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Middle West Spirits: Columbus’ First Microdistillery

Walker Evans Walker Evans
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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.

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39 Responses to Middle West Spirits: Columbus’ First Microdistillery

  1. lifeontwowheels April 2, 2010 10:11 am at 10:11 am

    Will they need lab rats to test the whiskey on?

  2. dru
    dru April 2, 2010 10:14 am at 10:14 am

    Nice addition to the neighborhood.

    Up in Traverse City, MI a local micro-distiller Grand Traverse Distillery started making True North Vodka a few years ago, and I really like it.  As they mention in the interview, micro brands can have a ‘taste’ to them that reflects the character of the ingredients and the process.   I look forward of doing some taste tests along with Oyo.

  3. michaelcoyote April 2, 2010 10:15 am at 10:15 am

    Good writeup. Very interested in the gin and whiskey lines when they come out.

  4. SamuraiJack
    SamuraiJack April 2, 2010 10:24 am at 10:24 am

    Why is there never any Rum?  LOL

    Can’t wait to try this out.  Also can’t wait to see the bottles. I love repurposing unique bottles for my own home made wines and meads.

  5. Bear
    Bear April 2, 2010 10:31 am at 10:31 am

    “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… The majority of our raw materials are sourced within 100 miles of Columbus.”

    Too cool.  We’ll have to see if their local Slow Food chapter can support them in that direction… that’s an exciting thought.

    There are a couple of gins out that reflect the place they come from — Rehorst has some of the flavor of world-class Wisconsin ginseng, for example.  There’s a guy working on rum in the Berkshires, Berkshire Mountain Distillers, tradition dates back to colonial times. And Prairie vodka = very bio-friendly; leftover biomass from local grains is converted on site to biogas energy to power the stills.  Seems like a good niche to target.

    Be interesting to find something local they could use to get the citrus notes into the gin. Hmm….

    ETA, oops, I missed the line about local macerations for the flavored vodkas. THAT is just freakin’ awesome. Cocktail revival or no, it’s still vodka’s world, and flavored vodkas are big — aim for locavore-friendly flavored vodkas… if it works flavor-wise, it’s brilliant. And it shows a real commitment to quality: Hangar One out in California uses real fruit etc. for their flavored vodkas but it’s actually not that common from what I understand.

  6. Walker Evans
    Walker April 2, 2010 10:37 am at 10:37 am

    I’d just like to make an early prediction and say that Middle West will be quickly known as “The Jeni’s of Spirits” within a year of their products hitting the shelf.

    I was really impressed when talking to these guys and their bottling and branding is extremely top-notch. I wasn’t able to share photos of that as it’s not approved yet, but I’m looking forward to hearing reactions on CU once that is revealed. ;)

    PS: Who wants a CU tour/tasting event this summer?

  7. DavidF
    DavidF April 2, 2010 10:41 am at 10:41 am

    Who doesn’t want a CU tour/tasting event this summer?

  8. catnfiddle April 2, 2010 10:43 am at 10:43 am

    It’s things like this that make me so happy I live here.

  9. Josh Miller
    jpunkster April 2, 2010 10:45 am at 10:45 am

    +1 catnfiddle – reading this just made my day, fantastic concept and glad those guys are bringing it Cbus!

  10. rory April 2, 2010 10:51 am at 10:51 am

    This is awesome and it’s in Weinland Park!

    Welcome to the neighborhood!

    P.S. I’m ready to be the first neighborhood customer.

  11. futureman April 2, 2010 11:06 am at 11:06 am

    “PS: Who wants a CU tour/tasting event this summer?”

    Me!!

  12. Lauren Wilson
    osulew April 2, 2010 11:29 am at 11:29 am

    I’m so interested in this, I feel like my face might explode. So. Awesome. I can’t wait for these tours and chances to buy booze. Kick ass guys!

  13. crsimp01
    crsimp01 April 2, 2010 11:34 am at 11:34 am

    Very Cool!

  14. beersie1 April 2, 2010 11:36 am at 11:36 am

    Really excited for this, and love the Weinland Park props.  Great news for the neighborhood and Columbus!

  15. JonMyers April 2, 2010 11:38 am at 11:38 am

    I really admire the hard work that Brady and Ryan have put into this project. They’re super cool guys and deserve the inevitable success this business will bring.

    Congrats guys.

  16. pmgal April 2, 2010 11:44 am at 11:44 am

    I am very excited about this! The North Short North is great for all the reasons they stated and is a very good fit. I hope we see more small scale start-up manufacturing up that way!  The combination of retail with producing product on site is very attractive and dynamic.

  17. crsimp01
    crsimp01 April 2, 2010 11:50 am at 11:50 am

    Run with it Walker!

  18. ohiojimmie
    ohiojimmie April 2, 2010 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm

    “Why is there never any Rum?  LOL ”
    It’s hard to find local sugar cane.
    This is exciting!  I may have to work more overtime to buy some local booz.

  19. Rockmastermike April 2, 2010 1:47 pm at 1:47 pm

    Will reserve final judgment when I have actually tasted product, but I will say that it will be a GREAT day for Columbus when we can buy good locally produced Gin and Whiskey.
    Vodka doesn’t excite me at all. sorry. need more flavor.  Infusions are fun, but not my ‘thing’.

  20. KyleEzell
    KyleEzell April 2, 2010 2:17 pm at 2:17 pm

    Beyond awesome.

  21. deraj1013
    deraj1013 April 2, 2010 2:34 pm at 2:34 pm

    Actually, on the topic of rum, Dogfish Head in Delaware distills a rum and a spiced rum.

    http://www.dogfish.com/brews-spirits/the-spirits/rums/index.htm

    And rum is made with sugar cane byproducts (molasses or sugar cane juice) rather than sugar cane. Cachaca and aguardiente are made with sugar cane.

