This Ohio Distillery is Changing Craft Spirits
Middle West Spirits is a Columbus, Ohio based distillery that's rebuilding the city and reinventing what goes into a bottle
I grew up in Ohio, home to a strange nut called a buckeye and a university bearing its namesake. During my formative years, I learned that Ohio has a unique sense of community, and during my early drinking years I learned that that same community thrived around craft beer. While in school I could name dozens of breweries and taprooms close by, and although Columbus was still discovering its identity, I knew craft drinks were a part of it.
A few years and multiple moves later, I was planning a day trip back to Columbus while visiting my family. My first thought was to check out the brewery scene, but a chance whiskey tasting and endorsement from multiple bartenders had us change course. This delicious, wheated bourbon bore the name Middle West Spirits, a distillery right here in the great Buckeye State giving Kentucky a run for its money. We quickly scheduled a tour.
Middle West Spirits
In Downtown Columbus's historic art district, the Short North, you will find an enigmatic, multi-story translucent glass tower. It isn't a high-rise hotel or a secret government office; it's Middle West Spirits, a homegrown Ohio distillery that's changing the craft game. "Columbus has a cool mix of old agricultural tradition and new technological innovation, and that's something we try to capture in our space and our products," says Rudra Trivedi the Middle West Tours Director.
That commitment to Ohio and Innovation, what Rudra calls grain to bottle, is immediately apparent at Middle West. The building is sleek and modern, and the Service Bar serves up world-class concoctions that would make any cocktail connoisseur salivate. Underpinning this modern space, however, is a feeling that's unmistakably Ohio. The shop sells Ohio souvenirs, the people are happy and friendly, and the food is decidedly Midwestern, albeit with a high-end Bangladeshi flair. It's a place that today feels organic to the Downtown Columbus community, but Rudra tells me this wasn't the case at first.
The Unlikely Dream
Middle West was founded in 2008 by co-founders Brady Konya and Ryan Lang. Ryan had a family recipe, an heirloom from generations of bootleggers, but other than that they had no distilling experience. The pair met in 2007 when their spouses were relocated to the Abercrombie & Fitch's headquarters in New Albany and became friends. "It started as one of those things where one friend tells the other' we should open a bar.' Every guy I think has said that at some point and 99 percent of the time it doesn't happen. This one actually happened," explains Rudra. Despite the inexperience, Middle West opened for commercial production in 2010 but was soon met by more challenges.
Ohio historically is not known for its craft spirits. Craft beer dominates the state, and even as an Ohio native, I couldn't name a single bottle of booze made in Ohio before my visit. A lot of that is because of the state's hyper-draconic distilling laws. Columbus is only 15 miles from Westerville, Ohio, the birthplace of Prohibition, and although those sentiments have disappeared and bars can now operate freely, state laws have not caught up with the times. No industry understands that frustration more than craft distilleries.
"In Ohio, ten years ago was pretty regressive," says Brady Konya, the co-founder of Middle West Spirits. "It had some of the most constrained compliance rules in the country with a lot of limitations, not only for the way that we produced spirits but the way that we sold them." Until recently, distilleries in the Buckeye State could not make mixed drinks, were limited in the quantity they could sell to the consumer, and could not produce over 10,000 gallons of spirits; a threshold Middle West had passed by 2015. This put them at a direct disadvantage to craft breweries and wineries who overcame similar challenges decades ago.
"We're handcuffed," Middle West co-founder Ryan Lang told the Columbus Dispatch. "It's a penalty for growth." In 2015, Middle West teamed up with the Ohio Distiller's Guild and another local distillery, Watershed, to change state legislation. They were ultimately successful and can now operate a kitchen and cocktail bar while also selling at a significantly higher volume. Rudra says this has been essential for the growth of the brand, "Most people don't drink spirits neat, but before all we could do was take people on tour and do straight pours under half an ounce. We lived under that model for seven years, and now we can show off our great spirits with great cocktails."
After overcoming growing pains and state bureaucracy, Middle West was able to focus on what Rudra calls their to Bottle motto. Ohio has a rich agricultural tradition, and Columbus is a town of locavores where "made local" carries a lot of weight. This fit perfectly into Ryan and Brady's vision for the future of their brand.
The first goal was to create a locally sourced product. "At first we had to ship grain in from around the country. When you're starting and tell a farmer that you need a thousand pounds a month, it's hard for them to see a profit. But when you get more established and can ask for a million pounds a month, they are happy to sell to a local business." Says Rudra. Today, all of the grain Middle West uses in production is grown in Ohio, but It's not just the grain. The food is locally sourced, many of the distilling spices and fragrances are locally grown, even the barrels come from a local coopery.
