This Bartender’s Exit Strategy: Open a Rum Distillery

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Alexandria, Va., bartender Todd Thrasher has a long history of building bars and elaborate drink programs (PX, Society Fair, Restaurant Eve). But what happens when a career mixologist decides it’s time for, in his words, “an exit strategy”?

While he’s not getting out of the bar biz altogether, Thrasher decided that the time had come to build a rum distillery. In spring of 2018, he’ll open Potomac Distilling Company, along with accompanying Tiki bar, Tiki TNT, in a new waterfront development at District Wharf.

Of course, Thrasher isn’t quite following the rules, and we’d be disappointed if he did. Look for some unusual bottlings, like a gin-inspired “garden rum,” and Tiki drinks served in Solo cups. Thrasher gives us the lowdown.

PX

How did all this come about?

About two years ago, this gent named Monty Hoffman asked me if I’d open another PX at this waterfront development down at D.C. [District Wharf].

I said, “Monty, I don’t know if I want to do this.” He said, “I have a great idea: I thought it would be great to do a distillery.” I said, “What do I know about distilling?” He showed me the space. It has a smokestack, all windows. He said, “What if I split it up—do a bar and a distillery?” I thought, I could do a new-style Tiki bar, and we could make money on the 150 seats. “OK,” I told him. “Let’s do a rum distillery!”

After six months in lease negotiations, it turned from a PX into a pipe dream of a rum distillery and bar over the Potomac River. The bar wasn’t too big a thing for me. The distillery—that will take me three to four years to build the brand.

Rendering of Potomac Distilling Company

When will the bar and distillery open?

We’re shooting for December 1 as the opening date for the bar and the distillery. We’ll probably start distilling in mid-December.

What will happen with your other bars?

I’ve never had an exit strategy for working in bars. But I have a six-year-old son, and I’ve been married 15 years. I don’t get to see my family as often as I’d like. The distillery is an opportunity to not work nights. It was more a family decision and an exit strategy to not work till 2 a.m. The bars will be there, but I’ve hired a general manager to run them.

Tell me about the project

It’s called Potomac Distilling Company. We have the bar, Tiki TNT (TNT are my son’s initials). I’m going to make rum. I think there is a hole in artisanal rum distilling right now. We’ll do four different types to start: white, gold, traditional spiced and then a new version I’m calling Garden Spiced rum. We have a big garden in back of Restaurant Eve, where we grow lemon balm, lemon verbena, lemongrass and cardamom. That’s going to be the base. I want it to be a rum that will go even better with tonic—I drink rum and tonic in the summertime. It will be more herbaceous.

Society Fair

How did you learn to make rum?

I took a distilling class at Moonshine University in Louisville, Ky. What I learned was that in order to do craft—to do artisanal—you really should take some chances and try different things. That’s the essence of craft.

Also, we’ll try to put one barrel of rum away every week to age. We’re planning to use new American wood from Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville. For finishing, we’ll use RBV barrels—red wine from Virginia. And also Madeira barrels. Madeira’s one of my favorite things to drink. After three years, we’ll see what it’s like.

I’d also like to make rum with sugar cane from Richland Rum, in Richland, Ga. It’s unbelievable—they have their own sugar cane; they press it themselves. I asked them if once a year if I could buy some and make a special bottling.

Todd Thrasher

Talk more about the bar, Tiki TNT.

There are three different bar areas in the building, including the open-air rooftop. We have a mechanical roof, so we can close it if it rains or gets too hot. It seats 50 people upstairs overlooking the river, with views of the Washington Monument. It’s amazing. I can’t wait until Fourth of July to sit on my rooftop and watch the fireworks next year. But it’s a bar, not a restaurant. We’ll have drinks, Solo cups, bar food.

Solo cups?

Yes, I know. Everyone involved in Tiki now will hate me. I’m a big-time scuba diver. My wife and I have spent a lot of time in the South Pacific, and this bar is an ode to Polynesian-inspired bars, not the 1950s Tiki with puffer fish and nets hanging from the ceiling. No girls in hula skirts and coconut bras. I’m just going to piss people off.

Wet Money at PX

What will the drinks be like?

One side of the menu will be completely classic, unadulterated Tiki cocktails. The other side of the menu will be my take on Tiki—ingredients you might not have thought of otherwise, nothing traditional. One of the cocktails I already have on the menu at PX: Wet Money. It’s made with passion fruit, tequila, white rum, blue curaçao and lime juice. It’s not Tiki but my version of Tiki.

I go diving on an island called Bonaire, where the water is turquoise blue and crystal clear. There’s a little bar there. Since there’s no place to put your money when you dive, when you go there, you have wet money.

PX

I also have another drink called Dreaming of Crystal Clear Waters: pimento dram, lime, tequila and grapefruit.

I’ve spent my life making fancy cocktails. These will be fancy but more relaxed and at a more reasonable price. I’m not kidding—some Solo cups, some plastic Tiki cups, some traditional Tiki cups. I’m from southern Maryland, where we drank from Solo cups. I don’t mind.

People need to realize that just because you call it Tiki doesn’t mean you have to put yourself in a box. I’ve already gotten a few pieces of hate mail, but I want to do something I can be proud of. I don’t want to do what has been done before. I want to do something different.

Brands: Richland

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