Middle West Spirits: Columbus’ First Microdistillery

The Short North is known for being home to some of the city’s best restaurants, bars, art galleries and boutique shops, and in 2010, the neighborhood will gain another significant notch in it’s belt as it becomes the home of Middle West Spirits, the first microdistillery in the city.

Business partners Brady Konya and Ryan Lang have spent the last two years getting their unique operation up and running and will begin selling their first product, an artisan vodka called Oyo, in May.

We recently caught up with Brady and Ryan to find out more about Middle West Spirits and what lies in store for the future of their new business.

Walker Evans: What attracted the two of you to consider opening a distillery and making spirits?

Ryan Lang: Part of the initial thought had to do with my family lineage… there’s been four generations of distillers there… although what we’re doing might make us the first generation to actually be legal.

Brady Konya: (Laughs) We both moved here about two and a half years ago and met and decided that we wanted to open a business together. My background is in advertising, and I worked for ad firms for 10 years on some big brands.

RL: My background is in engineering and sales, so it’s a nice blend between our skill sets. A distillery was something that we kicked around and decided that it made sense as a business here.

WE: So you’re setting up your business at the northern end of the Short North near the corner of Fifth and High. What drew you to this location?

BK: We decided to be at this end of the Short North for a couple of reasons. It’s a little more edgy and unfinished. It’s the commercial side of the district that hasn’t been figured out yet, and that’s exciting for us to be a part of. We’re also officially in Weinland Park, so it’s also exciting to be a part of that neighborhood as well and as we’re able to start hiring, we’ll be looking to hire from within the neighborhood.

WE: Being the first microdistillery in Columbus, do you think there’s a void in the market here for the types of products you’re going to be selling?

BK: Yeah, out on the West Coast, micro-spirits have been hot for a few years, and they’re really starting to pick up and experience a bit of a boom out there. We know that Columbus is great city for something similar because it’s a really young city and people here are open-minded to new products. So there is an untapped market for this new idea. Many retailers have known for a long time that Ohio is home to a great market for testing. And something that both of us have noticed since moving here is that people here love their local brands.

WE: So why hasn’t anyone opened a microdistillery in Columbus before?

BK: Essentially, micro-wineries and micro-breweries are a lot easier to get started. I think the main reason you don’t see a lot of micro-distilleries here is because the distribution model is much different. With wine or beer you can sell at any grocery store, you can sell directly, or you can have a restaurant or bar attached to your production facility. With a liquor distillery, your primary customer is the State of Ohio. You sell your product to the State and then they distribute to agencies and retail and other wholesale customers like bars and restaurants.

WE: So you’re not able to sell directly to the public?

BK: Actually, yes we can. A little over a year ago the State of Ohio passed some new legislation that recognized that small manufacturers of spirits were entering into the market, and they put in place an opportunity for businesses like ours to actually sell directly to the public. So from a distribution point, we still have to go through the State of Ohio, but then they allow us to sell directly from our space. In the front of our building we are adding a very small retail storefront.

RL: It will feel a little more like a living room though.

BK: Right, the primary focus of our business isn’t to sell retail, so this is more about providing an opportunity for customers to experience our brand, hear our story, tour the manufacturing process, and then be able to buy a couple of bottles from us on their way out. This is very unique as there’s only one of these special permits for every county in Ohio with more than 800,000 people, which means there are only three permits in the entire state, and we were lucky enough to secure the only one for Franklin County.

WE: Wow. Very impressive. So tell us a bit more about the production process. You’ll be producing the entire product in this building from start to finish, correct?

RL: Yes. Everything that we do will be done in this space. Our process is small and refined and every product will be single batch, hand-bottled, and hand-labeled. We’ll run everything in batches of around 600 liters at a time.

BK: We’ll be able to produce just about anything you see in a liquor store. We bought some very special equipment that allows us to have incredible flexibility in our production process. Ultimately, it’s limitless in terms of our imagination.

RL: Yes, the equipment we’re using is actually the first specially made distillation plant specifically for vodka in all of North America.

BK: The German company who manufactures this equipment is a massive high-end company that does almost all of their equipment distribution in Europe for European liquor brands.

RL: Anyway, the whole process from start to finish for vodka takes about 7 days. It’s a long process, but well worth it.

BK: Yeah, it’s a pretty high-touch process and everything is based not only on what goes into the machine, but also how it tastes in the process to make sure we’re only using the best part of the product.