When you grab a bottle of Middle West OYO vodka or whiskey, and you see ingredients like local soft red winter wheat or local honey, you know it's not a gimmick. It's a commitment to quality and Columbus. This commitment is echoed in their involvement with the local community.
"You will see us out in the Columbus community doing a lot of different things," Rudra says. "A lot of businesses ask us for donations, but we like to get out there in person. The whole point of helping is to see the impact you can make." Middle West is heavily involved in local fundraisers, whether by running tastings to raise money or donating batch cocktails for use in fundraising events. They are also very active in supporting local youth centers and the LGBTQ community. "Columbus has a very diverse population, and I think as we've become more successful, we've realized that means there's a lot of different ways we can help out."
Even within its industry, Middle West is focused on community involvement. "I think people have this idea that just because we're technically competitors with places like Watershed across the city that we should be undercutting each other." Rudra says, "That's the wrong idea. We do better when they do better and vice versa, because that's how we can make the industry in this town thrive."
Middle West also does what it can to help new distilleries get on their feet. When I went to their facility, a group from Hocking College in Athens, OH was on tour with co-founder Ryan. They wanted to start their own distilling program, and Ryan was more than happy to share everything he learned in the last decade. "New distilleries come to Ryan asking for advice, and he tells them pretty much anything." Says Rudra. "People ask 'why are you telling them?' He's telling them because we're already ten years old, we've reached the next tier of production, but the more successful distilleries we have, the more Columbus and Ohio, in general, becomes a destination. That helps us all."
A Vision for the Future
Over the last ten years, Middle West has reached a level of success that its co-founders probably never imagined for themselves. They haven't rested on their laurels either. In the next few years, Middle West will be adding new fermenters and literally taking the roof off of their existing distilling space to expand production. "We want to double our production over the next few years," Rudra tells me. With this future momentum, it would be understandable for Middle West to look beyond Ohio and focus on the national market instead of their local community, this is not the case.
Middle West hopes to begin shipment outside of the state, but their commitment to Columbus has only become stronger. Just a decade ago, Middle West and Watershed were some of the only players in Ohio craft spirits. Their commitment to the craft and Ohio, however, has inspired a new generation of distillers. Now there are dozens of distilleries in the state, and that number is growing. Amid new projects and growth, Middle West has never lost sight of its initial vision: Ohio-first, community-focused.
The community has taken notice. Local bars feature Middle West in the well, cocktail bars from Athens in the south to Cleveland in the north have discovered the quality of their spirits and now routinely keep them in stock. This recognition has reached a national stage with numerous awards and medals at international competitions, and even the first inaugural Innovation Award for Whiskey from the American Craft Spirits Awards for their OYO Sherry Finished Bourbon.
"The reason we can do that is because people in this state like our products." Says Rudra, "Ten years ago it was a big risk if what we put in the barrel would be popular, but now we can do things like sherry finished bourbon or honey vodka because our customers want to try new things and enjoy what we do." Middle West maintains its grain to bottle, local-first approach in every aspect of its business and has taken on new initiatives to innovate and build up Columbus.
Columbus has always been a hub for food in drink in the Midwest. In years past that landscape, however, was dominated by chains, and it wasn't until recently that the fine food and drink scene took off. After a change in legislation that allowed Ohio distilleries to operate a restaurant and bar, Middle West and Watershed saw an opportunity to reinvent Columbus.
Middle West launched their Service Bar and Restaurant, a classy locale for fine food and drinks that would look more at home in New York or Los Angeles than Columbus. Here you will find amazing composed cocktails like the Fancy Bartender (Chartreuse, white whiskey, and lots of Amari) served alongside dishes like the Cheesy Brisket Crunch, a spin on double-decker taco with smoked brisket on Bengali fry bread and a crispy tortilla. This new program is part of Middle West's vision to revitalize Columbus as a national destination for food and drink and to bring it to par with other powerhouse cities.
Middle West strives to innovate what craft spirits can look like and do it in such a way that focuses on Ohio-first while helping to reinvent and build the future of Columbus. By using local ingredients, fostering local community organizations, and creating a destination for visitors from around the globe, Middle West keeps one foot planted in Ohio soil while always looking ahead.
"We've always felt like an important part of the community in Ohio, since the first day we opened our doors," says co-founder Brady Konya. "Our vision to continue to be a part of the homegrown fabric of Ohio's story will always be at the heart of everything we do."