Women of Washington: Gabby Giffords’ right hand gal opens distillery

Pia Caursone, left, opened a bourbon distillery with her best friend Rachel Gardner, right, in May. Carusone decided to pursue her dream of owning a distillery after the 2011 shooting of her boss, Gabby Giffords. (WTOP File Photo/Rachel Nania)

WASHINGTON — Pia Carusone has created her own special career cocktail by blending the two most common ingredients in the nation’s capital: politics and bourbon. But how she found her career path is due in part to an experience she’d never want to relive.

Carusone runs the largest crowd funded distillery in the country and also advises a political action committee started by her former boss, Gabby Giffords and husband Mark Kelly.

In January 2011, Carusone was not there when a shooter opened fire in an Arizona grocery store parking lot killing six people and injured 13, including Giffords. But the experience of losing friends, and nearly losing Giffords, threw Carusone into a tailspin, questioning what she really wanted from her life.

At the time, Carusone was running Gifford’s Capitol Hill office, “grinding it out,” and not really thinking about the big picture. The shooting changed all that. Carusone and her childhood best friend Rachel Gardner decided it was time to pursue their shared dream of opening a distillery.

“We had been talking about this for a better part of a decade. We said, we really shouldn’t waste any more time. That really, in a lot of ways, began the process,” Carusone said.

Talking to experts and researching distilling in her spare time, her life began to shift back to normal as Carusone took a demanding job working for the Obama administration.

Then, another mass shooting took the lives of 20 children and six educators: Sandy Hook.

“At that moment, there was nothing else to do but join. It was unbelievable what happened in Sandy Hook. It was also unbelievable we’d do nothing as a country to respond,” she said.

Realizing they were ready, Giffords and Kelly talked with Carusone about getting involved in gun control policy following the Connecticut shooting. Carusone said that their talk was the start of Americans for Responsible Solutions, a super PAC that advocates for stricter gun control and where Carusone now serves as an adviser.

“It quickly became clear that was something I was also passionate about. That was my decision to leave government,” she said.

As she worked to change gun laws, Carusone’s bourbon-fueled dreams were close to becoming a reality in the Northeast neighborhood of Ivy City. Republic Restoratives opened on New York Avenue in May.

“I watch people walk in, and their jaw drops when they realize what they are seeing, which is just this incredibly open space where you can see into the distillery, see the equipment … lots of glass and steel, and you can see the sunset,” Carusone said.

The bar is the largest crowdfunded distillery in the country after a hugely successful Indiegogo campaign focused on the community-first nature of the business.

“This isn’t just about us making spirits. It’s about building a community and people being involved in a project that they are interested in and there’s transparency around,” Carusone said of the fundraising campaign.

Now with the whir of fermenters behind her, Carusone watches the horizon from her new business while keeping a foot in shaping the policies she believes will create change.

This story is part of WTOP’s Women of Washington series, which is sponsored by the Washington Area Cadillac Dealers.

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