WE: So you’re planning to start off with vodka and then add other products into production?

RL: Yes, we’re starting on a Vodka right now, working on a Gin, and throwing around some ideas to eventually add a Whiskey.

WE: What can customers expect of the type of vodka you’ll be producing?

BK: Vodkas are supposed to be odorless, colorless and tasteless… at least according to the US Government. We’d beg to differ. There’s an ongoing revival in vodkas, and people who know artisan spirits know that there’s a complexity to the spirit that is under-appreciated. Essentially, there’s a standard filtration process that strips a lot of that flavor out, but you can still make amazing vodkas without filtering out those flavors. Some can be very simple and some can have a lot of character. Mixologists who are really getting into the art now are definitely developing a palate for how these differences can accentuate juices in a fresh bar for cocktails.

RL: We’re hoping that those mixologists like us.

BK: Yeah, our product will definitely be fuller in body and have a lot more character than what you might find in one of the more high-volume or commercially popular products. It’ll be a little sweeter, definitely very smooth.

RL: We’ll also eventually be doing some flavored or infused vodkas, and those will all be done through macerations. We’re not going to use gels or liquids for flavor. We’ll be using as much local fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices that we can find and adding them to the product.

WE: That localization trend is really booming right now. Do you think that’s going to help set your brand apart in Columbus?

BK: I think that what we’ve found in talking about our story as a small spirits provider is showcasing that it’s not just about manufacturing… it’s about the whole process and connecting the local farmer to the local manufacturer to the local customer. We kind of see what we’re doing as an arm of the Slow Food movement. It’s about the quality going into the product, not about the packaging… although I think we’ve got some really beautiful packaging that we’ve put a lot of thought into… it’s ultimately all about what’s in the bottle. The majority of our raw materials are sourced within 100 miles of Columbus. All of our wheat comes from Northern Ohio, it’s all milled locally, and we’re developing a supply chain of local farmers to do seasonal products that highlight Ohio agriculture, berries, fruits and spices. If we can’t get something in Ohio, we’re trying really hard to stay in the Midwest.

WE: You mentioned the packaging and branding. Can you tell us a bit about what we can expect to find on the shelves when the product is launched?

BK: Well, the distillery is called Middle West Spirits, which is an old colloquialism for Midwest, but it’s obviously not used that much. That’s a slightly off-center reference to where we’re at because we don’t feel like we’re a part of the commercial norm yet. So that’s a part of the buildup to the launch of Oyo Vodka, our signature product. Oyo is the native name for the Ohio River and Ohio Valley. So, back when the Iroquois occupied the area, they had a word for the Ohio River, Oyo, which meant “Beautiful River”. As the French came in followed by the English, the pronunciation changed that’s how it transformed into the Ohio name that we have today. So we thought that was a uniquely subtle reference to something that we think is very special for Ohio without screaming “Buckeyes”. The other subtle reference is the botanical that we use on the front of the bottle and our logo, which is actually the scientific botanical for a Buckeye tree. Again, we thought it was a subtle and elegant way of giving a nod toward where the company is being founded. The bottles themselves are inspired by this renaissance in apothecary. The typography and the shape of the bottle is almost medicinal. The final product will have a wax dipped seal and will feel very high-touch and very hand-prepared. I think it all tells an interesting story that is uniquely Columbus, Ohio. And we’ve been getting some great feedback about the direction we’re move in.

RL: Yeah, everyone that we’ve spoken to has been so supportive. And usually when you talk to one person, they give you five other people to speak to. It’s been really nice to find that kind of support in this community.

BK: As difficult as it’s been to get up and running in the past two years, we couldn’t be more thrilled right now.

WE: Are you planning any opening events or launch parties for the space or the product?

BK: We have a private soft opening of the space on Saturday April 10th followed by a launch party that same night down the street at Sandbox, and we’ll have product listed in the State in May, so late-May is when we’re hoping to see Oyo on the shelves. We are fully licensed and permitted to start producing as of right now. It’s just a matter of getting the marketing and packaging approved.

RL: And again, once we get up and running full time we will be doing tours and events in the production space. All of that will be on our website in the near future.

WE: Well, good luck with getting up and running. Thanks again for taking the time today!

More information can be found online at www.middlewestspirits.com.

(Note: This article was originally published on ColumbusUnderground.com on April 2, 2010)