It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, an easy breezy soundtrack is blaring, and the bar at Cotton & Reed is packed. The disclaimer on the drinks menu reads: “No beer, no wine, just rum.” Veteran barman Lukas Smith mixes elevated strawberry and coconut slushies and low-ABV riffs on the Rickey with allspice dram. It’s a good time to be a rum drinker in D.C.
“We get a lot of people who come in and say they haven’t drunk rum since they were 19 and had too much Malibu,” says co-founder Jordan Cotton. “Showing them what good rum can be is why we wanted to have a legitimate cocktail program.”
Cotton, along with friend and former aerospace strategist Reed Walker, launched Washington, D.C.’s first rum distillery last November in a repurposed warehouse next to Union Market. He’ll be the first to admit that it functions more like a cocktail bar than a tasting room. The duo produces a flavorful white rum, a dry spiced rum and an amaro-like allspice dram.
But is the District ready to embrace the molasses-based spirit? “D.C. is on its way to becoming a rum town because people here are so receptive to learning about the next frontier in food and drink,” says Cotton. Still, why go all in on a spirit whose many iterations—white, gold, aged, black strap, spiced, overproof—can make even rabid boozehounds scratch their heads? “Rum shows a pure expression of the source material and distillation,” says Cotton. “It’s a category we feel we can put our fingerprints on.”
One thing that’s immediately apparent in the bar’s sleek space is a lack of association with Tiki or the Caribbean. That’s by design. “We recognize that rum is a party spirit, and our vibe embraces that,” he says. “But the history of rum in the U.S. is long and storied, and the pirate stuff didn’t show up until the branding teams took over.”
No immediate plans for a barrel program mean they can experiment with a bacterially fermented Jamaican-style spirit, another that infuses umburana (a Brazilian wood), and flavored rums with fresh coconut and pineapple. “There’s so much more beneath the surface if you keep digging.”
A few miles away in the 14th and U Street corridors, Matt Strickland, seated at a roomy bar at D.C.’s first combination distillery, bar and kitchen, sees the rum scene a little differently. The head distiller at District Distilling Co., which was founded in 2012 and opened its current location last August, doesn’t think D.C. is a rum town per se.
“Rum’s perception as a commodity of the islands gives it an unfair sense of terroir,” he says. “But along with agave and brandy, it’s one of the most interesting and challenging spirits to make.”
Strickland admits that 90 percent of his distilling experience lies with whiskey, but he’s also very interested in the colonial style of rum. (He points out that while George Washington’s propensity for making brandy at Mount Vernon is well known, the number of receipts found for molasses might indicate that he also had an interest in rum distillation.)
District Distilling Co.’s Buzzard Point rum, named for the spot in D.C. where the Anacostia River meets the Potomac, is poured in a cocktail called the Graduate, made with rhubarb syrup, Averna amaro and lemon. It also appears in a cocktail shot with Gosling’s and Angostura.
Bars may be where people are learning about rum, but the vast majority of spirits are consumed in the home, and Strickland says rum can be tricky or intimidating to use in cocktails.
But embracing rum libations is what it’s all about a few blocks away at Archipelago. The city’s only permanent Tiki bar (joined by Hogo and Jack Rose Dining Saloon’s rooftop, both open seasonally) stocks 150 bottles of rum—the largest selection in the city. Late one afternoon, owner and bartender Owen Thomson is busy overseeing pre-shift prep before the happy-hour crowd arrives. Volcano bowls and skull mugs line bar shelves, and wicker furniture, palm trees and colorful murals drive home an unapologetically laid-back vibe.
Thomson recalls working at Bourbon in Adams Morgan in the mid 2000s, when he couldn’t even give away the bar’s namesake spirit to vodka-swilling guests. Nonetheless, he kept stocking more and offering flights, and eventually people turned to it.
“Here, we stock as much rum as we can, even though it’s rarely ordered neat,” says Thomson. “Most opt for one of the 16 drinks on the menu, like the classic Dr. Funk, with Cotton & Reed’s spiced rum, fruity fassionola syrup, lime and Pernod absinthe.
Tiki is more than funky glassware, bendy straws and colorful menu descriptions, though. “You need the decor and, more importantly, the attitude to make it work,” says Thomson. “We’ve changed D.C.’s Tiki scene by opening the door and saying it’s possible. We showed people that you can go all-in with this, instead of just making it a corner of your regular bar.”
Juan Coronado, a partner and the creative director for the two locations of Colada Shop, a Cuban café, bakery and bar, has also witnessed the evolution of the city’s rum scene. Colada Shop, he says “is the rebirth of Cuba’s Golden Era, paying homage to the cantineros to create cocktails such as the Presidente, Daiquiri and Piña Colada.”
All are priced at $8, whether it’s a Piña Colada with a fernet float or a Cascara Old Fashioned, with aged dark rum, cascara syrup and house-made coffee bitters.
“We wanted to create something affordable, casual and very easy to enjoy,” says Coronado. Making rum accessible to everyone—now that’s a refreshingly bipartisan approach.