Ohio’s Diverse Agriculture Creates Local Craft Spirits

Jenn Murley of Watershed Distillery, with the producer's Bourbon / Photo courtesy Watershed

Agriculture is among Ohio’s main industries, so it makes sense that the state is home to numerous farm distilleries. Even those in urban centers emphasize sourcing from local farms and purveyors.

“Our agriculture here is based around corn, apples, things of that nature,” says David Yee, a bartender based in Columbus, Ohio, where he manages a bar called Oddfellows Liquor Bar. He also plans to open a bar with a collective of bartenders called All Due Respect. “When I think about Ohio spirits, I think of spirits that come from the earth here.”

That might translate into applejack or apple brandy, liqueurs made from local walnuts like Watershed’s Nocino, or one of the many whiskey bottlings distilled from local grains.

The Buckeye State is home to 76 distilleries, according to 2020 data from the American Craft Spirits Association. That’s the second-most in the Midwest, and up from 65 distilleries in 2019.

The State That Quietly Became the Midwest's Craft Spirits Capital

Many are around Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland, with others dotted around the state. Breweries are also found in abundance.

“The Ohio beer scene is one of the best in the country,” says Yee. That thriving scene spills over into enthusiasm for spirits. “There’s definitely a correlation between breweries and distilleries.”

Ohio’s established taproom culture has helped locals embrace distillery tasting rooms as favored hangout spots, too. It’s a place where the community gathers,” says Yee.

In addition to plenty of whiskey and vodka, keep an eye out for unexpected spirits like riffs on baijiu, Tequila and limoncello from the eight distilleries below. And this represents bottles from just a tiny fraction of state producers.

“Ohio has a lot of people with great ideas,” says Yee. “The distillery scene reflects that.”

Karrakin cofounders Jeff Hunt and Eric Baumann, showing their Ora Gin / Photo by Victor Sizemore
Karrakin cofounders Jeff Hunt and Eric Baumann, showing their Ora Gin / Photo by Victor Sizemore

Karrikin Spirits: Proud owners of Ohio’s largest copper-pot still, this Cincinnati distillery makes a wide range of spirits including apple and apricot brandies. But the most unusual might be Shifu, inspired by China’s baijiu, made with sorghum, rice and barley, and fermented with saké yeast.

Middle West cofounder Ryan Lang with the producer's Straight Wheated Bourbon Whiskey / Photo by Rachel Joy Barehl
Middle West cofounder Ryan Lang with the producer’s Straight Wheated Bourbon Whiskey / Photo by Rachel Joy Barehl

Middle West Spirits: Though best known for its Middle West whiskeys, that includes Bourbon and an intriguing Dark Pumpernickel Rye, also keep an eye out for its OYO vodkas. Visitors can find these spirits mixed into cocktails at the distillery’s popular Service Bar.

Noble Cut Distillery: This Columbus distillery channels Italian heritage with distiller and owner Tony Guilfoy’s limoncello recipe, six generations old, as well as Ozark mountain roots. The result is a collection of ’cellos that includes Grapefruitcello and Orangecello, as well as seasonal flavored whiskeys like pumpkin spice and salted caramel.

Northside Distilling: What began in 2013 as an operation to make corn whiskey on an old family farm saw a move to Cincinnati’s Northside the next year. The distillery has since expanded to a wider range of white spirits like vodka, gin, rum and “American Agave,” its take on Tequila, as well as Bourbon.

Robert James Distillery: Formerly known as Shumrick & Leys. Media entrepreneur Bob Slattery, also owner of Fifty West Brewing, purchased this Cincinnati distillery in 2019. He planned to use it to explore new distilling technologies. Slattery installed new equipment, rebranded the business and re-opened in February 2020. Founder/master distiller Terry Shumrick stayed on and uses new and traditional methods to make spirits like a wine-finished whiskey dubbed “Bourvin.”

Seven Brothers Distilling: A Cleveland distillery founded by the youngest of seven brothers, this artisan distillery focuses on local ingredients. Offerings include a Hickory Smoked Whiskey distilled from Ohio wheat and corn and smoked with local hickory wood. There’s also Seven Botanicals Gin, infused with locally harvested juniper.

Tom and Lianne Herbruck of Tom's Foolery, by their stills / Photo courtesy Tom's Foolery
Tom and Lianne Herbruck of Tom’s Foolery, by their stills / Photo courtesy Tom’s Foolery

Tom’s Foolery Distillery: Since 2008, this Burton farm distillery in the greater Cleveland area has made Bourbon, rye, applejack and gin. It grows some of its own fruit and grain, and sources the rest from local farmers. Its bottled-in-bond Bourbon was among the first craft Bourbons to carry a bonded title.

Still at Watershed being filled / Photo courtesy Watershed
Still at Watershed being filled / Photo courtesy Watershed

Watershed Distillery: The flagship spirit at this Columbus distillery is the delightfully citrus-forward Four Peel Gin, but offerings also include an apple brandy made from Ohio apples. Nocino, a seasonal liqueur made from black walnuts, is also used to make an unusual Nocino-finished Bourbon.

Published on February 26, 2021
Topics: Spirits