Two Craft Distillery Pioneers with a Growing Portfolio
Why They're Tastemakers: In 2010 the state of Ohio gained its first craft distillery, located in a small warehouse off High Street in the Short North, where Brady Konya and Ryan Lang set up their offices, barreling room, bottle shop and Middle West Spirits' distillery. It didn't remain small for long, as its OYO brand of spirits has helped redefine Columbus' tastes. Middle West's offering showed us that vodka, drawn “grain to glass” from Ohio ingredients, can be remarkable all on its own. From there, Middle West made an equally successful venture into the restaurant business with Service Bar, which has only reinforced Konya and Lang as arbiters of local taste.
Meeting in the Middle: Konya and Lang met in 2007 when their respective spouses both relocated to Abercrombie & Fitch's headquarters in New Albany. “We were just the plus-ones,” Konya says. “We didn't have our own reason [for] being in Columbus aside from relocating and being supportive.” Lang was an engineer, while Konya worked in marketing and strategy. The two started talking and working through a variety of business ideas. A venture in craft distilling grew from Lang's heritage as a fourth-generation distiller, and Middle West Spirits was formally born in July of 2008 (they opened to the public two years later).
Digging Up the Past: Lang first learned the craft of distilling from his grandfather, who owned a winery in central Pennsylvania and used to run rum along U.S. Route 40 into Ohio. Lang's grandfather gifted him his first distilling equipment, which Lang had to literally dig up on the farm. It had been buried to hide it from federal agents during Prohibition. “I spent a week cleaning it and polishing the brass,” Lang says.
Community Support: Finding funding at the height of the recession proved to be a challenge, and Konya and Lang applied to more than 15 banks before KeyBank in Cleveland offered to appeal for funding to the Small Business Association on their behalf. But they had to demonstrate community support. “We had 50 independent restaurants in Columbus rally around us and write letters and saying, ‘If you fund this, we will buy their products,'” Konya says. “We became the first craft distillery underwritten by the SBA, literally because of independent restaurants supporting two guys they didn't know.”
In Good Spirits: That community support has been rewarded with an award-winning portfolio of vodkas, gin, bourbon and whiskey. This March, Middle West's OYO Sherry-Finished Bourbon and OYO Dark Pumpernickel Rye both took gold medals at the American Distilling Institute's annual conference, while the Sherry-Finished Bourbon also took home Best in Category for all craft bourbons.
Continued Growth: As if owning a distillery wasn't enough, Konya and Lang also got into the restaurant business last fall with the opening of their in-house Service Bar, named one of Columbus Monthly's Best New Restaurants in February. This year marks 10 years of business for Middle West Spirits. “We're building traditions and history every day moving forward,” Konya says. “Recognizing that is both exciting and a big responsibility. It's been fun to reminisce and realize you have some staying power.”