Sometimes no one believes in and works harder to achieve the American dream than an immigrant. Sid Dilawri is one of those—but not in the most direct way of an entrepreneur with a single-minded goal. He never imagined launching Filibuster Distillery in Maurertown, Vir., in 2013, and when looking back on the path that led him to that role, the signposts still seem a bit vague. But somehow, whiskey found him.
Dilawri, a Delhi, India, native came to the U.S. in 2008 looking for work in computers. But when good opportunities proved scarce, he started working in his father’s liquor store to earn some money. By his own admission, he was a spirits simpleton whose knowledge of Scotch was that “I’d seen my father drink it.”
“I knew nothing about brandy, cognac, whiskey, Irish whiskey or bourbon,” Dilawri says, “but I became fascinated and wanted to learn more.”
Credit his early education to his coworkers in the store. He says all were super knowledgeable, happily shared their insights and taught him how to taste spirits. Intrigued, he sought a deep dive into the science and art and passion behind spirits, which helped lead the family to open a second liquor store, Modern Liquors, in Washington, D.C.
“Our second store is where my family’s passion for it really came forward,” Dilawri says. “We wanted to know about everything we sold, and our bottles were really hand selected.”
Though working in IT at the time, he began to think whiskey might become his career during a single barrel pick at Four Roses Distillery. With the legendary Jim Rutledge guiding him, he picked one of five barrels for his family’s store. The experience was love at first theft.
“It was my first chance to hold a whiskey thief, to feel that in my hands and watch the way the whiskey came out,” Dilawri says. “It was then that I had a strong sense that this is what I wanted to do with my life.”
When Filibuster Distillery was created in 2013, Dilawri sourced products for bottling until distilling began in earnest in 2016. The still set was a modest 12-inch column producing just a few barrels a day. A distilling veteran hired to train employees and make the whiskey left the job after just four months when he tired of operating such a small operation. Among those trainees was Dilawri, who knew he faced a serious challenge.
“I have this massive amount of investment! What exactly am I going to do? Wait for someone else to come in and do it?” he recalls. “I’m one of those guys who will take a risk, and I decided I was going to run the still—me, who’s never run a boiler in his life is going to run a still! I know it sounded crazy, but when I told my wife about it, she backed me up.”
And so did the whiskey. Its Single Estate Single Barrel Bourbon nabbed a double gold at the 2020 San Francisco Spirits Competition and its Dual Cask Straight Rye Whiskey collected a silver medal that same year. Other competitions saw Dilawri collect gold medals, and spirits publications scored some of his releases in the low-90s. In 2023, Filibuster Bourbon was named Best Small Batch Bourbon Outside of Kentucky at The World Whiskies Awards. More than respectable progress for a 10-year-old brand.
(Personally, I can vouch for the quality of these whiskeys. All are delicious, balanced and centered on preserving the character of the Virginia grain he uses. Dilawri also sent two gins for sampling, both of which are sippable on their own and great in cocktails. All are highly recommended.)
With his company growing, Dilawri has hired a distiller to take over, leaving him in charge of blending. In hopes of running the operation 24/7, Filibuster got a new mash chiller to speed up the front end of the process.
“Sometimes it seems the investment required to run this business never stops, but we’re growing and we see the benefit from it,” Dilawri says. “We get excited about where we’re headed, so it makes sense to invest.”
And why, you ask, did he name the distillery Filibuster? The proximity to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., is one reason, but mostly, he says, “We also aren’t afraid to speak up. … Our innovative approach to blending and finishing reflects our homage to freedom of expression. That’s the essence of what makes this great land so special.”
In a country whose own citizens (me included) often take it for granted, I appreciate that sentiment. Dilawri is living the dream, American style.