Selling the Ohio Spirit: Columbus distilleries find success outside the Buckeye State

Justin McIntosh, Columbus Alive

On a crisp Monday morning in late October, the heat's out at Middle West Spirits. A broken pilot light's to blame. The staff, dressed in hoodies, jackets and beanies, is moving pallets of grain, furniture and running the bottle line and anything to stay active and warm, but also because it simply needs done.

A pungent blast of vinegar mixes with the warm, inviting aroma of whiskey in a slightly disorienting combination. A chandelier sits on the floor close to the entrance, the result of a small makeover meant to soften the facility's masculine touches. Counters are littered with random glasses abandoned after tastings with only a finger of booze, maybe less.

Twobottles of unaged White Rye Whiskeyare illuminated by beams of sunlight pouring in through the large wall of windows on the north side of the building. Mock-up bottle labels for another new product sit in stacks on desks in the back office, also brightened by sunlight, this time from the skylight above.

Brady Konya, co-owner of Middle West, sits at a large, coarse wood table relaying Middle West's story the same way he's told it a thousand times before - with passion, verve and commitment.

"We take Middle West on the road and we pay for our operations here by selling our story," Konya said.

These days, that story is resonating more strongly than ever.

By the end of this year, Middle West will be active in 15 states, with New York City the top-selling market outside Ohio. ("New Yorkers love a Midwestern story," Konya said). The first half of 2014 will bring its first European contract, putting Middle West products in six countries.

Production's up too, as is the number of staff and Middle West's physical footprint (from 3,000- to 10,000-square-feet) in the city and beyond. (The company recently acquired farmland near Lancaster to age some of its products off-site.)

Were it not for the government shutdown, two new products would likely have been released by now: a double cask olorosa wheat whiskey and a bourbon barrel-aged honey vanilla bean vodka. Konya said there's a 50-percent chance the vodka will still come out this year, while the whiskey won't come out at all. The products are on hold awaiting government approval for their labels ("You can't do anything until those labels are approved," Konya said).

Also expanding is Middle West's line of collaborative culinary products. Last week, the Short North company announced the launch of Tavern Vinegar, a collaboration with Chef Jonathon Sawyer of the Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland. The naturally fermented, barrel-aged vinegars continue Middle West's approach of pairing its OYO brand with food items (Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams' "Whiskey and Pecans," for one).

These recent successes were never promised, let alone likely. Five years have passed since Middle West was founded, three since it launched. When the distillery opened for commercial production in 2010, only one other distillery existed in the state, and it was producing on a scale that's probably best defined as hobbyist.

Then, in 2011, Ohio House Bill 243 was passed, giving rise to Ohio's current micro-distillery movement. The legislation, which went into effect in March 2012, eliminated restrictions on the number of micro-distillery permits the state could issue and where they could be issued. The legislation launched a micro- movement.

Today, according to Matt Mullins, a spokesman with the Division of Liquor Control, Ohio is home to 19 micro-distilleries, with 11 more applications under review.

When Middle West began, a blueprint for success didn't exist, but the distillery- and Columbus' other micro-distillery, Watershed, which launched about the same time - are writing one.

"We're starting to feel a little wind at our backs now," Konya said. "The momentum is really strong."

Growth at Watershed is likewise robust.

On another cold October morning, Dave Rigo and Greg Lehman are outside Watershed's front door in Grandview discussing how to get a new fermenter into the warehouse, their words shooting out of their mouths like the steam of a locomotive.

The fermenter's too tall to simply slide in on a pallet jack, so they opt to lower the $10,000 piece of equipment on its side and roll it in. It works, and after lifting it upright, Rigo and Lehman lead the way to the back of the warehouse to show off a new grain bin, just outside, which will soon sport a large painted Watershed logo.

"We've doubled everything: the employees, the space, the products," Lehman said.

Now operating with four full-time employees, double the warehouse space and with bourbon and bourbon barrel-aged gin in its product line, Watershed's shifting its focus to steady output, while eyeing even more growth with its bourbon offerings and seasonal releases like liqueurs.

Watershed's currently aging four times more bourbon than it's putting on the market, and has expanded to 53-gallon barrels instead of the 30 and 10-gallon ones it started with.

"We love bourbon and that's why we got into this," Rigo said. "Sometimes we say we started vodka and gin to get into bourbon."

Trial barrels of rye are aging, and the goal is to age all their whiskey for four, five or six years.

"We don't want to be the micro-distillery that's throwing out 12-month-old stuff," Rigo said. "There are a lot of people just trying to get the color and throwing it out there."

Like Middle West, much of Watershed's success is coming outside the state. Watershed's products are currently in Chicago, New York, northern Kentucky and sometime next year will expand to Connecticut and Georgia.

"Chicago has been by far the best second market for us," Rigo said. "There's a great Midwestern feel [in Chicago] and everybody thinks [Watershed's] still local even though it's six hours away."

The Ohio story's resonating in these neighboring states because, Rigo said, it's a Midwest story, too. But the micro-distillery business is also void of copycats, which helps unique, high-quality products stand out.

Watershed's small batches of bourbon utilize a combination of corn, wheat, rye and spelt. The bourbon is double-distilled and aged in charred American oak barrels, and the spelt, like wheat, makes the whiskey gentle on the tongue, followed by a slightly dry grain flavor.

"Both us and Middle West do some cool things with aged products and gin, and on the aged products it really gives it that Ohio feel because we're using spelt in our bourbon," Rigo said. "I don't know of any other bourbon in the country that has spelt."

The aim, initially, wasn't to use all Ohio products, Rigo said, but as the distillery has grown Watershed has been able to incorporate more Ohio-based offerings like glass, for instance.

When it began, Watershed was too small to afford glass from Anchor Hocking, the only Ohio bottle manufacturer big enough to accommodate the distillery, Rigo said. But as Watershed and Middle West have become more prominent in the state and increased production, that's changed. In a few months, Anchor Hocking will provide all of Watershed's bottles. An Ohio-based label manufacturer is close to joining the team too.

"Some of these things that weren't necessarily possible because of cost or minimum quantities are possible now that we're doing 60,000 bottles a year and not 20,000," Rigo said. "It's not necessary [to be all-Ohio]. We don't market [using local products] as much as some other people; we do it because it's the right thing to do. We don't try to do it because we want to say it."

It's a sentiment Middle West relates to, but for slightly different reasons. An authentic Ohio spirit and the story of an Ohio spirit is the attraction for many drinkers across the country.

As Konya put it, "The longevity of Middle West will be defined by our ability to tell our story outside Ohio."

And while that story continues to be refined, both companies will keep working, as part of the Ohio Distillers Guild, to change the state's tax structure to be more advantageous to micro-distillers. Without a more favorable tax climate inside the state, Middle West and Watershed's long-term success will come by selling Ohio liquors outside the Buckeye State in markets with higher profit margins.

The legal fight can be exhausting, but it's worth it, Konya said, especially when the former advertising/marketing employee heads home from a hard day at the office, smelling of whiskey and vodka and gin.

"I have never worked so hard on something before," Konya said, "and I feel like when we leave the distillery we don't just smell like mash, we smell like Ohio. It's like eating garlic; it just comes out of your pores."