Metro Weekly

Social Spirits: Republic Restoratives mixes high-end liquors with progressive politics

Pia Carusone and Whit Kathner on running D.C.'s only queer- and women-owned distillery

Republic Restoratives: Pia Carusone and Whit Kathner — Photo: Todd Franson

When it finally opened its doors on Kentucky Derby Day in May of 2016, the distillery Republic Restoratives did so with remarkably little funding from established banks. Initially refused loans, founders Pia Carusone and Rachel Gardner turned to Indiegogo to become, in effect, “the largest crowdfunded distillery in U.S. history.”

And that’s not Republic’s only — or even biggest — distinction.

“We’re one of the few spirits producers that are very, very upfront about our values and our mission,” says Whit Kathner, a company director and managing partner who helped launch the business. Republic is explicitly women-and-queer-owned-and-operated, and also proud to proclaim its progressive politics in a way that is practically unheard of in the industry.

“With the election, a lot of spirits brands on Instagram would say, ‘It doesn’t matter who you vote for — just go out and vote and then we’ll all drink afterwards,'” says Kathner, a trans man who identifies as queer. Republic took a more decidedly partisan approach: who you vote for does matter. In fact, the distillery gained national attention after launching a product named Rodham Rye.

“We were really excited about the election of the first female president of the United States,” Kathner says. “We got that trademark and November [2016] happens, and on top of everything else with our country, we said, ‘Remember that rye brand we were about to launch? Oh no!’ We ended up keeping the name, but we changed the brand story. Instead of it being a celebratory [Hillary] Clinton inauguration rye, we made it a tribute to all the women whose shoulders we stand on — women who fought to repeal prohibition, who fought for the right to vote, who run for office, who start businesses.”

Having grown up as childhood friends in Saratoga Springs, New York, Carusone and Gardner continued their bond as adults living in opposite Washingtons — Gardner is based in Seattle — chiefly through a mutual love of whiskey. They had even batted around what Kathner jokingly calls the “crazy, hair-brained idea” of opening a whiskey distillery long before circumstances in Carusone’s political career compelled her to make a move and take the distillery dream seriously.

And Kathner — who had already made a career out of two previous left-field ideas from Carusone — was all too eager to pounce on this one. “When two of your closest friends are opening a whiskey distillery, you figure out a way to make your irrelevant resume pertinent,” he says.

Today, with its prime location in the distilling-rich Ivy City neighborhood, Republic Restoratives has become a key player in D.C.’s thriving independent spirits community. It’s also a sponsor of DC Cocktail Week, an annual promotion of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington that runs through this Sunday, Nov. 18. Republic’s smooth, clean, corn-based Civic Vodka factors into some of the cocktails on offer at participating Cocktail Week venues around town, including City Winery, with its Civic Sunset cocktail embellished with lemon juice and rosemary simple syrup ($14 with a phyllo-encrusted bleu cheese mousse amuse bouche), and at Wild Days in the Eaton Hotel downtown, with its Burn Baby Burn concoction mixing in ginger, Szechuan peppercorn, and lime ($14).

On a recent Friday afternoon, Carusone and Kathner led a tour of the facility and a tasting of the spirits, including Borough Bourbon and Chapman’s Apple Brandy. Naturally, we couldn’t leave without a taste of Rodham Rye, a popular seller, particularly among women of a certain age. And yes, its namesake — who was given two bottles, including Bottle One — has tried the whiskey.

“Last time I saw Clinton,” Carusone says, “she said, ‘It’s actually good.'”

Republic Restoratives: Whit Kathner — Photo: Todd Franson

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with how the two of you met.

PIA CARUSONE: Can we tell the real story? We dated sisters.

WHIT KATHNER: For five years.

CARUSONE: For a long time. So we were more like in-laws. Those relationships changed, but Whit and I remained very close, like family. This was a long time ago. In another, far off land.

KATHNER: Yeah, like 2006 to 2011.

MW: Did you have any experience in the spirits or service industries prior to this?

CARUSONE: No, not at all. I’m from a family of Republicans in upstate New York. I graduated college in 2003, sort of the beginning of the ’04 election. Everything that I was interested in in life sort of hinged on that election. So what does an out-of-work recent college grad do when there’s a bunch of political campaigns hiring? I thought, “I’ll give it a shot for a few months.” And that was in the summer and fall of ’03. I moved to New Hampshire to work for Howard Dean — Governor Dean from Vermont. Totally unintended, but that kind of set my career off. I met a bunch of people, took the next job, and the next one and it sort of evolved from there.

