Ohio’s Burgeoning Micro-distillery Scene
“Prohibition started in Ohio,” Ryan Lang, head distiller at Middle West Spirits, told our small group gathered one Wednesday evening for a tour of the distillery.
Anyone who caught Ken Burns’ PBS special, Prohibition, will have been recently reminded of this too: The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, for example, originated in Hillsboro, and the Anti-Saloon League was formed in Oberlin.
Ryan, grandson of a rum-runner, was a great tour guide and a fountain of knowledge about the history of distilling in Ohio and the lasting effects of prohibition on his profession. Before prohibition, he tells us by way of example, Cincinnati had 81 distilleries; today it has only one.
Although some archaic liquor laws remain in place, micro-distilleries are a burgeoning industry in the United States. When Middle West Spirits, located in Columbus’ hip Short North neighborhood, began business in 2007 there were only 56 distilleries in the whole country. Today there are 301. Perhaps ironically, Ohio, the place where the prohibition movement gathered momentum, is at the forefront of this resurgence and home to six micro-distilleries, with Middle West in particular gaining attention at the national level. The vodka that they produce is highly regarded, recently coming seventh in an international vodka competition.
The Middle West Spirits tour, which runs every Wednesday evening and costs $5, takes visitors through the entire production process, from sourcing the grain to bottling the product, as well as the company’s principals: sustainability, philanthropy and making world-class products.
Information and history lessons aside, my favorite part of the tour was the tasting session at the end. Ryan first instructed us to smell and taste a certain high-end vodka (which will remain nameless) before comparing it to Middle West’s OYO vodka. Let’s just say I won’t be ordering the big-name brand again any time soon.
Unlike the usual flavorless, harsh vodka palate, OYO Vodka bursts with complex flavors and finishes smoothly. The vodka, which is made from Ohio-grown soft red winter wheat and named after the original name for the Ohio River Valley: O – Why – O, stands up as well as a sipping vodka as it does a mixer. Middle West also makes OYO Honey Vanilla Bean vodka, which uses a vanilla bean imported from a small woman-owned farm in Uganda, and an OYO whiskey – and, yes, you get to try them all on the tour.
Some more proudly Ohio beverages that you can enjoy:
Watershed Distillery, which is also in Columbus and also offers tours on Wednesday evenings, produces a clean, citrusy gin as well as a vodka; both are made from Ohio-sourced corn.
Veriano Fine Foods and Spirits in New Albany makes a liqueur called Tessora Limone, using an original Italian recipe that is more than 200 years old.
Cincinnati’s Woodstone Creek released its first bourbon in 2008 and now also produces a corn-based vodka, single peated malt whiskey and a 94-proof dry gin.
Buckeye Vodka creates hand-crafted 80-proof vodka in the Miami Valley. The vodka is distilled 10 times, and the water used to make it is softened four times, then itself distilled.
Family owned Tom’s Foolery in Chagrin Falls makes an American apple brandy called Applejack entirely from apples and water.