Heard on the Hill

Former Giffords Staffer Plunges into Craft Distilling

Former chief of staff is co-founder of first woman-owned distillery in D.C. history

Ivy Room partner Vinoda Basnayake, from left, retired Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., Republic Restoratives Distillery co-founder Pia Carusone, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and Giffords’ spouse Captain Mark Kelly pose together in the Ivy Room in June. (John Robinson Photography)

Gender politics and gun control issues are still critically important to congressional vet Pia Carusone.  

It just so happens that her bread and butter has shifted from how the sausage is made on Capitol Hill to quenching the insatiable thirst for adult beverages.  

The one-time chief of staff to former Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords left Congress shortly after her boss resigned her seat in 2012.  

But the New York native didn’t wander too far.  

Rather than return to the campaign trail, Carusone elected to put down roots in the District by co-founding the first woman-owned distillery in D.C. history, Republic Restoratives .  

Carusone said she and lifelong friend, Rachel Gardner, pined to break into the liquor trade ever since Tuthilltown Spirits, producer of award-winning Hudson Whiskey, made a big splash by reintroducing whiskey distilling in the Empire State.  

“We were kind of like looking in on them and thinking, ‘Could we do something like that?’” Carusone said.  

Disparate career paths — Gardner holds a degree sustainable natural resource development; Carusone caught the political bug early on — conspired to keep those dreams at bay. As did an aversion to getting their feet wet on Gardner family land near Lake Placid.  

“A little cold, a little desolate for young single ladies,” Carusone said of the prospect of launching a distillery in upstate New York.  

Putting their stamp on homegrown booze moved to the back burner.  

In 2007 Carusone served as campaign manager for Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Maryland. A year later, she was up in New Hampshire helping then-Rep. Carol Shea-Porter plot a path to re-election. In February 2009 she joined Giffords’ inner circle.  

Carusone was devastated after Giffords was brutally attacked in January 2011 during a “Congress on Your Corner” event in Tucson.  

[ Giffords Marks Fifth Anniversary of Safeway Shooting ] “My whole life got flipped upside down,” she said of the traumatic episode.  

After seven months of intensive rehabilitation, Giffords returned to the House floor to vote on raising the debt ceiling. She resigned a few months later.  

Carusone officially shut down Giffords’ office in July 2012, decamping from the Hill to fulfill an appointment as assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Homeland Security. Her heart no longer in it, she and Gardner set their minds to soaking up every last bit of useful advice from the distilling community.  

To learn the tricks of the trade the duo fanned out across the country, poking their heads into what Carusone estimates to be more 100 distilleries. They found modern distilling to be dominated by those with family ties to name brands or self-serving retirees with money to burn.  

“Rarely did we meet people like us: We’re not descendants of distillers. We’re not sitting on a ton of cash,” Carusone said.  

Along the way they befriended Rusty Figgins, the master distiller Gardner studied with in Seattle. They’ve become so tight that Figgins continues to consult with Republic Restoratives. He even designed the 1,000-gallon, twin-kettle system at the heart of the nascent operation.  

(Courtesy Republic Restoratives Distillery)
(Courtesy Republic Restoratives Distillery)

Carving out a home for said still, however, took quite a bit of doing.  

Carusone said she and Gardner began hunting for production space in early 2013. They bought into the renovation plans Douglas Development mapped out for Ivy City that same summer.  

“We saw the potential … and kinda took a leap that it was gonna happen,” Carusone said of the neighborhood-wide revitalization effort currently underway in Northeast D.C.  

Locking down a physical location (1369 New York Ave. NE) opened the door to the next major challenge: bankrolling everything.  

As part of their research, Carusone said she and Gardner probed experts at Kickstarter and Indiegogo about the best practices in regards to crowd funding. Their reward for doing the due diligence: a $119,000 shot in the arm (original target was $75,000) reaped via a wildly successful online campaign .  

“We were the largest crowd-funded distillery in the country,” Carusone shared, adding, “We really wouldn’t be here without the small-dollar, grassroots donors.”  

Two years after picking their spot and signing on the dotted line — per Carusone, they secured a 10-year lease with a 10-year option (“So we control the space for 20 years,” she said) — Republic Restoratives finally gained access to the building.  

(John Robinson Photography)
(John Robinson Photography)

“I’d say the biggest mistakes that we’ve made have been in construction and just not understanding the business,” Carusone said of the steep learning curve.  

Grappling with liquor laws has been an education unto itself.  

According to Carusone, local brewers have it much easier than those who wish to traffic in the harder stuff.  

“Breweries are not nearly as regulated,” she said, billing distilleries as having a “much more intense barrier to entry.”  

“Which is why the craft distilling movement has been so slow to take hold,” Carusone said. “People are reticent about it.”  

One concession the D.C. City Council has made is allowing Republic Restoratives to both conduct on-site tastings and sell directly to consumers.  

The flagship spirit is Civic Vodka.  

(Warren Rojas/CQ Roll Call)
(Warren Rojas/CQ Roll Call)

Sniffing the corn-based spirit floods the nostrils with a botanical scent. The first sip is warming, the remaining slug remarkably smooth.  

In a break from tradition, Carusone said Republic Restoratives won the right to feature the signature product in mixed drinks — but noted that the resulting cocktails must be made predominantly with Civic Vodka. The great leap forward came after sympathetic forces petitioned city officials to review the inequity of limiting distillers to pouring warm, one-ounce samples of their products while breweries and wineries are allowed to showcase their wares the same way a patron would theoretically consume them at home (frosty pint, full glass).  

(Warren Rojas/CQ Roll Call)
(Warren Rojas/CQ Roll Call)

“What does it matter to you if we add juices and citrus and ice cubes? Let us serve a cocktail, it’s no different,” was the argument Carusone said she presented to local leaders.  

City officials agreed — to a point.  

“We don’t have a liquor license here,” she said of the “tasting endorsement” that makes the adjoining Ivy Room facility possible. “We can only make vodka cocktails here.”  

Staying open past a pre-existing 9 p.m. curfew was another hurdle Carusone managed to clear.  

“I know how to appeal to members of an elected body and I know how lobbyists work, so,” she said of the successful campaign to extend serving hours later into the evening. “Sure enough, it passed.”  

Knowing how to slice through red tape has proven to be an invaluable skill. But Carusone’s not entirely sure she wants it to become a habit.  

“I don’t busy myself looking for projects like that … but I definitely would like to be more involved in the government affairs aspect of the industry,” she said.  

She knows better, however, than to try going up against the bourbon lobby or taking aim at antiquated federal excise taxes.  

“I personally am not holding out a lot of hope for Congress addressing our issues considering they can’t pass Zika funding,” Carusone said.  

At the very least, rejoining the legislative fray will have to wait until Republic Restoratives introduces its fan base to a trio of forthcoming products.  

   

(Warren Rojas/CQ Roll Call)
(Warren Rojas/CQ Roll Call)

Carusone is excited to see what the maturation process will bear. But she knows that just like everybody else, she’ll have to wait.  

“We’ll arrive at a good place here,” Carusone asserted. “The question is: how long is it gonna take?”  

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