The fermentation tanks where Ohio winter wheat is mixed with yeast and water and left to soften and ferment.
Who: Middle West Spirits micro-distillery
What: High-quality artisanal spirits made from local Ohio ingredients
Where: Columbus, Ohio
If you wanted to make a hand-crafted liquor with a "sense of place," then vodka, the most neutral and flavorless spirit, would be an odd place to start. Brady Konya and Ryan Lang, founders of Middle West Spirits, laugh as they acknowledge this irony. "Artisan vodka" almost seems like a contradiction in terms but somehow, they have created a vodka that does indeed have a sense of location in its environment, and their OYO Vodka is not actually a flavorless, neutral spirit at all — it's something very different.
Come walk through the Middle West Spirits micro-distillery in Columbus, Ohio, and see what it takes to distill a great bottle of vodka — and more.
One of the copper stacks of the Middle West Spirits still.
Brady Konya and Ryan Lang have backgrounds in entrepreneurship, and when they moved here for their significant others' jobs (both have partners in fashion — Columbus is home to the headquarters of Abercrombie and Fitch and The Limited) they met and became friends, and began thinking of a business they could start together. Lang's family has roots in old-timey moonshine and distilling, and they both became interested in trying to produce an artisan, hand-crafted spirit that would show a sense of place.
The recession was a blow in getting their venture off the ground, but they pressed on, and after a significant investment in equipment and renting a small industrial space on a side street near downtown Columbus, they had a working micro-distillery.
Their goal was to take Ohio winter wheat, and turn out a vodka that had something special, something purer and even richer than even the most expensive vodkas. "In Ohio there are already 77 neutral options on the market," says Konya. "We had an opportunity to make a vodka that actually tasted like something."
I am not a vodka drinker ordinarily, but I can say that I really enjoy Middle West's OYO (oh-WHY-oh) vodka, which is named after an archaic pronunciation of the word for the Ohio river valley. It's smooth, pure, and light, with a faint sweetness and a hint of vanilla. Some might argue that it's not technically vodka, as it isn't completely neutral, but I would argue back that, whatever you call it, I'd rather drink this than something completely flavorless.
So how do they do it, and how does the process work?
The back of the production space, with fermentation tanks and a huge reclaimed wood table.
The key thing to notice about Middle West is that they are a true distillery. Many "micro-distilleries" do not actually distill their alcohol from grain to bottle; they buy rough grain spirits and re-distill or simply filter them until they have a product they can sell. Middle West oversees the entire process, from mill to bottle.
They have a beautiful, custom-installed German Kothe pot-combination system of copper pots and a double tower of "bubble trays" that allow the alcohol vapor to shoot up and fall back down, trapping impurities along the way. (They were recently named one of the world's top 5 most high-tech distilleries by Popular Mechanics.)
It's a relatively simple process, but one with nearly infinite capacity for variations. Brady explained that in their distilling runs there were 40 distinct places affecting flavor of the final spirit, and over 40,000 potential permutations of equipment settings and ingredients.
OYO bottles ready to be filled.
How Vodka Is Made
1. The wheat is grown and milled
First, the wheat is milled down, and the bran (outer husk) is removed. For Middle West, this happens at one mill in northern Ohio that draws wheat from farms within an 80-mile radius. They only use soft red winter wheat, which contains about 30% more starch than other kinds of wheat. All the farms' product is blended at the mill so they have a consistent flavor profile.
2. The wheat is fermented in a mash
Wheat goes into big fermentation tanks at the back of the Middle West facility, where it is turned into a mash, a mix of water, yeast, and grain. It is warmed and then left to ferment for about 4 days. The starch turns to sugar, the sugar is eaten by the yeast, and alcohol results. When the yeast has consumed the sugar and turned it into alcohol, this wash is transferred into the pot, the first piece in their lovely distilling equipment.
3. The pot boils the wash and creates ethanol vapor
The creamy, rough liquid is brought to a boil. Since water and alcohol (ethanol) boil at different temperatures, the water boils after the alcohol, and condenses is allowed to fall back down into the pot, while the alcohol vapor is transferred into the distilling columns.
4. The ethanol condenses and drips down
The ethanol condenses and drips down as very high-proof liquid alcohol. From this point on there is a careful process of separately drawing off what they call the "heads", "hearts," and "tails." The first 5% or so (heads) of a distilling run is very high in undesirable chemical compounds. If you taste nail polish remover (acetone) in your booze, then it is probably at least partially heads. The middle of the run is the "hearts" or good stuff. The final bit, the "tails" is lower-proof. The spirits-makers mix these three carefully to get a good flavor balance, and leave out the harshest portions for a smooth sip. The vodka is filtered, blended and set aside in tanks until bottling.
5. The vodka is bottled, aged, or infused
Middle West bottles their vodka just a few bottles at a time, in big parties where they invite volunteers to come and help in return for a bottle and a t-shirt. But not all vodka goes straight into their (very pretty) glass bottles. Some is infused; they have a totally delicious Honey Vanilla Bean variety that I like very much, as well as a newer Stone Fruit vodka that makes an excellent cocktail. They are doing a barrel-aged whiskey now as well.
Altogether, this process (not counting infusing or aging) takes about 1 week, and they process about 600 liters on each run.
Ingredients for their Honey Vanilla Bean infused vodka.
The Business Plan
Konya and Lang are betting that there is a place in the Midwest for artisan spirits, and so far they seem to be proven right. There is actually another distillery in Columbus (Watershed, makers of one of my all-time favorite gins) and both companies are thriving. Even Ohio's draconian liquor laws, which are relics of Prohibition, aren't holding them back, although there is a challenging process each time they bring a new product to market. They have to go before the state liquor board and basically apply for approval, and ask them to stock it on the state's list of liquors that are sold in state.
Regardless, they are doing well, and they even recently announced plans to double the size of their production facility to meet demand. Their product is a premium one, with vodka retailing at over $30, and their whiskey at over $50, but their hand-crafted taste has found a market in Ohio and elsewhere.
Ryan's family's old moonshine still.
One refrain I kept hearing during my visit: Columbus is a wonderful place for startups like this one. "Ohio State [University] has been an amazing partner," they said. "The food science faculty there have been invaluable resources to us." It's not just the low costs of doing business; this is also a community that supports new businesses and vigorously supports and celebrates companies trying to do something original and special. There have been great partnerships too, with Jeni's ice creams, who designed a signature ice cream flavor around their whiskey.
It's really a beautiful thing to drink liquor produced locally, from wheat that grows not a hundred miles away from where I live. It's romantic — but importantly, it creates community. And, it tastes pretty splendid which, in the end, is what really matters.
Brady Konya and Ryan Lang of Middle West Spirits.
Visit Middle West: Middle West Spirits
Purchase Middle West products online: Middle West Spirits at Party Source Express
Thanks, Brady and Ryan!
Related: 4 New (and Very Different) Gins to Try This Summer
(Images: Faith Durand)