When getting a sense of the perfectly rustic vibe that has come to define Cotton & Reed Distillery, you may not immediately consider that this place is the brainchild of an engineer and a German major. But then again, when looking the harmonious blend of scientific workability and artistic license that becomes clear throughout the distilling process, the blend of its co-founders suddenly makes so much sense. Jordan Cotton and Reed Walker met while working on projects together for NASA, and as exciting as the world of aerospace engineering can be for some, their roles as strategists had them creating PowerPoint presentations and financial projections; it's safe to say this was definitely not the creative outlet that either of them dreamed of. From the start, the two coworkers knew they worked well together, and by discovering their shared passion for distilling early on, the leap to Cotton & Reed seemed fairly inevitable. We caught up with co-founder Reed Walker to learn more about what's on the horizon for their little piece of DC.
Your story is quite unique in that your background doesn’t necessarily seem to coincide with your company! How did your beginnings as strategists for NASA lead to opening a distillery?
The skills don’t translate, surprisingly. So we were focused on the aerospace industry at NASA, but at the end of the day our contributions were PowerPoint presentations and financial projections. I’m more of a hands-on kind of guy in that I like to get my hands dirty and create something, and this is something that’s been a passion of mine for the past three years, which was when Jordan and I started doing this (both of us have been doing this as a hobby since college). I’m an engineer and I think having some of those problem solving skills has really helped, like we designed our first still using materials that we purchased from Ace Hardware down the street, so those types of projects from the beginning were really fun, and now my full time job is doing that! It’s living the American dream.
Did you and Jordan meet at NASA?
Yeah, we were working on the same projects, which was great because we already knew that we worked well together. We actually took this personality test that the company was sponsoring and it was funny because we ended up being the exact opposite personality types!
It’s so great to have that balance in your partnership, which is really poetic given how important balance is to the art and science of distilling too!
Yep, it’s all about balance! For us it’s really about combining the art and science, because distillation by definition is very scientific; it has been pretty much the same technologies used for the past thousands of years. There have been a few cool innovations that we’ve been able to incorporate, but generally the systems in place have stayed pretty consistent.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the process of distilling? How did you select which kinds of liquor you would be most interested in distilling?
Sure, so I’ll talk about the basics of the science first so you can have a little bit of a foundation. You start by making a beer, which is fermentation, and if you’re making a whiskey, whiskey by definition is 100% grain. We’re making rum, and rum is 100% sugar. For whiskey you would convert the starches in corn to sugar using a metabolic process, but for us, the sugar is already sugar so that conversion isn’t necessary. Then we ferment it to dry, so there’s no residual sugar, it’s not like someone could have a heart attack drinking rum. So after the fermentation is done, you place it in a still, and essentially what a still does is it’s a big kitchen pot boiling. Ethanol boils at a lower temperature than water, so the steam that comes off the still at first is alcohol, so then you condense that, and voila, you have your spirit! So that’s the science part of it, but then the artistic side is a lot more fun. It depends on what sugar or yeast you want, or the temperature of your ferment or the temperature of your condenser, and there is a ton of precedent for all the spirits and how others have done it; what we’re trying to do is move the rum category in a new direction. Most countries that make rum have very strict regulations on how it’s made, so the flavor profile tends to be relatively consistent, and being in America we have much more relaxed rules and regulations about what we’re allowed to do with the rum category, so our rum will be sort of a hybrid of what you’d find in a Jamaican rum and a Brazilian cachaça.
Photos courtesy of Cotton & Reed Distillery and photographer Tamon George.