Future Bright For Two Columbus Micro-Distilleries

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Even though the recession technically ended about 18 months ago, many people still are feeling its affect. And that might lead some to say now is the worst time to start a business. That didn’t faze two Columbus men from opening up unique companies unique to Columbus. WOSU’s Mandie Trimble reports, the down economy just might be a good boost for their businesses.

The economy might be in the dumps, but a lot of people’s spirits are up. Ohio liquor sales have increased six percent since the economy went bust in 2008. Last year, Ohioans consumed half a million gallons more liquor than they did just a couple of years ago. Whether people are buying more expensive, premium brands or they’re just buying more booze, the liquor industry appears recession-proof. And that’s good news for the owners of two new micro-distilleries in Columbus.

“We do everything by hand. It’s a lot longer process

but Ryan Lang says it’s worth it. Lang is one of the owners and the head distiller at Middle West Spirits. The micro-distillery, situated in the far north end of Short North, is one of four of its kind in Ohio that is if you count two other even smaller operations – one in Cincinnati, the other in a Cleveland garage.

Middle West Spirits prides itself on using as many local ingredients as it can for its Oyo vodka and soon-to-come whiskey. Next year he says the company will purchase more than 800,000 pounds of local wheat.

“If I can source the majority of the raw materials in the state, I am a very happy man. That is my goal.” And it’s not just ingredients Lang has kept local. The name Oyo, spelled O-Y-O, has a local Native American connection.

“It is the original namesake for the Ohio River Valley. It means beautiful river.” Just as the Ohio River flows along the state’s southern border, one could say the art of distilling runs through Lang’s veins. He’s the great-grandson of bootleggers.

“They made whiskey, they made apple jack and they made moonshine. My great-grandmother is one of the best at it. She ended up going to jail for it. Myself, I learned the basic principles from my grandfather.” Lang’s dreams of owning a micro-distillery were almost cut short when the economy tanked along with his investors’ personal funds. Lang talked to more than 20 banks before he got funding.

“A distillery which is not really known was a very high risk venture for them, but luckily we did find a few partners to work with and we moved forward.” Despite the banks’ hesitations, the business has proved to be successful since doors opened last April, and Lang’s already looking into creating brandies and liqueurs. And his vodka already has bragging rights. It ranked 7th in the world out of 140 vodkas judged at the Beverage Tasting Institute. Lang is not the only Columbus man with dreams of making local liquor. Just two miles east of Middle West Spirits is Watershed Distillery in Grandview. Owner Greg Lehman opened its doors in December. Watershed makes gin and vodka, and it’s currently aging some whiskey.

“December for us was amazing, we didn’t expect to sell what we sold. I say amazing, we didn’t sell so much, but for us, the first month out was really good, really positive.” Lehman’s gin and vodka are in Columbus-area restaurants as well as in state liquor stores in Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Like Ryan Lang, Lehman saw an increasing consumer demand for local products.

“We saw this going on and we thought alright that would be great if we could bring some more options to these high-proof spirits.” Lehman says the company can’t get everything it needs from Ohio, but it sources local when it can. He hopes one day to get all of the corn he needs from state farmers.

“Take for instance our boxes, they’re made in Mount Vernon. The botanicals for the gin, we use citrus peel and some other botanicals which you can’t get in Ohio, but we use a guy, Spice Barn, up in Lewis Center that sources all the botanicals for us. And then our printed materials come from a place in Westerville.”

Lehman sees a bright future for his micro-distillery, and thinks his success could provide the inspiration for other would-be local distillers.