101 on 451: Absinthe

There has always been an interesting relationship between the producers who distill spirits and the bartenders who sell them to the public.

Between them, you will find a veritable army of distributors, representatives, marketing agencies, and brand ambassadors who all seem to put their own spin on the products, until the true vision of the distiller becomes a muddled mess of stories, and legends that are “on brand.” Every bottle has a story, but the story you hear is usually traced back to a person at a desk in a large agency, a few hundred miles from the nearest fermenter, still, or barrel. Occasionally a master distiller will do a quick promo tour and visit a few key bars in a few key cities to meet the men and women pouring their spirit for the thirsty masses. They’ll tell a few jokes, answer a couple questions, and move on to the next account, herded by a team of local salespeople hoping the bars they visit might order a few more cases next month. The success of a spirit largely depends on the people championing that product, and getting it out to the masses, but there is a gap in the line of communication between the two ends of the big booze machine.

The fact is that master distillers are busy running stills, and bartenders are busy pouring drinks, and there isn’t time to fly across the country, or around the world to shoot the shit, talk shop in between. However, with the boom in craft distilling over the past 10 years, more and more small distilleries are popping up across the country, and bottles are being produced across town as well as around the world. For the first time since prohibition, it’s not that unlikely a bartender would find themselves in the same checkout lane at the grocery store as their local micro distiller. This is a good thing—for the same reasons that local farms are a good thing. Whether it’s local produce, poultry, or pot still whiskey, when producers talk to the men and women working with their products, they gain perspective on how they might improve that product, and meet the demands of the customers they may never meet.

For 451 Spirit’s Master Distiller Chad Kessler, an artist and entrepreneur who recently quit his job in the liquor department of Weiland’s to distill full time, staying small and staying local is more than just a marketing strategy. Visiting bars, chatting with bartenders, trying new cocktails, and seeing how the customers respond to his products, has helped him refine the spirits he’s producing to meet the ever evolving, and more demanding palates of those looking for the perfect addition to their seasonal cocktail menus.

451 was never meant to be a distillery for the masses, and Kessler seems to have little interest in pleasing everyone. Dear Johnny, their smoked apple flavored whiskey, is intentionally a bit outside the norm for your average whiskey shelf, and the mint and lime flavored Writer’s Block rum doesn’t fit in perfectly on the rum shelf either. The magic of distillation was never meant to be wrangled into a few simple expressions and recipes reproduced over and over by distilleries around the world, and for an artist like Kessler, there’s no fun in producing the same juice as the big guys.

With 451’s penchant for crafting, as their website describes, “original and unforgettable” spirits, the long ignored, and misunderstood absinthe category was as good a place as any to start. Their Midsommer’s Night absinthe is a wonderful expression of the spirit and it truly shines with a traditional absinthe pour, in which cold water is slowly dripped into the spirit until the louche—a term for the cloudiness that results from the addition of water—is achieved, though it is equally welcomed as a rinse in a Sazerac, or in a Death in the Afternoon.

While Kessler’s take on a traditional absinthe has been a part of their stable from the beginning, much has changed from the day the first batch was released into the wild. The brandy base spirit for the first batch was distilled from grapes, however after connecting with the supplier for Mad Moon Ciders, they switched to apples, and now distill their base spirit from Ohio apple cider fermented in house. The traditional flavoring agents of anise, fennel, and wormwood are still combined with 11 other fresh herbs and spices including lemon verbena, spearmint, allspice and cardamom, though ratios have changed, and the flavor profile has been tweaked along the way.

Kessler estimates that there have been 4-5 variations throughout the last year or so of production to get the product where it is today, and a lot of that has been the result of working with bartenders in places like Mouton, and Denmark to hone in on the perfect expression. Kessler has always taken input seriously, however there are plans in the works to bring the collective knowledge and opinions of the Columbus bartending community to the table in a much bigger way.

“We’re hoping to work with the Bartender’s Guild to bring bartenders in for roundtable discussions,” Kessler said, while standing next to the single pot still from which all their spirits are produced. “We want to get their input on what they want to see, and what kind of interesting things we can create.”

In their small distillery operation, where half-finished paintings leanup against barrels of aging whiskey, and skateboard parts litter table tops, it’s easy to picture Kessler as a reclusive artist tinkering with his toys in the vacuum of their Clintonville warehouse, but it’s his willingness to work with, and listen to the community that has helped him get his spirits on the back bars of restaurants and cocktail bars around town.

While they may not have the financial backing, enormous facilities, or technological capabilities of many of their larger national counterparts, smaller distillers like Kessler and his team at 451 Spirits have the flexibility to adapt to the needs and tastes of their local market to craft inspired spirits that truly reflect the people and places that contribute to their success.