Get to Know the Co-Founder of DC's First Woman-Owned and Operated Distillery

Pia Carusone and her lifelong friend, Rachel Gardner, opened Washington D.C.'s first woman-owned and operated distillery, Republic Restoratives.

The distillery, which is the largest crowdfunded project in history, was launched almost two years ago.

MAKERS caught up with Carusone in an exclusive interview to learn more about Republic Restoratives.

Q: You said in a 2016 interview that your distillery was the largest crowdfunded project ever — what did that feel like and why do you think that was?

A: I think that we had a lot of success in our crowdfunding. We took the mission really seriously and we believed in the importance of offering our community and our neighbors the opportunity to be involved in this project in a more holistic sense than they probably ever have been before. So, you know, most distilleries don’t offer people the chance to be involved and for us, when we were doing our research leading up to this project we toured a lot of distilleries one of the things that is important to us is transparency and opening up a business so that people understand how craft spirits were made and can even play a role in our work, you know, volunteering or whatnot, so I think crowdfunding is really authentic to who we are and to what we wanted to build with this business and I think that came through in the campaign.

Q: Tell us what it was like to open a distillery with your lifelong, childhood friend Rachel.

A: Oh, it’s been incredible. Rachel and I are basically sisters so we finish each other’s sentences and we really understand how each other works and where our strengths and weakness lie, so, in terms of finding a business partner, there was really no one better. You know, there’s an element of risk associated with this and it’s, you know, every day isn’t always like rosy so you need somebody that’s going to do this with you, that is supportive of you and patient. So, I’ve been really lucky to have Rachel by my side throughout this process.

Q: And why a distillery? Where did that passion come from?

A: You know, we had like been talking about doing this for a better part of about 10 years when we finally decided to make it happen. It was as simple as sort of we both really liked the final product, obviously, in other words we both enjoyed a nice craft cocktail and had taken an interest in how spirits were made and kind of both were interested in seeing if this was something that we could do, not knowing what it would take or if it was even possible, so you know, I always liken it to there are 99 ideas you have with a friend and most of them you don’t really ever act on, it’s just like an idea in passing but this one we made happen.

Q: What's the distillery's mission? What do you hope for it to accomplish (aside from making phenomenal drinks).

A: Our mission is to make high quality spirits with an approachable brand and at an affordable price. So, those three elements are not often seen together in spirits. You'll often see one or maybe two and you don’t see all three of those elements together and I know it sounds simple, you know, sometimes just nailing the most simple aspects of a vision is hard and every day we wake up thinking about those three things. Making sure that our spirits are as high quality as possible, that our brand is attractive and inclusive and that the price is fair and we think that focusing on those three things is the smartest way to operate our young business in such a competitive environment.

Q: Describe some of the challenges you’ve faced being a woman in this industry. Was there anything that surprised you most when opening D.C.'s first woman-owned distillery?

A: No. I mean, there’s very few women owned — it’s more like owned and operated — there are plenty of distilleries that have females, you know, that have women in their ownership but no — we are a full female owned and really operated business compartment too.

You know, this is definitely a man’s industry that we’re in for sure and the thing to remember too is that the supplier chains and the vender chains in this industry are maybe even more male dominated and by that, I mean we’re working with various suppliers on our equipment, you’re really in the heart of a super male-dominated industry and one that hasn’t even really had the public intention of being mostly male focused. So, I think sort of the even more challenging space for us, but people are kind, people are nice but do we sometimes get discredited because we're women, sure. Do we sometimes have to work a little harder to prove that we know what we’re doing — yes. 

Q: Was there anything that surprised you most when opening D.C.'s first woman-owned and operated distillery?

A: Throughout the process I suppose what’s been most surprising is how different each phase is — you know — you always hear people saying that being an entrepreneur and starting out is hard — it's true. But before we really lived it ourselves we didn’t fully understand what that means and I think you know, just what’s been most challenging is just like, you know, you think you’re good at something, you think you've become sort of an expert and then on a Monday and then on a Tuesday you have a whole new set of challenges to face and things that have never come up before, and you know, it’s tiring emotionally that whole process from one day to another not being the same. We’re a little more used to it now and it is just part of the job and we can relax at it a lot also but I think that’s probably something we didn’t expect. We obviously anticipated to work extremely hard and be challenged and have to learn more about whether its finances or raising capital or whatnot but the sort of whiplash of one day like today we’re dealing with renewing our corporate insurance policy and understanding all that and tomorrow it could be like you know, we need to like think about our floor drains and how they’re going to be maintained over the next few years — right? So, it could not be more different in terms of the issues we face.

Q: How do you define feminism? And do you consider yourself a feminist?

A: I definitely consider myself a feminist. I think feminism is embodied in every part of your life or should be embodied in every part of your life and I think that for me it means lifting up women that I interact with and work with in small ways as well as big ones. And I think that you know—you ask almost anyone today, ‘are you a feminist’ and they’ll say yes, but are they really living that — what are they doing today — literally today — to help women get ahead and help women overcome the natural barriers that we face? Whether its women getting interrupted in meetings and trying to sort of amplify the women that I’m with at a table or give a women to give a chance to do something, you know, there might be ten men that are qualified to do something but if there’s also an option to hire the woman — hire the woman. Little things like that that I think you really need to — in today’s world if you’re going to call yourself a feminist you have to actually be making decisions every day that support women.

Q: It’s no secret that there's an obvious gender gap in winemaking  a stat that prompted MAKERS to seek out female winemakers and share their stories. Do you have any plans to 'disrupt' other industries?

A: I think supply chains are the most overlooked aspect of this work like there are very few women owned and operated distilleries in the world literally worldwide there are few that have female teams like ours. There are women all over the industry doing incredible work and the rarity of our team I don’t want that to sound like it is overlooking the incredible women in this industry but I think the part that people don’t often recognize is, again, once you step out of the distilling world and into the supplying world it speaks more so. So, I think by existence we probably — I know we’ve surprised people, you know, you have a vendor that’s never worked with an all-female distillery, right? And that’s sort of like — that's a big difference I think for us.

Q: Congratulations on your upcoming wedding this summer to MAKER Leanne Pittsford! Has she been involved with the distillery? And if so, how?

A: She’s been involved and having a supportive partner when you’re opening a business is so important and Leanne specifically has been a huge cheerleader of mine and Rachel’s and she is an investor herself but more importantly has given us the confidence to you know, go out and ask people for help and ask people for capital and I really credit her with helping us crack the code in terms of how to pull the capital together for this project. She's terrific — obviously — I'm marrying her. Obviously, I think the world of her but she’s also just somebody who doesn’t tolerate inaction out of lack of confidence, like she really is the biggest cheerleader for people around her and sometimes you just need that. Sometimes you just need somebody to tell you that everything’s going to get figured out and you’re going to succeed and she’s just been super blindly — and I say blindly not because she’s not super knowledgeable about this — but just like 100 percent unqualified confidence in us and in this project which has been like hugely important for me.

Q; We have to ask: what’s your favorite drink?

A: Boulevardier – it's a little bitter, a little sweet, very well balanced. I just love it.

NEXT: #MadeByMAKERS: Women Winemakers »

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Pia Carusone