Reviving an Authentically American Spirit

DC’s first rum distillery is ready to show you what you have been missing

Words and photos by Kurt Powers

Tucked away in one of the many unassuming warehouses near Union Market sits Cotton and Reed, DC’s first rum distillery and tasting room. The towering walls and high ceilings, pierced by large skylights, give a bright airiness to the tasting room’s stylish mix of natural and industrial décor. Co-founders Jordan Cotton and Reed Walker opened the distillery to make the kind of rum that would elevate and showcase one of America’s first, and often overlooked, spirits.

Rum is Reed’s favorite spirit, but it also has an interesting American backstory according to Barman and Beverage Director Lukas Smith.

“In the 19th century, rum was far and away the number one distilled product,” Smith says. “For 50 years, America was the largest producer and exporter of rum in the world.” However, as America developed beyond its colonial roots and other spirits became more popular, the large rum producers learned to rely mostly on marketing campaigns and gimmicks to sell the spirit. “It became about having fun, not about the product,” Smith says. Rum makers targeted their campaigns toward the young, referenced pirate stereotypes and promoted overly sweet products and drinks. “There was no reference to any historical grounding of the product.”

Cotton and Reed is bringing the focus back to the product. “In this country, no one knows how big the world of rum is,” Smith says. Many people come in and tell him they are not huge fans of rum, that it’s too sweet for them. Smith counters that their rums are different. Their unique fermenting formulation, which includes a mix of a Belgian saison yeast strain and a wild pineapple yeast strain, gives their product some astringency—or “grip,” as Smith calls it—to the mid-palate and a mild, warm fruit finish, for balance. Smith’s cocktails, which can be enjoyed in the tasting room, play on and highlight the various flavor profiles and aromas found in their white and spiced rums, which are all produced on-site.

One of his favorite drinks, the Rum G&T, is a surprising take on a classic beverage usually enjoyed during the warmer months of the year. “It’s probably something that will never come off the menu,” Smith says. They make all the syrups in-house that form the base of their sodas and cocktail mixers. Smith also makes the tonic water from scratch, infusing it with select botanicals used in making gin to evoke the flavor notes you would pick up in a typical gin and tonic. With some fresh lime juice added, the result is a complex and “super-duper refreshing” drink, Smith says. With a nod to the past and an eye to the future, rum’s revival is well on its way at Cotton and Reed.

Rum doubters, newcomers and enthusiasts alike can buy and taste Cotton and Reed’s rums and cocktails in their handsome tasting room, located at 1330 5th Street, NE, Wednesdays through Friday, from 4pm to midnight and on Saturday and Sunday from noon to midnight. For more information and to schedule a tour, go to

Click here for The Rum G&T recipe