14th and Union has been home to a lively slice of Capitol Hill with a “Southern” dive bar, a gay bar, and the neighborhood’s sole remaining craft distillery. All of that will be gone when things get back closer to normal after the heights of the COVID-19 crisis — Oola Distillery is joining the rest in exiting the corner.
Nine years after it poured its first tastes of small batch vodka and gin, owners Kirby Kallas-Lewis and KT Niehoff announced the distillery and its 10 Degrees event space are leaving Capitol Hill for Georgetown.
“We are sad to leave the Hill,” Kallas-Lewis said. “KT and I have been a devoted part of the neighborhood for almost 25 years. Covid related challenges created a sooner than expected departure, but we are staying positive and looking forward to joining the Georgetown community.” Continue reading →
In 2011, OOLA and Sun Liquor both fired up Capitol Hill’s first legal stills, launching the post-Prohibition era of neighborhood-made spirits. Five years later, the two businesses are growing, but while new coffee and beer production operations continue to open around Capitol Hill, new distilleries have not.
Huge startup expenses, navigating a restrictive legal framework, and high state taxes can be daunting barriers to entry despite the seemingly insatiable demand for craft cocktails and spirits.
“We keep trying to get parity with beer and wine,” said OOLA owner KirbyKallas-Lewis.“A lot of people do their due diligence and they find out it’s not worth it.”
In 2008, the state legislature relented slightly by passing a craft distillery law, which made small batch distilling a viable business by lowering minimum production requirements. The state went from one distiller to over 100 by 2015. With few mentors in the local industry, Sun Liquor head distiller Erik Chapman said trial by fire was the primary learning tool.
“In five years we have learned so much, and most of it the old fashioned way. Everything from packaging issues, equipment failures, shipping disasters, flooding, you name it.” he said. “There’s no handbook for this business.” Continue reading →