Republic Restoratives Distillery: How a Former D.C. Politico Swapped Bills for Booze
Like a lot of great business ideas, theirs started over a stiff drink.
Politics and alcohol are no stranger to one another. Deals have long been closed over extra dry martinis, fundraising galas fueled by bottles upon bottles of Champagne and lest we forget 2009’s White House Beer Summit. But for former Democratic party rising star Pia Carusone, booze became something bigger than a mere byproduct of doing business. It became a career.
Childhood friends Carusone and partner Rachel Gardner are the founding mothers behind Republic Restoratives, a craft distillery and tasting room in D.C. They opened in 2016 and have been cranking out the good stuff ever since, their aptly-named lineup including CIVIC Vodka, Borough Bourbon, Rodham Rye and, most recently, Chapmans Apple Brandy. Like a lot of great business ideas, theirs started over a stiff drink.
“We had the idea almost a decade ago now,” Carusone recalls. “We were talking about it that way that friends talk, like you spend however long it takes to drink a glass of whiskey on it and then it probably gets dropped the next day. But we kept coming back to it.”
Through a tragic and unexpected turn of events, however, that seemingly innocuous conversation couldn’t have been better timed.
“Around that same time, I was working as Congressman Giffords’ Chief of Staff when she was shot,” she continues. “I have literally been working in politics since the year I graduated from college, but that experience affected me in really intense ways and eventually, it seemed like the right time for me to think about doing something else.”
Despite extracting herself from the hill on an official level, Carusone couldn’t help but keep at least a few toes in the sphere. There’s a hint of her previous life in almost everything the distillery churns out, beginning with its name.
“We were toying with some kind tip of the hat to being in the federal capital, so that’s the ‘republic’ part,” she explains. “And then there's the restorative nature to distilled spirits, whether it's emotional or just to make your back ache go away or whatever. So after months and months of going through the process, I think Rachel finally said, ‘Well, how about Republic Restoratives?’ And it was just like, ‘That's it.’”
Chapman’s Apple Brandy, out this month, also has ties to American democracy’s early foment.
“The story of Johnny Appleseed is really one of trying to spread wealth, basically going around showing people that if you can grow apples, you can raise a family and live pretty well. Democratizing farming, the whole “Teach a man to fish" thing,” says Carusone. “Apple brandy is one of America's oldest spirits. People obviously enjoyed cider and brandy during Appleseed’s time, but low levels of alcohol also kept their water clean.”
But the crossover doesn’t just extend to names. Republic Restoratives is passionate about supporting principles they believe in, a compelling commitment in a time of heightened divides. The distillery has hosted all kinds of DC happenings, from fundraisers to staffer weddings with some pretty noteworthy guests.
“We’ve become something of an event space which has been really fun for me because my worlds are overlapping,” explains Carusone. “We had the mayor's birthday party here a few years ago. The DCCC, the Democratic House committee that helps everybody get elected, had their holiday party here last year. We've had a number of fundraisers for Senators and members of Congress. Planned Parenthood, HRC, they've all been here. We just had wedding for two former Obama folks and the Obamas themselves came to the distillery.”
As for possible consumer pushback, Carusone sees her company’s involvement in left-leaning politics as worth it, even vital.
“Our management team talked really intentionally about how involved we wanted to be politically. Like, where do we draw the line?” she says. “Around the November 2016 elections, we saw a lot of brands posting things like, ‘It doesn't matter who you vote for today, just go out and vote.’ We were just like, ‘Can you really say it doesn't matter who you vote for today?’ We can't say that with a straight face and be true to who like we are, and the neighborhood we're in, and the business we're in. On stuff that matters, we’re pretty confident in being outspoken.”Despite these convictions, however, fans of Republic Restoratives’ growing fleet will be happy to know that while Carusone still manages to squeeze in some political consulting alongside her distillery work, she has no intention of returning to the Hill full time.
“I had a great job. I loved it, you know? But I'm happy to be on the outside,” she explains. “The subject matter is obviously less serious—I mean, I wear sneakers and jeans to work. And I'm still learning a lot, about business, about distilling, about DC’s food and beverage scene. It's a whole new set of challenges, which has been exciting. Day in and day out working on the Hill? I'm not wishing I was back.”