Innovating Buckeye Bourbon

By Betsa Marsh

Sure, good friends might play a round of 20 Questions over a few fingers of bourbon. But wait, what? I need to answer 13 questions before I take my first sip?

Yes, if you want to experience a new whiskey that’s been personalized down to your last taste bud.

Just open an app, take a quiz about your preferences, and soon you’ll have a QR code to show your mixologist. Of more than 100,000 possibilities, this glass is your exclusive bourbon blend.

Each distinctive recipe pours from the Dexter 1862 Custom Bourbon Blending Machine, an innovation from Brain Brew Custom Whiskey in Newtown, outside Cincinnati.

It’s just one of several distinctive creations from bourbon distillers around Ohio.

Brain Brew is a sister company to Eureka! Ranch, an innovation think tank and training company. The Dexter 1862 machine combines any of the company’s Woodcraft finished bourbons, such as 200-year-old oak, maple and cherry.

Each glass is a liquid portrait of its creator. Do you like vanilla, dark spice, oakiness in your whiskey? Will your bourbon be neat or in a cocktail? The AI app then synthesizes your choices into a custom pour.

To Brain Brew co-founder and CEO Doug Hall, “It’s like an 1800s version of Coke Freestyle.”

The Dexter name comes from Cincinnati’s deep whiskey heritage: the region was the center of 85 percent of American whiskey business in the 1800s, Hall said. Farmers distilled their grains and brought the spirits to town, where bourbon blenders would mix from different barrels to their customers’ tastes.

Edmund Dexter was one of the foremost bourbon blenders, so renowned that Charles Dickens and the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, visited him in Cincinnati.

But as with all things Eureka! Ranch, there has to be novelty. “Blending was the way of the 1800s,” Hall said. “Then in the 1900s, it was Pop Tarts and Tang, prepared everything. In the 2000s, these Millennials want custom, local, craft.”

And fun. The Dexter 1862 is, Hall declared with a chortle, “a Build-a-Bear experience for adults.”

Middle West Spirits in Middle Ohio

Ryan Lang is a fourth-generation distiller and proud of it.

Do the math and somebody in that family line must have run into the long governmental arm of Prohibition.

“My grandmother Nellie was a rum runner and went to jail for a while,” Lang said of his family in Williamsburg, Pa. “They made everything—apple jack, white lightning. I learned a little bit [about distilling] from my grandfather, and where he hid all the stuff.”

Lang and I were chatting over his first batch of OYO Vodka back in 2010, just after he opened Middle West Spirits in Columbus’ Short North arts district. The company centered around one new German pot-and-column distiller glittering in the middle of a converted transmission repair shop.

Jump to today, when Middle West is one of the fastest-growing distilleries in the country, earning the U.S. Distillery of the Year award at the Berlin International Spirits Competition in 2016. That old repair shop has sprouted a five-story addition, including the Service Bar that pairs intriguing dishes with its own signature cocktails. How about Coriander-Crusted Venison with a Barrel Aged Old Fashioned, mixed with a Middle West Whiskey Blend plus barrel-aged maple syrup, Angostura and orange bitters.

After more than a decade of innovation and growth, Middle West stands with six of its peers on the new Columbus Distillery Trail.

But for Lang, co-founder and lead distiller, the most important full-circle affirmation may be one particular brand, Middle West Michelone Reserve Wheated Bourbon. It’s named for Lang’s bootlegging grandfather.

Michelone Reserve is built upon Ohio yellow sweet corn and soft red winter wheat from Bucyrus. The distillers add dark pumpernickel rye, two-row barley, and at least five years in oak barrels.

Then, the spirit tumbles into French tawny port casks for 18 to 24 months more, according to General Manager Joshua Daily. Such patience yields aromas from bananas and toffee nuts to coconut cream pie in the Michelone.

In May, the Michelone label won two of Middle West Spirits’ six prizes in the 2022 Ascot Awards, an international spirits competition created by spirits personality and veteran tasting judge Fred Minnick. Straight Wheated Bourbon Whiskey (Michelone Reserve Cask Strength) took Double Platinum, and Straight Wheated Bourbon Whiskey (Michelone Reserve), Platinum.

“We’re re-investing in ourselves over and over, working with different expressions and different ages,” said Joshua Daily. “The secondary aging takes a great spirit and elevates it.”

Tom’s Foolery in the Snowbelt

Can old really be new again? That’s certainly the ethos gurgling into every bottle of Tom Foolery’s bourbon.

Co-owners Lianne and Tom Herbruck created the distillery in 2008, and from the beginning “we assumed we would make everything from scratch,” Tom said. “We would be growing the grain, fermenting, stilling and bottling so that consumers know they’re getting an authentic craft bourbon.”

That commitment started with buying a 115-acre farm in Burton, near Cleveland, installing an antique copper pot still, and inviting industry veterans to teach them what’s what in bourbon making.

The Herbrucks wanted to plan not just the distilling process and flavor profiles, but also their crops of yellow corn and rye. Rye is typically a Canadian grain, and Tom’s Foolery is lucky to get one usable crop out of every three years. But it’s enough to keep the mash going.

After at least six years in the all-weather rackhouse, Tom Foolery’s bourbon tastes decidedly different from a Kentucky pour.

During Cleveland’s brutal winters, the bourbon doesn’t extract as much tannin from its oak barrels, so the final product is less oaky than Southern bourbons. The Herbrucks also skip filters, which can remove aromatics.

“We’re pioneering by letting natural flavors come through, which is a real rarity in the world,” Tom said. “We use traditional techniques and a French pot still from the late 1800s that was used to distill cognac. This is the way all bourbon was made before 1850 in America. By law, single-malt whiskey continues to be made in a pot still in Scotland today.

“The more people look under the hood, the more they like us—they just wish there was more.”

Tom’s Foolery releases about 10,000 bottles a year across Ohio. The Herbrucks also release private barrel selections by individuals in nine other states.

However they buy the bourbon, no one forgets the name. “I wanted to call it Ohio Distilling Co.,” Tom said, to his wife’s verdict of “that’s terribly boring.”  It’s really Tom’s Foolery, Lianne quipped, and so it is with every drop that flows from barrel to bottle to tumbler.

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