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Small distilleries reviving grand tradition of Ohio spirits industry

Woodstone Creek distiller Don Outterson. Photos Scott Beseler and Douglass Trattner
Woodstone Creek distiller Don Outterson. Photos Scott Beseler and Douglass Trattner

They say everything old is new again, and when it comes to distilling in Ohio, that is particularly true.

There was a time when this great state overflowed with distilleries that converted local corn and grain into whisky, which wended its way in barrels down the mighty Ohio and Mississippi rivers -- all the way down to New Orleans. Over the years, every last one of those distilleries dried up, leaving the state with nary a drop of locally produced hooch.

Until recently, that is.

When Sam McNulty opens his Cleveland-based Market Garden Brewery later this year, he will join three other small-scale micro-distilleries scattered about the state. Cincinnati's Woodstone Creek is the oldest, followed by Columbus' Middle West Spirits and Tom's Foolery in rural Geauga County. And still more tinker on the fringes, perfecting their recipes and techniques in garages statewide. These modern day moonshiners join a growing wave of artisan spirit producers, who strive for quality and authenticity over quantity and mass appeal.

"Although the craft distilling trend is new, in an old state like Ohio, there exists a very strong distilling history," explains Don Outterson, owner of Woodstone Creek. "In the days before refrigeration, it was very practical to render perishable products like corn into products with an infinite shelf life like whisky."

It is largely thanks to Outterson that any small distilleries exist in Ohio. When he first approached state liquor officials -- way back in 1998 -- to add distilled products to his small Cincinnati winery, Outterson ran into a brick wall.

"There had been no distilleries in the state for so long that nobody knew what to do," he adds. As a CPA and a longtime brewery consultant, Outterson himself was relied upon for assistance in drafting more modern legislative rules.

Going hand-in-hand with the local foods movement, and following on the heels of the craft beer renaissance, the artisan distilling trend seemed destined to happen, both nationally and locally. Blessed with abundant crops, fresh water and a food savvy populace evermore focused on quality, Ohio was ripe for the picking.

In Northeast Ohio, Tom Herbruck decided to focus his attention on to fruit -- apples be precise. To craft his applejack, a fine brandy that has been produced in this country for over 300 years, Herbruck starts with apple cider pressed in autumn from Ohio crops. Following a brief fermentation period the cider is distilled in a copper potstill, extracting the alcohol and concentrating its flavors. The brandy is then placed in charred oak barrels, where it will age and mellow for up to two years. In addition to applejack, Herbruck currently is developing an artisinal gin, also made from apples.

"Terroir is a real thing," explains Herbruck. "The apples that grow in the Western Reserve area of Ohio taste different from the apples that grow in Northern France." Everything affects the final product, he adds, from the varieties of apples used to the kind of soil in the orchard. "It all matters." Look for Tom's Foolery applejack to hit liquor stores in late 2010.

Realizing that the timing and conditions were ideal in Central Ohio for a new micro-distillery, Brady Konya and Ryan Lang launched Middle West Spirits in Columbus. Located a block off High Street in the Short North, Middle West is producing a true grain-to-glass vodka called Oyo (pronounced oh-WHY-oh), the Native American word for the Ohio River Valley. Unlike most vodka, where every effort is made to strip flavor from the spirit, Oyo retains a rich vegetal character. Middle West sells its vodka at its Columbus shop and in area liquor stores. Soon, a white (unaged) whiskey and a barrel-aged whisky will join the lineup.

"Railcars full of corn and wheat roll out of this state every day," says Lang. "Our spirits are made using 100 percent Ohio grains like corn, rye and soft red winter wheat."

When Market Garden Brewery opens later this year in Cleveland, owner Sam McNulty will have a secret weapon in the micro-spirits battle: Brewmaster Andy Tveekrem. For the last five years, Tveekrem has served as head brewer for the well-regarded Dogfish Head Brewery, so he certainly knows beer. That skill, says McNulty, translates directly into distilling.

"The hardest part of the distilling process is making the beer," McNulty explains. "Before you can distill, you have to mash and ferment the grains just like you do when making beer." In addition to Tveekrem's world-famous brews, Market Garden will craft small-batch gin, vodka, and white whisky.

Fetching just shy of $100 for his fine aged bourbon, Don Outterson obviously is doing something right. His high-end spirits, crafted in Southwestern Ohio from local products, have caught the attention of imbibers with discerning palates.

"You don't have to be in Kentucky to make great bourbon," Outterson is fond of saying. "When you taste a really good spirit, something wonderful is going on. It can become religion. My products are not for people who like to do shots."

For shallower pockets, Woodstone Creek also produces flavorful vodka made from 100 percent Ohio corn.

Despite his personal success, Outterson wishes the state made it easier for others to join him. All across the country, he notes, entrepreneurs are scrambling to open craft micro-distilleries - new economy outfits that produce local agricultural products using local agricultural products. Sadly, Ohio legislation makes it extremely challenging for them to succeed here.

"For the most part, Ohio is not open for business when it comes to distilling," Outterson says. "Until the laws are changed I actually try and discourage people from entering the market."

As it stands, only one permit is allowed in each of Cuyahoga, Franklin and Hamilton counties, a concession made to Paramount Distilleries, a large Cleveland company that does no actual distilling. Other restrictive distilling permits are available, but they don't allow the kinds of on-site sales and tastings that make micro-breweries and wineries economically viable. The upshot of the legislation is that it encourages would-be distillers to set up stills in more progressive states.

"The Kentucky Bourbon Trail brings in about $1 billion a year," Outterson states, "and we can't even hold tastings at our micro-distilleries. This is wrong -- for Ohio, the economy, and local farmers."


Trattner is a Cleveland-based freelance writer and managing editor of Fresh Water. This article was originally published in Insider Ohio.

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