  22. turbo ninja April 2, 2010 3:29 pm at 3:29 pm

    Hm.  So THESE are the guys who got the distillery permit for Franklin County.  I’d been looking into the idea of a microdistillery ever since I got back from Portland in November and it was disappointing to learn that the state was so restrictive with its permission.

    I’m glad they’re taking so much care with the presentation of the brand and not just the production.  Would’ve broken my heart to see another lousy “Tito’s Handmade”-style label on the shelves.  As tasty as it may be, the marketing just screams tacky.

    I personally think whiskey is more suited to Ohio’s agriculture and available resources than gin, but local booze is local booze.  It also makes me wonder what they’re using for water.  I don’t think Weinland Park sits on a limestone spring.

  23. duncanfj
    duncanfj April 2, 2010 4:09 pm at 4:09 pm

    New Holland in Michigan also makes rum (as well as vodka, gin, whiskey and hopquilla).  And they make some damn fine beer too.

  24. Bear
    Bear April 2, 2010 4:46 pm at 4:46 pm

    Why the state is so restrictive with its permission is a really good question actually.

  25. Jason Powell
    jpizzow April 2, 2010 5:03 pm at 5:03 pm

    Great news. It’s nice to see another business opening up shop between the last gap from the Short North to campus, and it’s something unique to the city. You already have one customer spoken for.

  26. lilbit
    lilbit April 2, 2010 5:05 pm at 5:05 pm

    Oh, I hope that whiskey is ready for market soon.

  27. racheltb April 2, 2010 8:38 pm at 8:38 pm

    I can’t wait to try middle west spirits and use their vodka for some all-local infusions of my own.  Yay for entrepreneurs taking the leap and jumping through hoops.  :)

  28. Walker Evans
    Walker April 3, 2010 8:32 am at 8:32 am

    turbo ninja Says: So THESE are the guys who got the distillery permit for Franklin County.

    It sounds like they got the special permit that allows for direct retail sales in Franklin County. Are there a limited number of permits for even setting up a distillery at all? I’ve never looked into it much, so I’m only now just finding out how restrictive this stuff is. Hopefully if the State of Ohio has already started to become more flexible with these 3 “retail” permits they will allow for more in the future.

  29. mellotron
    mellotron April 3, 2010 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm

    Beautiful equipment, too!  Has an aesthetic its own, and I hope they don’t hide all the “guts” of distilling in the back room.  The fun of chemistry! ;)

  30. yaysockpuppet
    warmfuzzycoldscratchy April 4, 2010 10:26 pm at 10:26 pm

    I’m so fu#king excited!!!  I’m glad it’s a stumble away from my house!!!

  31. Twixlen April 5, 2010 10:11 am at 10:11 am

    This is tremendous – I fell in love with them and what they are doing whilst reading this article. 

    PawPaw infused vodka FTW!!!

  32. suziwest
    suziwest April 5, 2010 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm

    Boozy Boozy, mark it with a V
    D’stillin’ in the hood, how lucky are we?

  33. jmathews5
    jmathews5 April 6, 2010 9:31 am at 9:31 am

    Yay, finally happy to hear this.  Living in California, the micro’s out there are quite popular and I loved them :)  Now that I’m here – I’m happy to support Brady and Ryan.  Good job, guys

  34. Bear
    Bear April 6, 2010 4:00 pm at 4:00 pm

    Twixlen Says:
    April 5th, 2010 at 10:11 am
    This is tremendous – I fell in love with them and what they are doing whilst reading this article.

    PawPaw infused vodka FTW!!!

    funny you should say that ;-)

  35. Twixlen April 6, 2010 4:07 pm at 4:07 pm


    #34
    Bear Says:
    April 6th, 2010 at 4:00 pm
    Twixlen Says:
    April 5th, 2010 at 10:11 am
    This is tremendous – I fell in love with them and what they are doing whilst reading this article.
    PawPaw infused vodka FTW!!!
    funny you should say that ;-)

    Now you are just teasing me.  *dramatically raises back of hand to forehead*

  36. j mcclane
    j mcclane April 6, 2010 4:34 pm at 4:34 pm

    out come the booze hounds…. totally awesome good luck guys!

  37. hungrywoolf April 11, 2010 10:04 am at 10:04 am

    Some photos from the open house last night. It was really interesting. I can’t wait to try the vodka.

    @turbo ninja they did talk about their water filtration system. I can’t remember the exact details. They are using city water but it goes through a multi-stage filtering process.

  38. spiritracer
    spiritracer July 17, 2010 3:52 pm at 3:52 pm

    I might mention there is another microdistillery in Ohio who does make rum and whiskey – Woodstone Creek. Located in Cincinnati, they opened in 1999 after originating the micro license. It was their bill that gave Middle West the ability to sell spirits from their own location. They were not able to get the law changed exactly the way they wanted. Namely, they asked for the ability to do tastings. The restrictions on the number of permits available came from special interest groups who opposed them here at the statehouse. I hope that Middle West will become politically active the same way. The best way to show our legislators this is good business for Ohio is to make great product right here in Columbus. Woodstone Creek’s website: http://www.woodstonecreek.com

  39. Walker Evans
    Walker August 26, 2010 1:31 pm at 1:31 pm

    People to Watch: Ryan Lang and Brady Konya
    Wednesday, August 25, 2010
    By John Ross

    When Middle West Spirits released its flagship vodka July 1, bottles flew off the shelves.

    During launch week, co-founders Ryan Lang and Brady Konya were making daily trips to state warehouses, reclaiming cases otherwise bound for liquor stores to replenish their own supply. The Short North distillery received a special license to sell bottles from its storefront, and people wasted no time heading over to get one in person.

    READ MORE

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