After a 17-year career in biotechnology, spending his days in labs working on automated DNA sequencing, Silver Spring resident Alex Laufer was ready for a change. These days he oversees operations for One Eight Distilling, which produces vodka, gin, rye and bourbon in the Ivy City neighborhood of the District.
“I’m in pretty good company with a lot of my fellow colleagues in biotech who worked in labs,” Laufer said, “Many made the transition to spirits, beer and wine. In fact, one of the principles at a big rye whiskey distiller in Virginia used to be a chemist. There’s a lot of us out there.”
Laufer’s shift to small-batch distilling wedded a nice combination of his interests. Beyond his lab expertise, he developed a keen awareness of fresh, locally source food and accompanying wine, beer and spirits. He had been based in San Francisco, where craft brewing and distilling movements became an increasingly prominent part of the city’s food and drink culture.
Following a move to Maryland, he teamed up with his college friend Alexander Wood to found One Eight Distilling, which is in its seventh year. “I am able to approach distilling scientifically and limit the variables we’re testing and changing,” said Laufer. He also finds a creative side: “I really enjoy testing the palate and working with other great palates to come up with our unique line of spirits.”
As COO, he ensures the distillery’s operations are as environmentally conscious as possible. “We feel it’s critical to do our part,” he said. That means solar panels on the warehouse building’s flat roof, and a system for capturing water used to cool the stills to reuse that water for mashes or cleaning.
Additionally, Laufer and his partner are committed to sourcing wheat, corn and rye locally, including from Land’s End Farm in Chestertown, Md., Fairview Cattle & Grain in Culpepper, Va., and Keenbell Farm in Rossville, Va.
“We’re different than the mainstream distilleries,” he explained. “We’re respecting the raw ingredients. The grains come from local farms in the region and I know our farmers’ names. I’ve met them all. It’s important to highlight the flavors the mid-Atlantic, to respect the raw ingredients from the famers and make a product to bring folks together.”
Growing up in Newton, Mass., the son of a sabra father, Laufer, 50, said he learned basics of Judaism in Hebrew school and during summers at Camp Ramah in Palmer, Mass.
Now a decade-long member of Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington and a father of two teenage sons, he enjoys synagogue life.
“For some of the more celebratory holidays, like Simchat Torah and Purim, I enjoy having a little shot on the bimah … It’s a more fun side of Judaism that I didn’t experience growing up.”
He has also organized rye and whiskey tasting nights and tours of the distillery for his home congregation as well as a few others in the area. “There’s something special about getting together and enjoying a toast, a glass of wine and sharing my spirits with people. It’s fun to share my spirits with members of TI and I am happy to do more with the [Jewish] community.”
What does he pour after a long day making gin, whiskey and rye? If it’s been a really hard week, he admitted to sometimes just beer. During the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown, Laufer had more time to experiment with cocktails.
“You don’t have to be a pro to make a good cocktail at home,” he said, adding, “If I have the energy, I enjoy mixing a Manhattan, a martini or an Old Fashioned. I do like the bitter elements in a cocktail.”
And he happily shares the distillery’s used botanicals from One Eight’s gin with a local kimchee maker, who uses them in brine for pickles.
Ask Laufer for his last word? He simply raises a glass and says, “L’chaim!”