Ohio’s Artisan Vinegar Makers Are Making a Splash

By Paris Wolfe

The small-batch artisan vinegars crafted by Ohio makers are far from the industrially produced acetic acids on supermarket shelves. They also bear little resemblance to the infused, flavored vinegars found in specialty retail stores. They are authentic, hand-crafted culinary gems created using traditional methods. With their nuanced, complex flavor profiles, these artisan vinegars are surging in popularity as chefs and bartenders seek them out to use in recipes and cocktails.

The MadHouse Vinegar Co. started making high-quality artisan vinegars in 2017 on Richard Stewart’s historic, 300-acre farm in the southwest corner of the state. Stewart’s family has owned Carriage House Farm west of Cincinnati since 1855.

“Vinegar is seeing a sort-of renaissance, be it as a building block of taste or as an essential part of any chef’s or home cook’s larder,” Stewart says. “Chefs are looking for higher-quality acids, and bartenders are using them to make cocktails. Home cooks are rediscovering the value of a good vinegar. They all know that vinegar is a building block of flavor. It is essential in balancing salty and sweet.”

The MadHouse Vinegar Co. makes three varieties of vinegar. The main line features familiar selections such as dark and light malt vinegar; red, white and rosé wine vinegars; and apple cider vinegar. All use ingredients from local breweries, wineries, and distributors. The second group is made from locally produced ingredients: free-trade, locally roasted coffee vinegar, candy-cane vinegar, specialty malt and hopped-cider vinegar, and bourbon-barrel-aged varieties. The final group reflects the region’s wild, foraged fruits and plants such as pawpaw, persimmon, elderflower, spicebush, and ramp.

Production time and style depend on the vinegar. The batches range from 275 gallons to as small as 10 gallons. Some vinegars take as little as three months to produce; others take a full year.

All of MadHouse’s vinegars are aged in American white-oak barrels. The bourbon-barrel-aged vinegars are aged in barrels sourced from New Riff Distillery, about 10 miles away in Newport, Kentucky.

Stewart and his business partner, Justin Dean, are experimenting with more varieties. Among these are a gin-barrel-aged rosé and another aged in barrels used by local breweries to make sour beers. “We are also working on a banana vinegar that will be treated like a balsamic and may take as long as a decade to produce,” Stewart says.

Wine aficionados will appreciate that MadHouse is releasing, in 2020, a single-source red wine vinegar made with a red blend from Autumn Rush Vineyard in central Ohio.

MadHouse vinegars are sold in three Whole Food Markets in the Cincinnati area, and they are available online at goodvinegar.com.

Up I-71 in New Albany, Ohio, near Columbus, J.P. Rousseau is selling handmade, small-batch vinegars made from Ohio wines.

It started while he was earning two degrees, in enology and in viticulture, from Kent State University’s Ashtabula campus. His studies took Rousseau to several Ashtabula County wineries, and he met other winemakers whose vineyards were in other parts of Ohio.

Rousseau noticed that some winemakers simply disposed of wines that were less than perfect. That bothered him. So, he found a higher use for this unwanted product: wine vinegar. Today, he works with wineries statewide to repurpose their wines.

Rousseau’s JustPerfect Vinegars are sold in central and northeast Ohio. Among his products are single-varietal vinegars including Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Traminette, Chambourcin and more.

He has developed strawberry-apple and cherry-apple cider vinegars made with his own apple cider vinegar.

“The vinegars have been popular,” Rousseau says. “I’m having trouble keeping up with demand.”

Shoppers can find JustPerfect Vinegars in Columbus at Speckled Hen Farm and Weiland’s Market. They are also available online at etsy.com/shop/JustPerfectVinegar.

In Cleveland, Jeremy Umansky, chef/owner of Larder Delicatessen and Bakery in the Ohio City neighborhood and a James Beard Foundation Awards semi-finalist, is making artisan vinegar for use in his restaurant and for on-site retail sales. While the restaurant has been open only two years, the chef has been experimenting with the process for years.

In January, Umansky was selling tomato-melon, fallen-pear and corn-husk vinegars. All were made with fermented food scraps. When those vinegars are gone, new products will replace them. A year may see as many as 20 different vinegars pass through Larder’s inventory.

“What we’re making depends on the season. I just started a batch a couple of days ago. It is a sweet-potato vinegar done in a Japanese Okinawan style,” he says. His strong interest in vinegars and food fermentation prompted him to write a book – Koji Alchemy: Rediscovering the Magic of Mold-Based Fermentation – scheduled for release by Chelsea Green Publishing in May 2020.

Like wine, a new “vintage” of the same vinegar recipe will vary. “It depends on the year, the blend of raw materials and the vinegar maker’s whim,” Umansky says.

These specialty vinegars are designed to be used in cooking, perhaps to finish a dish, or for mixing in cocktails or mocktails. Customers include chefs, bartenders and home cooks.

Larder’s vinegars are sold only on-site.

For more information on using artisan vinegars, check out House of Vinegar: The Power of Sour, by Cleveland celebrity chef and James Beard Foundation award-winner Jonathon Sawyer. The book, published in 2018 by Ten Speed Press, contains instructions for making vinegars as well as recipes for entrees, desserts and drinks that use vinegar as an ingredient.

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