MW: Whit, I understand you were previously involved in politics, also because of Pia.

KATHNER: One summer, in between semesters, I was living in Boston, trying to find a job anywhere that wasn’t just a volunteer job, and I went and visited Pia up in Manchester, New Hampshire, where she was running a Congressional race. And you know, late in the evening, when all of the brilliant ideas happen, she asked, “Do you want to work for the Obama campaign? They’re doing this unpaid fellowship.” And I said, “Absolutely.” So I moved and shacked up with Pia for six months, up in New Hampshire, during the 2008 election.

After the election, I totally caught the bug. I loved it — the political work and engaging with the community. Values-based and mission-based work [where you] wake up every morning, go out and save the world. I managed a campaign in New Hampshire while I was finishing my last semester of school. Then I managed another race and then was deputy manager on a federal race.

One thing I didn’t love about campaign work was this feeling of building something that then goes away after Election Day. That iterative process of starting from scratch. So I actually moved down to D.C. after the 2010 election and got connected by Pia with the Service Employees International Union. I ended up working there for about five years [as] political director. But then this conversation started to get more and more serious.

Republic Restoratives — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: I understand the conversation about Republic Restoratives became more serious after Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in 2011. At the time, Pia, you were serving as her chief of staff.

CARUSONE: Yeah. The idea had come up prior to that, but until that moment it was of one of these ideas that friends have that come and go: Wouldn’t it be fun to do this? But you don’t do it. But when everything happened with Congresswoman Giffords is when I began to reevaluate my life. Everybody around her did. And this idea of opening a business became more appealing, and being able to transition off the Hill and out of politics entirely also at that time was appealing.

In December of 2012, a year and a half after she was shot, the Sandy Hook shooting happened. I was working at the Department of Homeland Security at the time and Mark and Gabby were like family — we talked all the time. They called and said, “This is insane. We should do something.”

That became the impetus to start the organization Americans for Responsible Solutions. I left DHS to be the executive director and help them start it up. That was always going to be temporary. It was great and I still work with them a little bit, but that wasn’t going to be a forever thing for me. And having left government, I could start to take a meeting about the distillery and figure out, is this a thing that could become a reality?

Every distillery has its own challenges. For us in D.C., it’s space. I think if we were looking today, I think we’d have a much harder time finding a space. I don’t think we’d be able to open. But at that point, we got lucky. We looked and looked and looked — it was a saga, but the realtor that we were working with knew the family that owned this building. It wasn’t for sale, but it needed a total rehab. That’s how we got introduced to this property.

MW: Let’s turn to your experiences as members of the LGBTQ community. When did you come out, and was that a challenge?

CARUSONE: I’m gay, and no, it wasn’t really a challenge. I haven’t had the experiences that other people have had. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, clearly [with a Republican family]. But in the end, they have been very supportive.

KATHNER: I had to come out four times. It was, “I’m gay” — that seemed like it would just be easier [than] bisexuality…back in 1998. Then I said, “All right, no. I’m actually bi.” So I had to do that. And then I transitioned. And then I said, “Yeah, Mom. So now I’m just straight.” How easy is this? It’s so simple. And then, “No, I’m not. I’m sorry. I’m still bi, but now I’m trans, too.” So I got to come out to my mom four times. That was interesting. I think the transition was the hardest. Parents kind of go through the process of feeling like they’re losing a child. So that was really hard for her. There was a period of time, probably six months, when it was really rocky. We weren’t in communication a lot. But she has really, really come around and is super-supportive. She couldn’t love my wife Heidi any more. She said that our wedding was the greatest day of her life. Now things are really straightened out in a very queer way.

MW: How long have you been together?

KATHNER: We’ve been together for five-and-a-half years now. We actually met on a work trip in Miami as colleagues. We both left thinking, “Man, I wish everything could be like that. That was so awesome.” A couple of months later, she was living in L.A. and work deployed me to L.A. randomly on a campaign for six months. And they put me up 15 minutes from her house. So it was a little bit of fate and a lot of luck. We just kind of fell head over heels for each other real quick.

CARUSONE: We were living together when that happened. It was the cutest thing ever! It was cute all the time.

Republic Restoratives: Pia Carusone — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: Pia, how long have you been with your wife?

CARUSONE: Leanne and I have been together four-and-a-half years.

KATHNER: Last year, Rachel got married in March, I got married in June, and Pia got married three weeks later in July. So we had three distillery weddings last year.

