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Columbus spirits will move you

IF YOU GO

MIDDLE WEST SPIRITS: 120 Courtland Ave., Columbus; (614) 299-2460, middlewest spirits.com. Free tours and tastings for the 21-and-older crowd at 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays. Call at least a week ahead for private tours.

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



COLUMBUS, Ohio — You can learn a lot on a short road trip to Ohio.

† Denny’s are showing up in lots of Pilot Truck Stops. And it’s easy to sip on their thick chicken soup while driving a car.

† The Carolina Chocolate Drops & Luminescent Orchestrii’s new “Short Dress Gal” is one helluva song.

† Ohio is one of the largest alcohol-consuming states in America.

People in Ohio drink more than 11 million gallons of hooch a year. And I thought Dean Martin (Steubenville, Ohio) was dead.

I learned this at Middle West Spirits on the edge of the popular Short North District in Columbus. Middle West is central Ohio’s first and only “grain-to-bottle” micro-distillery. Its flagship spirit is OYO vodka, named after the original word for the Ohio River Valley (“O-Why-O”). I bought a $34.95 bottle of the new OYO Honey Vanilla Bean (infused) vodka and loved it. It tasted like sweet tequila, which is about all I drink besides beer and Diet Mountain Dew.

“Ohioans drink more than California, more than Wisconsin,” declared Middle West Spirits co-owner Brady Konya. “It’s not all good alcohol they’re drinking. But it’s this walled garden everyone in the country wants to get into. We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of support from the state in showcasing what can be done.”

Max Eckenwiler, assistant publisher of Ohio Tavern News, says Ohio’s alcohol consumption ranks “third or fourth” among the 17 states where alcohol sales are controlled by the state. A 2006 post at Forbes.com listed Columbus as the third “Drunkest City in America,” behind Milwaukee and Minneapolis-St. Paul. A tip of the buckeye to Ohio State students.

Middle West Spirits is in a former taxi cab center. Appropriately enough, it’s one block off of High Street. Its product is served in some of my favorite haunts like Hubbard Grille, 693 N. High St., and Press Grill, 741 N. High St., always good for a late-night snack. Middle West is served in about 150 restaurants and bars in Ohio. Look for them to show up in Chicago later this year.

Middle West opened last July after three years of planning. Like any good travel story, there is deep meaning beyond the movement.

Konya, 38, and co-owner and head distiller Ryan Lang, 32, relocated to Columbus in 2007 when their significant others got jobs here. Lang moved from Charlotte, N.C., and comes from four generations of distilling in Pennsylvania. Konya moved from Seattle.

“It was serendipitous,” Konya said. “Central Ohio is the breadbasket of agriculture, manufacturing and small business. Ohio is a great place to be a small business.”

During the mid-’60s, my family lived in Columbus. That’s when it was known as “Test City U.S.A.” Most people know late Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas was from Columbus, but so is Bounce fabric softener.

Columbus “used to be a huge test-market target,” Konya said. “It’s lost that. We now rank 65th in the nation. Part of the reason is the shift in demographics. It’s a younger city. With the influence of the tech sector and the university, large companies are bringing in younger people. The average age in Columbus is now 33. The income is increasing, which actually doesn’t make it such a great test market. Central Ohio has also been a popular place to relocate for a lot of ethnic groups.”

Daniel Hershberger, president of the Society for Commercial Archeology, once told me, “In its averageness, Columbus becomes special.”

Middle West makes for a special visit. The crew is loyal to the artisan process. The vodka I bought was infused with Ohio wildflower honey. Later this month, Middle West will roll out whiskey made with Ohio grain.

“We bring in raw materials from farms across Ohio,” Konya said, adding that Middle West will use between 800,000 and 1 million pounds of wheat this year, enough to “easily support two or three small farms.”

“If you don’t source your products locally, there’s no way to deliver on your promise of sense of place,” he said.

Konya also serves as board chairman for the non-profit Wonderland Project, which is transforming the former 70,000-square-foot Wonder Bread factory into a combination of artist and music studios as well as office and retail space. Wonderland is scheduled to open next year in conjunction with Columbus’ bicentennial.

“Half of what we do here actually has nothing to do with spirits,” Konya said. “It’s about creating a brand and a story that’s enduring.”

Check out some swell OYO recipes at the Scratch Crib Bar & Blog at blogs.suntimes.com/hoekstra.



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