Independent Spirits

There has never been a time quite like this when it comes to drinking local. This is true not only of Columbus but the country as a whole: in the U.S., an average of 1.5 new breweries open every day, which is a staggering amount of beer. Columbus now boasts over 20 of them, and that number gets a lot higher when you look at the entire state.

But what about the hard stuff? Well we’ve got that too… just not as much.

The fact is it’s tough as hell to open a distillery, and even more so in Ohio than many other states. Our taxes on distilled spirits are the 12th highest in the country, and our control state system allows the state to set the prices at which they buy and sell those spirits. This adds up to some rather thin profit margins and pretty high risks for those wanting to distill locally, legally. Beyond the financial worry, distillation is an art best left to the obsessive types, those fixated on the science and technique behind this ancient practice.

In theory, the process is simple: heat up a fermented beer or wine base until the alcohol is vaporized, and then collect that alcohol as it condenses.

In practice, it is a bit more complicated if you want to end up with a pleasant—let alone safe to consume—spirit.

Who will step up and face these challenges to become Columbus’s third distillery? Perhaps an already established brewery looking to expand their offerings? A hobbyist moonshiner moving their operation from the hills to the city?

How about a visual artist and an accountant working in a small warehouse behind the Wildflower Cafe in Clintonville? Ok, that works too. Chad Kessler and David Chew of 451 Spirits hope to have products on the shelf by early 2016, and they are well on their way to reaching that goal, but that’s not to say they don’t have a tough road ahead of them. It takes someone with the right balance of stubbornness, perseverance, and a touch of madness to want to open up a distillery in Ohio, but when I first learned what Kessler and Chew were up to, I thought the scale had tipped heavily toward madness.

Upon arriving in the tucked-away industrial space that 451 calls home, I encountered my first taste of the madness that was to come, in the form of the very device with which they chose to distill.

Stills come in many forms and configurations, but it is easiest to break them down into two categories: pot and column. A pot still can only achieve a certain level of purity, and the resulting product contains other compounds in addition to alcohol. Some of these compounds have an unpleasant taste or odor, but some of them create the distinctive desirable flavors we enjoy in spirits. The goal is to lose the bad flavors and retain the good ones.

A column still produces a much higher level of purity and can be run continuously without needing to be emptied and refilled. The trade-off for the more efficient and thus more profitable column still is that more of the desirable fusel oils and acids are stripped from the spirit, sometimes resulting in less character. Kessler and Chew, of course, went with a pot still.

Though smaller and less conventional than the other stills in town, this polished copper pot still produced by Washington State’s Craftsman Copper is a thing of beauty, and one that they insisted upon from the beginning for its ability to retain more flavors and oils in their spirits.

Hoping to launch with a whiskey, an absinthe and two types of rum, Kessler and Chew are veering from the course when it comes to the typical path of a modern microdistillery. Most distilleries begin by releasing gin or vodka because they do not require aging and allow for immediate revenue, while aged products remain in barrels often up to a few years. But Kessler wanted to produce a whiskey and refused to release an unaged version, so that whiskey is sitting in 25-gallon barrels that will be begin a unique aging process known as a Solera system. The Solera method is a system of fractional blending in which new, unaged spirits are transferred through a succession of barrels containing older spirits over the period of months or years so that at the end, the spirit is a blend of ages. The use of Solera aging is not the only unique aspect of this whiskey though. They are still experimenting with the final recipe, but currently the mash bill includes roasted barley, oats, and rye, a departure from the more common American whiskeys typically containing corn, malted barley, and wheat or rye. The formulation I sampled was aged for two weeks on a mixture of both charred and toasted oak and had notes of honey, cereal—specifically Golden Grahams—and a hint of oak, with an oily mouthfeel. Very promising. There are plans to release a smoky whiskey in the future, among a few other varieties.

The rums they are producing are distilled from molasses, and any flavoring will be done in the distilling process as opposed to adding anything post-distillation. Kessler has been experimenting with creating spiced that utilize spices that veer from the usual.

“Part of the concept of the company is to educate people to be better drinkers, and the products are something that give them a reason to
expand their palate.”

“I looked at people who make spiced rum, and they’re always using the same spices: cinnamon, vanilla, clove, allspice,” explained Kessler. “Spiced rum doesn’t limit you to those—it’s pretty much an open door to whatever you want to do.” One of his experiments was a combination of mint and lime rums, distilled separately and then blended to extraordinary effect. The sample I had was bursting with acidity and fresh, crisp flavors, while not masking its molasses base. I also tasted a rum aged with toasted orange wood chips that was unlike any I had previously tried and left me curious as to the flavors other fruitwoods might impart.

The absinthe, once properly mixed with the right ratio of water to spirit, was also a breath of fresh air in an unusual but often one-dimensional category that is not familiar to many American palates.

“A lot of people that we’ve sampled with have said, ‘I would never drink an absinthe, but this I would sit on the porch and drink all summer long,’” Chew said. And those people he’s referring to aren’t wrong. The brandy-based absinthe has a light anise flavor with a number of other notes including wormwood and fennel. It is refreshing and invigorating, with a slight creaminess to the mouthfeel, and a front porch in the summer would be a perfect setting in which to enjoy it.

“The challenge with the absinthe is going to be fighting preconceived notions,” Chew said. “Part of the concept of the company is to educate people to be better drinkers, and the products are something that give them a reason to expand their palate.” This challenge will be tough to face without a tasting room or a retail store, but judging by the samples provided, those who seek out the bottles in a store or at the bar will be rewarded.

It would be foolish to ignore the obstacles this small distillery faces producing uncommon small-batch spirits that challenge the conventions and norms in the American spirits landscape, however, their focus on quality and refusal to cut corners is admirable, and the samples they have produced so far reflect their commitment to producing excellent and distinct high-proof spirits. Prospective investors to the business may mull their options for a while: they will face some hurdles for sure.

But if they invite me back to sample their spirits again I won’t hesitate for a second. These are fine spirits created in a way that made me fall in love with the art of distilling all over again, and I for one can’t wait to embrace such a fantastic new addition to our local drinks scene.