Local Distilleries Continue to Add Products to Their Lineups

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Thanks to several farmers’ markets and a plethora of restaurants and food producers that use locally-sourced ingredients, it’s not a challenge to eat local in Central Ohio. It’s also increasingly easy to drink local, as evidenced by the number of wineries, distilleries, and microbreweries that have cropped up in the region over the last five years.

In this three-part Trendspotting series, we will focus on those wine, spirit, and beer makers, as well as a few industry veterans− particularly the challenges they face, future product releases, and what they should consider as they look to grow and expand in the months ahead.

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Middle West Spirits Owners Ryan Lang and Brady Konya.

Last year, two spirit makers set up shop in Columbus− Middle West Spirits in July and Watershed Distillery in September. Both are already working to expand their offerings and the timing couldn’t be better, as trendwatchers are predicting a renewed interest in classic cocktails and mixology.

Currently, Middle West produces OYO Vodka and OYO Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka, which are sold in about 100 state liquor agencies in the greater Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati areas. Meanwhile, Watershed makes a namesake gin and a namesake vodka that are available at almost 30 locations throughout Central Ohio.

“The openings of Middle West Spirits and Watershed Distillery are definitely part of a growing national trend,” says Jim Ellison, the man behind the popular CMH Gourmand blog.

“Cocktail connoisseurs are on the rise, especially those with an interest in the classic variety: Sidecars, Gin-Gin Mules, and Aviations,” he adds.

Similarly, Jill Moorhead, marketing director at The Hills Market, a locally-owned specialty grocer, says preparing mixed drinks has become a hobby for many consumers, partly due to the recession.

“It’s something that can be done at home,” she explains.

That interest, melded with the continued growth of the local foods movement, means consumers are looking to support regional business “while making their dirty martini a little cleaner and greener,” Ellison says.

For its part, Middle West claims to be Central Ohio’s “first and only true grain-to-bottle microdistillery.”

“We produce all of our products from scratch, sourcing the vast majority of our ingredients from local farms within 90 minutes of Columbus,” says Brady Konya, the distillery’s co-owner and general manager.

Ingredients waiting to be processed in the Middle West Spirits facility located in The Short North.

“Most microdistilleries purchase pre-made neutral spirits produced by industrial third parties and focus their efforts on flavoring and/or refining these outsourced bases− a strategy that is good for the bottom line, but eliminates most of the ‘art’ out of the ‘artisan,’ ” he continues. “By sourcing farm-fresh ingredients locally and then mashing, fermenting, and distilling them by our production team on site, our unique flavor profiles have a distinctive sense of place that proudly reflect their Ohio origins.”

Watershed’s “small-batch artisan quality spirits” are made with all natural ingredients, says Greg Lehman, the brand’s owner and distiller.

Watershed infuses its gin with a blend of seven botanicals, including a variety of citrus peels and Jamaica pepper, and its vodka is quadruple-distilled and made of corn grown entirely in the Midwest, he says.

Middle West and Watershed both use German pot and column combination stills.

Perhaps surprisingly, the production process is not the greatest challenge associated with producing spirits in Ohio, Lehman and Konya say.

The state regulatory system, a system largely unchanged since the Prohibition era, is a bigger obstacle.

The permitting process requires a good deal of time and money spent before product can even be sold, Lehman says.

“Our tax rate is also nearly 50 percent, which doesn’t leave much meat on the bone to run a business with,” Konya says.

Finished products from Watershed Distillery.

Nonetheless, Ellison asserts that Middle West and Watershed are feeding a growing and more educated demand, so there is ample room for industry expansion.

“It doesn’t hurt that both distilleries make very good products,” he adds.

Quality is a top priority for Konya and the Middle West team, and he wishes that were the case for other people looking to get into the microdistillery business.

“We’ve met no less than a half dozen additional parties thinking of opening ‘distilleries’ in Ohio, yet none of them actually plan to mash or ferment any of their own products,” he says. “Call us old fashioned, but if you skip the ‘making’ part of distilling, you’d be more accurately described as a bottler. We’re hoping that folks with a real passion for the actual art of distilling come to Ohio and share their talents and unique products with a population deserving of something more than just another marketing gimmick. We already have enough of those.”

At the moment, Middle West and Watershed only offer white spirits, but that’s all set to change.

The former will be introducing whiskeys and bourbons, as well as gin, additional infused vodkas, and “a variety of unannounced spirits” beginning midyear and into 2012, Konya says.

The latter has a barrel of bourbon aging in its distillery that Lehman says will be ready for sale in 2013.

To learn more about Middle West Spirits, located at 1230 Courtland Ave. in Columbus’s Short North, visit MiddleWestSpirits.com.

To learn more about Watershed Distillery, located at 1145 Chesapeake Ave., Suite D, near Grandview, visit WatershedDistillery.com.