome to sip spirits manufactured on premises and stay awhile. The owners behind District Distilling Co., which is located at 14th and U Streets, were instrumental in ensuring the new rules were passed. They hired Griz Dwight, AIA, owner and principal of Washington-based GrizForm Design Architects, to help them establish their vision for District Distilling, which would become the first distillery/restaurant/bar in Washington.
Although Dwight’s firm has designed more than 100 restaurants in the past decade, he says this was a project that kept his team on its toes. “We have distilleries in D.C.; there’s certainly nothing new about them,” he says. “But this was the first project that took advantage of this new local law, which was different for us. We had to take the typology of the distillery and marry it with more of a hospitality, public space.”
Because the 8,000-square-foot distillery, which creates whiskey, gin and vodka, would be located in a prominent restaurant area, the owners wanted a beautiful, comfortable space that would draw patrons. “They needed some pizzazz, so they reached out to us because we have a great reputation of designing cool and interesting spaces for restaurants,” Dwight notes. “Our client knew that was going to be important.”
The more than 100-year-old building chosen for District Distilling complements the age-old vocation of distilling liquor beautifully. Consequently, Dwight and his team have created a space Yelp reviewers describe as “beautiful” and “trendy with a comfortable, friendly vibe”. Another says it “absolutely oozes cool”.
District Distilling is housed within row houses that had been transformed from residential space to a couple different restaurants. In recent years, a developer bought the row houses and the land behind them where he built an apartment building. The row houses had been in use up until about five years ago but had fallen into disrepair. Despite their poor condition, the row houses were among District Distilling’s owners’ top picks for their new establishment.
“It was just one of those love-at-first-sight sort of spaces where you had the right mix of location and great bones,” Dwight recalls.“It seemed perfect right away.”
District Distilling’s owners leased three of the row houses entirely, as well as the second floor of a fourth row house. (The other spaces are leased to another restaurant.) Despite having “great bones”, the building’s interior required a lot of remedial structural work. “It was pretty rough in there,” Dwight remembers. “There was peeling plaster, falling-down wood studs. It was amazing that it was in the condition it was.”
However, the deconstructed interior provided just the right character for the distillery, Dwight says. “It was a beautiful building, and 90 percent of the exposed brick looked the way it does now naturally. I think there were some areas where we cleaned off the peeling plaster but the brick was all there and was great to have,” he declares.
The stills’ mixed metals of copper and stainless steel inspired the design strategy for the rest of the space. “You can see these metals in the bar and in the some of the details around the restaurant,” Dwight notes.
PHOTOS: Amber Frederiksen