The New Hangout in Columbus? Distilleries

Columbus, Ohio, is no longer the meat-and-potato city of decades ago. Yes, there are the big restaurant chains. Wendy’s, White Castle and Sbarro, to name a few, have national headquarters here. But the state capital is now one of the country’s fastest-growing cities, and it has dynamic art projects, good restaurants and a revitalized riverfront. Recently, it also has been getting buzz for its spirits, with a fresh crop of homegrown micro distilleries elevating the city’s drink scene.

While craft breweries in Columbus have flourished by the dozens, following a national trend, a surge in small distilleries of whiskey and other spirits has only happened in the last few years because of legislative changes that relaxed craft-distilling restrictions in the state.

“The environment is ripe for new distilleries to emerge,” said Cheryl Harrison, who edits the blog Drink Up Columbus.

Nearly 60 craft distilleries, mostly clustered in the Columbus area, now operate in Ohio, up from a handful a decade ago. To draw more customers and to grow their brands, many of these micro distilleries have added tasting rooms, bottle shops and restaurants that experiment with food and spirit pairings.

The rise in craft distilleries is the result of successful lobbying in 2016 by a group of local distillers to change a state law, which evoked the Prohibition era by limiting the ways spirits could be produced and sold. Their efforts began in 2012 and led to a loosening of restrictions on distilleries’ ability to serve directly to customers.

That new flexibility, more aligned with practices in craft breweries, prompted the co-founders of Watershed Distillery, to open the chic, full-service restaurant, Watershed Kitchen & Bar, in late 2016, just a few months after the state law was changed.

“We thought about a great bar with a food truck, but we put so much into the spirits,” said Greg Lehman, a co-founder of Watershed Distillery.

Before the state law was changed, Watershed could only serve four quarter-ounce samples without ice or mixers, not ideal for a brand trying to show off its product; nor could it operate a tasting room or restaurant, unlike brew pubs or wineries, which were not subject to distilling restrictions.

Now after tours of the distillery, which last more than an hour and explore the distillation process from grain to bottle of their eight spirits, groups head to the restaurant, led by the chef Jack Moore, the former sous chef of The Greenhouse Tavern, an award-winning restaurant in Cleveland. Customers can sample the distillery’s gins, bourbon and an Italian liqueur called nocino made with Ohio-grown black walnuts in cocktails infused with local, seasonal ingredients. While admiring the distillery tanks through a window from a copper-topped bar, they also can savor farm-to-table fare like hay-smoked baby back ribs and popcorn sweetbreads.

Middle West Spirits, an 11-year-old distillery in the artsy Short North neighborhood, was a major player, along with Watershed Distillery, in getting the Ohio law revised. The distillery’s owners took advantage of the changes to open an attached bottle shop and restaurant, Service Bar, in 2017.

Fronting an antique wooden back bar picked up from an old Cincinnati tavern, mixologists shake cocktails made with their rye pumpernickel whiskey and barrel-finished honey vanilla bean vodka, as well as spirits made from other distilleries.

On a recent visit, the dining room was filled with stylish patrons snacking on dishes like crispy short rib served with housemade bao and an oak-smoked brisket wrapped in Bengali fry bread, created by the chef Avishar Barua, who once worked at New York’s rule-breaking restaurants WD-50 and Mission Chinese. Having the restaurant has been a boon to the brand.

“In a regular year we might bring in 7,500 on tours, now with Service Bar we’ll bring in 50,000,” said Brady Konya, who founded Middle West Spirits with his business partner, Ryan Lang, the grandson of a bootlegger. “The exposure is huge.”

The hourlong tours of the 1,500-square-foot production room at Noble Cut Distillery, set in a business park in the suburb of Gahanna, have been a way to familiarize customers with the brand. Tony Guilfoy, the head distiller and co-owner, gives guests a brief history lesson, followed by a sampling. You can also pop into the distillery’s tasting room during visiting hours to sample orangecello or dark cherry-flavored whiskey.

In the buzzy Grandview neighborhood near downtown, High Bank Distillery Co. opened in 2018 as more of a restaurant with a distillery than a distillery with a restaurant. It’s a 9,000-square-foot industrial space with a long bar, mostly high-top tables, and foosball and table hockey games, in addition to TVs at every angle. The shiny distillery equipment can be seen through a glass window in the back. You can sample the vodka, citrusy gin and whiskey at the bar, though bourbon is still a couple of years away from release. The pub-style menu is built around Ohio eggs, meats, honey, dairy and maple syrup.

Similarly, Echo Spirits Distilling Co, also in Grandview, plans later this year to open a distillery bar that will dispense meals from on-site food trucks.

In suburban Clintonville, Chad Kessler operates a small distillery, 451 Spirits, out of what is essentially a large garage filled with barrels and a couple of stills, and decorated with guitars and skateboards.

The informal set up allows Mr. Kessler to be more experimental than some other distillers. He uses a labor-intensive method in his smoked apple-flavored whiskey, a process of fractional blending and aging different batches of the spirit, something more common in the production of sherry. He also infuses a New American style dry gin with local spicebush, sometimes called Appalachian allspice, among other botanicals.

He seizes any opportunity to try something new, even his dissatisfaction with the quality of Ohio grapes. “That’s why we use apple brandy for our absinthe,” Mr. Kessler said as he gave a tour.

Mr. Kessler told the 10 people gathered, most of whom found out about the tour on Groupon, that a great deal of knowledge about distilling was lost during Prohibition, when the production and sale of alcohol was banned nationwide from 1920 to 1933. He likes to think he’s recovering some of it, even if he sometimes makes things that don’t make sense on a larger scale.

Take for instance, his Pizza Pie-chuga. Mr. Kessler redistilled white whiskey with slices of pepperoni pizza from the local pizzeria, Mikey’s Late Night Slice, as a joke. They are now on their fourth batch and it sells out every time. He pours a sample into a plastic shot glass for everyone in the group.

“Oh my,” a young woman said. “That really smells like pizza.”

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