MW: All here?

KATHNER: Not here. Actually, they were all in different countries. Mine was in Joshua Tree, Pia’s was in Berlin, and Rachel’s was in Whistler. We’re like, “Cool. First 12 months in business, we’re all just going to get married.”

CARUSONE: It was a little crazy.

MW: Years into the process, despite this not being something you envisioned for yourself and your career, are you fulfilled by it?

CARUSONE: Oh, yeah. I think what drives me are challenges and learning. If I look back on my career, the times I was the most unhappy were the most stable and boring professionally. So that’s why I was kind of addicted to campaigns. And even working on the Hill with Gabby — we barely won that election in 2010. It was just constant movement all the time. That’s what I like about this work. We are not experts at this, we are learning it. We’ve had a chance to do things differently than other people because we have the freedom to try because we don’t have generations of customs that we’ve had to watch out for. So absolutely, it’s immensely challenging, but has been very rewarding.

MW: And you have been working on this together from the inception, right?

CARUSONE: Yeah. We were actually living together when this whole thing started. And Whit was our first hire.

KATHNER: I had to interview four times. I actually really respected that. After the last interview, I told my wife, “Oh, my god. I just don’t know what I’m going to do if I don’t get this job, I’m going to be so bummed and dispirited.” And my wife had this just sage wisdom on it: “Look, if you trust them enough to make good business decisions that you would want to leave a totally safe job to go to them, then trust that they’re going to make the right business decision. If they don’t hire you, then it’s probably for the best.” I thought, “That’s so true.” I don’t want to ruin my friendships and my relationships because I ended up being the wrong fit for the job.

MW: Have you had challenges being a minority — in any sense of the word — in the business?

CARUSONE: The answer, for me, is basically no. Do I know that we’re different? Yes. Do I feel that when we go to conferences? For sure. It’s a very male-dominated industry. Keep in mind that Whit and I interact in very different networks of people. In my world, I’m interacting with a lot of vendors, producers — the business of a distillery. I’m not face-to-face everyday with bartenders and bottle shop owners the way Whit is. A lot of the people that I’m doing business with are men who don’t live in a city and they don’t really understand — we live different lives, clearly. I know that for them, I’m probably one of very few female owners that’s calling them over the course of a few weeks to buy something from them. But it’s been fine for the most part. There is for sure an old boys’ network, but it’s okay. I got through it.

KATHNER: Let’s be super-clear: I’m in the most privileged position in the world. I present as a white, straight, Christian male in America. My walking around life is very, very privileged and comfortable. My life is really simple. I get to go into bathrooms and feel totally comfortable. No one is ever going to say, “You should be in the women’s room.” So I’m really fortunate in that regard. At the same time, there’s this really interesting invisibility that comes for me on the day-to-day where people never, ever assume that I’m trans, so I’ve got to be really vocal about that. And that means having to have that conversation with people a lot. Then they say, “Why would you want to be a woman?” “No, no, no, no. I’m trans. I’ve already transitioned.” So it’s a really interesting position to exist in in society, for me. Within this industry, I can go in anywhere and I don’t present like what my identity actually is.

It’s very difficult to speak on behalf of an entire community, so this is my personal trans experience. But I’m not a guy — I’m a trans man, I’m a trans guy. This is my lived experience. I have no idea what it’s like to be raised as a cisgendered male in America and how difficult it [can be]…. I’ll tell you that transitioning has made me a very intense feminist, because it’s really opened up my eyes to the gender divide and the way that men get trained to speak to each other and to speak and treat women. I think it’s really important to be vocal about that — especially because for so long, the definition of success in the trans community, at least I felt, was “passing.” This idea of fitting into other people’s expectations of how you should look and act and behave.

I remember studying the way that men comported themselves: All right, I should squint my eyes a little bit because women have larger eyes than men’s eyes. And I should hold myself like this and I should sit with my legs wide. All this stuff. I can imagine that’s what guys are having indoctrinated into them from a very young age. So for me, being upfront about this and trying to give face and give voice to the trans community is so important. So many people that I meet say, “You’re the first trans person I’ve ever met.” I’m also like, but am I? Maybe not. Who knows? Being upfront and vocal and very out is very important to me.

Republic Restoratives — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: Do you miss being in politics? Do you ever feel like you want to get back into it?

CARUSONE: No, not really. I really loved my time there. My network is still very much connected. Do I miss it? Yes, but I also miss something that doesn’t exist today, which is a better time that’s just less rancorous and partisan. We said nothing got done in 2010. Really nothing gets done now. My friends that work there are miserable. So it’s not something I wish for.

