You may not have heard of Green Hat Gin, but chances are good that pretty soon you will. That’s because MGP, one of America’s biggest spirits producers, was so impressed by this obscure craft gin that last year it decided to buy its parent distillery in Washington, D.C., New Columbia Distillers, and add its entire all-gin lineup to their growing spirits portfolio. In the crowded landscape of craft distilling (1,800 distilleries and counting), success stories like Green Hat’s are unfortunately too few and far between, especially for clear spirits. I wanted to find out how a small-scale gin producer managed to charm a powerhouse spirits company, so I ventured to our nation’s capital to see for myself and ask a few questions.
The newly renamed Green Hat Distillery looks like a lot of urban craft distilleries. It sits inside a small, historic brick warehouse in D.C.’s increasingly hip Ivy City neighborhood where the polished façade of new development bumps up against older and decidedly unpolished exteriors from a time long before urban renewal and the craft spirits boom. There’s excitement in that friction, and you can hear it in the steady stream of visitors that stop by Green Hat’s newly reopened outdoor “gin garden” on the Saturday afternoon during my visit.
“The bar and gin garden opened in the summer of 2019,” bar manager Tucker Mason tells me. “It used to be a mechanic’s garage, and adding it nearly doubled our space.” When New Columbia Distillery opened in 2012, they managed to fit a 400-liter Carl still (eventually expanding with a second 600-liter still), a small bottling line, and an even smaller tasting bar into a postage stamp-sized commercial space. When the first drops came off the still that year, Green Hat Gin became the first spirit legally distilled in the District of Columbia since Prohibition. It was only natural then that the brand be named for the city’s most well-known bootlegger. Well, actually, his trademark clothing accessory.
New Columbia’s founders, John Uselton and his father-in-law Michael Lowe, named their brand after George Cassiday’s hat. Cassiday supplied booze to wet and dry politicians alike during Prohibition, brazenly wearing his signature green fedora as he strolled the halls of Congress making more than 25 deliveries a day, or so the legend goes. “They were inspired after reading Garrett Peck’s book on Prohibition in D.C.,” Tucker tells me, “but John already knew the story from having worked in the industry for a while.” John bartended and worked in some of D.C.’s biggest liquor stores, while his father-in-law was a retired attorney, backgrounds that came in handy while navigating the inescapable red tape associated with opening D.C.’s first distillery in nearly 100 years.
Green Hat hit the local store shelves in 2012 with their Original Batch. “It’s a more savory gin, modeled for Maryland coastal cuisine with celery seed,” distiller Travers Lingle tells me. Not long after, the distillery introduced their Spring/Summer seasonal expression, now dubbed Citrus/Floral and available year-round. “That one quickly became our best-selling gin,” says Travers. A Navy Strength soon followed, along with a gin cordial called Summer Cup which is made from, among other things, a large amount of fresh citrus peeled by hand. “It’s by far the most labor-intensive product we make, but it’s my favorite product,” says Travers.
While the distillery dabbled in whiskey production after a new still was installed in 2015, gin remained the primary focus, which was surely appealing to MGP when they were shopping for a distillery. “They are already masters at whiskey,” says distiller Ian MacLurg. In fact, MGP has grown increasingly synonymous with the stuff. The company is the largest contract whiskey distiller in America and supplies aged whiskey to a large number of non-distilling producers (NDPs) who in turn bottle it under more than 100 different labels. For the better part of the last decade, MGP was the only big contract distilling game in town. While that’s slowly changing, they remain a go-to resource for NDPs and young craft distillers in need of aged products to sell while their own whiskey slowly ages.
In 2018, as competition from other contract distillers grew and brand after brand continued to win awards with their products, MGP decided to launch its own spirits portfolio with five different whiskey offerings and a vodka. What was missing? Gin, of course. And even though MGP is also the largest domestic supplier of distilled gin, they were drawn to Green Hat both for its quality and its unique backstory.
“They loved the story and how it tied in to their Prohibition-themed product line,” Travers tells me. I had suspected as much when I first heard about the sale. Years ago, when speaking with Andy Mansinne, the man charged with launching MGPs consumer brands division, he told me that they wanted to use the Prohibition and Art Deco era as the theme for their portfolio because of how that time period resonated with spirits consumers. The core of the MGP portfolio is the George Remus bourbon line, named for the infamous, Cincinnati-based bootlegger and contemporary of George Cassiday. Remus is more recognizable than the “man in the green hat,” at least outside of the Capital region, but the brand’s story definitely helped Green Hat stand out in the crowd of quality craft gin brands. “They also loved the packaging,” Travers added in somewhat of an afterthought before turning to the subject of what the future holds for Green Hat Distillery.
MGP acquired Green Hat from its founders in March of 2020, right before the Pandemic shut down distillery tasting rooms, gin bars, and pretty much everything else. “It was something of a blessing in disguise,” says Ian. “It gave us time to adjust after the sell and prepare for the future. With Covid-related restrictions loosening in D.C., it means a lot of work that I’m really happy to do again.” Green Hat had already expanded distribution to Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware before the sell, but MGP isn’t stopping there. In February of this year, they announced that Green Hat would roll out to their other distribution partners. “I’m just so happy to work with MGP,” Ian exclaims, with some measure of relief in his voice. “It’s great to work with folks that know how to scale something. It’s something I’m glad I don’t have to stress about anymore, and when you’re in this business as a craft distiller, it’s all you think about.”
A quality gin was clearly not the only thing MGP got in its purchase of Green Hat. In addition to a backstory tailor-made for their growing portfolio of spirits, the company acquired its first urban distillery and tasting room, as well as a team of dedicated staff eager to grow with the brand and excited for the future. Craft distillers take note. If your goal is to one day cash in on all of that hard work, these are clearly the ingredients for success.