Alex Laufer, a former biotech researcher at Columbia University, doesn’t only raise a glass on New Year’s Eve. He’s been caught drinking on the job every day for the past year and a half.
Laufer is the Jewish co-founder of One Eight Distilling (get it?), a distillery in Washington, D.C., that has taken up shop in a 1950s warehouse producing vodka, white whiskey and gin, among other spirits. His co-founder, Sandy Wood, worked as an attorney for over a dozen years before discovering that his true calling lay in the emerging craft distilling industry. Though the two met at Vassar College in upstate Poughkeepsie, they started One Eight Distilling less than two years ago.
“My experience in the lab [at Columbia] actually taught me a lot about distilling,” said Laufer, who grew up in Newton, Mass., attending a Conservative shul and today attends a Conservative synagogue in Washington. “Results have to be replicable. In order to make a consistent product, you need patience and precision.”
The Jewish significance of the number 18, the corresponding numerical value for the word “chai” or “life,” played a part in the naming of the distillery.
“We wanted our company to be imbibed with fresh life and spirit,” said Laufer. “The number 18 added a unique dimension.”
One Eight Distilling joins a growing trend to source spirits locally and from small-scale domestic producers. Earlier this year, WhiskyFest, the longest-running whisky festival in the U.S., brought together a diverse group of distillers, sampling 350 different whiskeys from around the world. Held in late October at Midtown’s Marriot Marquis, the event was dominated by artisanal American producers, where only five years ago, Scotch whisky prevailed.
“There’s a movement towards returning to the source — people are placing more importance on knowing where your food and drink comes from,” said Laufer, who sources all his grains from local farms, save a malt house in North Carolina.
Though One Eight Distilling does not currently have kosher certification, it’s an option Laufer has explored at length.
“Right now, we’re a small operation, and gaining kosher certification would make it impossible for me to work on Saturdays,” he said, explaining that Saturdays are the most important business day for spirit tastings. One Eight Distilling has a tasting room in the warehouse where production also takes place.
“At this point in the business, that’s too difficult, but it’s definitely an option we’re keeping open for the future.”
Next week, on Jan. 10, will be the first day One Eight Distilling opens for retail. The company will make about 3,000 cases of spirits a year, and local restaurants and bars have already placed orders for the coming year.
“I never would have imagined this as my second career,” said Laufer, who had to step out of the noisy production room for the phone interview. “But there’s something incredibly satisfying about creating something from scratch.”
Will he and Sandy be toasting the New Year?
“Of course,” quipped Laufer, “but only off the books.”