One of the most rewarding, unintended consequences of this business is that we’ve hosted a lot of events…. Once the word got out about this place and who we were, we started getting lots of calls and emails from organizations that we personally support that are looking for a place to do their next annual meeting or holiday dinner or whatnot. It’s turned into this steady stream of people and organizations that we’re really excited to host here. On all levels, [but] more community-based events and that fits in with who we are.

MW: Have you declined requests from conservative organizations or those that don’t share your progressive or LGBTQ values?

CARUSONE: We had CPAC last year reach out looking to host their event here. We didn’t do that. There’s been a few folks that I just don’t think they realize who they’re reaching out to.

The company’s political nature, it’s not always so obvious. Civic is just a great name for vodka — it’s sharp, it’s crisp, it’s short. Rodham, you’d be surprised how many people don’t pick up on the fact that that’s her middle name. Or the fact that that’s a female symbol on the label. There are a lot of things that people don’t get. We’ll hear a lot of men: “This is terrific rye.” “Yep, it is,” we’ll say, and just leave it at that.

KATHNER: For me, leaving the [labor] movement, and not feeling that you’re saving the world every day, I was really concerned about going fully into the private sector and what that would mean. Does that mean I can’t do mission- and values-oriented work? We’ve found a lot of creative ways to make that happen. During Women’s History Month this past March, we got a professional photographer in here and worked with 31 female beverage directors and bartenders in D.C. We wanted to lift them up because it is a very male-dominated industry. We wanted to give them a chance to be highlighted. For a lot of them, it was the first time they’d had a professional photographer take their shot. [We also] donate a portion of the proceeds from Rodham Rye to recruiting and training women to run for office [via] Emily’s List — every bottle, all the time.

We had a Pride promotion this past June. We had 26 bars engaged in putting a Civic cocktail on the menu. Then we basically paid for an entire year’s budget for TransLAW.

MW: As a business, I understand you place an emphasis not only in the quality of your actual products but also in how you package and brand them.

KATHNER: I want to give credit where credit is due regarding our branding. Going into this, I said, “Let’s get the cheapest business cards possible. Stock bottles are fine.” I knew that the spirit had to be fantastic, and it is, but the packaging — you’re going to drink with your eyes first. And Pia’s responsible for shepherding all of these things from ‘crazy thing on butcher block paper’ to something that’s in a bottle with packaging that’s winning awards before anyone even tries it. Then we also win awards after they open it, thank goodness.

CARUSONE: We all are guilty of shopping with our eyes. Take wine. There are so many wines out there. I’ll kind of know what I want, and then I’ll look at the bottles — that’s just the truth of how consumers shop. So we knew we wanted to beat the competition on the brand front, and we felt we could. Then what we’re hoping is when you open the bottle, you’re further delighted as opposed to buying a bottle — “Wow, what a great looking bottle” — and open it and think, “Well, glad to support whomever’s project, but I think I’ll just pick up a bottle of Maker’s Mark for my next Manhattan.”

That’s where we’re looking to compete, and really turn the idea on its head — that craft can be your forever choice. Not just us, but someone else’s craft, as opposed to choosing one of the bigger brands — which, sidebar, is doing what all businesses are doing right now, which is further consolidation. There are basically two distributors left in America — brands are being bought up more and more. Very few independent companies are left. They’re multinational, huge corporations. We do not share values with them as you can imagine, in any way possible.

Republic Restoratives: Pia Carusone and Whit Kathner — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: You don’t ever plan to be part of that.

CARUSONE: No. That will never happen to us. If you apply the largest version of success to us, it will be done in the way we feel comfortable and proud of.

I know that how we do it is going to be a little bit different. We’re going to be careful about our growth. We’re not represented by distributors. And that includes pricing. We just feel strongly about our prices being actually pretty low. When you look at trends in the industry, you’re seeing premiumization happening more and more. Fifteen years ago, people were laughing at the idea of super-premium prices being applied to American bourbon. And now, the industry is being rewarded from these brands — you can now go out and buy a $100 bottle of bourbon pretty easily at any liquor store.

MW: Speaking of the future, what are your personal plans? Do you want to have kids?

CARUSONE: Actually, we’re both in the process of trying to have a kid. I live in Shaw right now. And my wife and I are trying to have a baby.

KATHNER: And I live in Langdon, and we are also in the process of trying to start a family.

MW: I’m seeing a pattern here.

KATHNER: We’re really lined up.

MW: Is Rachel also on a similar life track?

CARUSONE: Yeah. I think she’s trying to work on that as well. Figuring it out. It’s a little bit that the business became the baby for a few years now. I’m shocked that we all managed to have successful personal relationships throughout all this.

KATHNER: We have really, really understanding and loving and supportive wives.

CARUSONE: Yeah. We could not be here without our wives. So we’ll see. I think we can share a babysitter here.

MW: Are you optimistic about the future as far as the business goes?

CARUSONE: Yeah. In our company, absolutely, but also in the industry. More and more consumers are looking to support brands that they understand the story behind. The nameless, faceless brands that we’ve seen do so well are struggling.

Rum is on the decline in America. That’s only because one product is on the decline: Captain Morgan. That’s what that is. Craft rum is on the rise. Just think about it that way. So we’re going to see more and more of that happening, I think. Everyone is crying the death of vodka. But it is absolutely still growing. Bourbon — you can’t make it fast enough right now. And it’s only made in America.

MW: Republic Restoratives is billed as a women-and-queer-owned distillery. Are there others that can also make that claim or are you unique?

CARUSONE: There are a few in the country, but not many. It always gets a little tricky — you parse words when you think about how many owners you have. We sort of stripped away that question mark by saying women-owned and -run, in the sense that there are very few owner/operator teams that are women. A lot of wives do the finances and stuff and then the men run the business. The same dynamic you’d expect. That said, there are plenty of women in this industry, and increasingly so.

Republic Restoratives: Whit Kathner — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: I imagine that people seek you out or are drawn to you because of either distinction.

CARUSONE: I think so. More women-owned and operated. I mean, it’s not like [the queer label] has been widely publicized. And that’s a little strange. A while ago, we said, “It’s weird that we aren’t more involved in that aspect. We’re not in any gay bars or anything.” We’re now at A League of Her Own.

KATHNER: They built a special display shelf just for our stuff. They’re awesome. I love that place.

CARUSONE: Yeah, but that’s it.

MW: Is that because of the sway of national distributors who supply most or all of a venue’s liquor?

CARUSONE: I think so. Our impression is that gay bars get deals on vodka that we couldn’t compete with. And there’s sort of a history with the gay community and our interaction with corporate sponsorships. There’s a real sense of ease with letting whomever sponsor our Pride parades and our conferences and whatnot. So I don’t think anyone thinks twice about the fact that they may be saying no to your local queer-owned vodka. It’s sort of an uphill battle that we just haven’t even tried. We’ll figure it out later.

MW: Are you involved in Capital Pride activities?

CARUSONE: We’ve done a few things here, but no, not really. We haven’t done anything like that. It’s hard for us. We’ve taken a firm stance with everybody, whether it’s Capital Pride or others: Are you selling anything that we make at your event, or is it someone else’s brand? We’re not going to give you free vodka to do an activation and bring cool local people there to setup if then the event-goer, to get their cocktail, goes to the bar and they’re getting a Stoli.

We give discounts to anyone that asks, essentially, but we’ve sort of taken a hard line on, you know, you have to do business with us. If you do business with us, we’ll show up for you. But don’t ask us to show up just to be nice. It’s not going to work out for us. I mean, we’re a business.

And people, when they hear that, say, “Oh, that makes sense.” I know that liquor sponsorships are [huge]. The giveaway budget for Absolut, I can’t imagine. It’s probably a hundred times the revenue that we have. We can’t give away that much.

KATHNER: They just give cases away. And they have no problem because all they want is to have their brand be seen. And for us, we’re just not at that point.

CARUSONE: We can’t do that. But anyone that has a budget, we will figure out a way to make it work. So we’ll see. I think people are more and more open to that.

MW: Well, it’s only been two-and-a-half years. You’re still on the upward swing of things.

CARUSONE: Yeah. I hope so.

KATHNER: We’re super-grateful to those in the queer community who are being vocally supportive of us and making Civic their call vodka when they go out, [and] helping to move beverage directors into supporting local.

Republic Restoratives is located at 1369 New York Ave. NE. Call 202-733-3996 or visit republicrestoratives.com.

Distillery Tours & Tastings are offered Saturdays and Sundays at 1 and 3 p.m. The Ivy Room bar is open Thursdays and Fridays from 5 to 11 p.m., Saturdays from Noon to 11 p.m., and Sundays from Noon to 5 p.m.

For more on DC Cocktail Week, visit dccocktailweek.com.

Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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