It is hard enough keeping up with new breweries, distilleries, and bars opening in Cincinnati. Trying to keep a handle on what is going on in Dayton seems like just a little too much to ask these days. Luckily, I have a couple of friends in the area who invite me up when things get interesting.
Calamity Dawn and Dorian Bridges are the geeky bar-tending duo behind Calamity Labs. Together they roam the Eastern United States bringing booze, informative panels, and killer room parties to steampunk, comic, gaming and various other conventions, as well as doing private events. I got to know them during my misspent years with the steampunks. Calamity was one of our first guests on The Charlie Tonic Hour and created our official cocktail. I have followed the development of Calamity Labs as they have gone from doing panels at regional shows to leading presentations at DragonCon and competing and placing in The Bourbon Social Cocktail Competition. On Tuesday they hosted a test run of the latest panel that they will be presenting at shows this spring, Mixology 320: Mixology in Motion and they were kind enough to invite Charlie and I up to participate.
The event was hosted by Stillwrights Spirits at their Flat Rock Distillery in Fairborn, Ohio. Stillwrights has only been on the market for the past four months but Calamity Labs became fans right away. I was thrilled to be able to combine a trip to see friends and experience a fun night with learning about a new distillery that I didn’t even know existed. Stillwrights primarily makes flavored moonshine but they have a straight moonshine, bourbon and rum as well. One interesting thing about this distillery is that the owners were in the machine business before starting the distillery and were actually able to fabricate their own still. In addition to the traditional moonshine flavors I was excited to try some of the more tropical flavors they had like Margarita and Key Lime Pie. You can do a tour and tasting there on Saturdays for $10 so if you are in the Dayton area I encourage you to stop by and check them out.
The panel itself was a lot of fun. After a brief intro about the distillery and the basics of cocktail making, three audience members were chosen to go up to our mixing stations and were given twenty minutes to create an original cocktail recipe. I was able to compete and decided to play it safe by mixing ginger beer and grapefruit bitters with the Stillwrights Peach Cobbler Moonshine. Unfortunately for me, Calamity Labs rewards boldness and innovation, plus I over did it with the ginger beer a bit so I did not win. I did however, have a wonderful time. I think everyone learned a lot about the subtle art of cocktail creating. Along the way we were able to try a skill that was out of our comfort zone, and I got to see several good friends that I hadn’t seen in a long time.
If you want to learn more about Stillwrights or Calamity Labs they both have Facebook pages you can follow and you will find Calamity Labs at a variety of conventions in the coming year. You can hear more about the panel and our interview with the owner of Stillwrights on Episode 151 of The Charlie Tonic Hour.
On Wednesday I got to attend a media sneak peek in the newly opened New Riff Distillery. I could tell as it was being constructed that it was going to be a beautiful facility with a lot of serious investment behind it. After talking with the production manager Jay Erisman and learning about the research, planning, and science that has gone into creating New Riff, I am firmly convinced that this will be a world-class distillery and treasure for local whiskey lovers.
The outside of New Riff is impressive, with a glass tower showing off the 60 foot column still. Inside the copper was polished and ready for photos. The large glass windows, stone walls and urban location reminded me the Town Branch distillery in Lexington but as Jay walked me through the distillery it became clear that New Riff was going to be a very different distillery than Town Branch. To start with the equipment itself is different. New Riff has both a column pot still so that they will be able to produce a variety of spirits, even adding some modifications to the traditional column still so that adjustments can be made to the distillation process at all levels. Jay pointed out over and over again little details they had adjusted or changed to ensure that they would be producing the highest level of whiskey they could. Everything from the angle of the mash tubs to the placement of the grain silos has been deliberately calculated, not just for the product they will start producing this week, but also for what they hope to be making ten years from now.
Everyone who is opening a new distillery has to create a story behind their brand. Many distilleries do this by telling you about their grandfather the moonshiner and the secret recipe he handed down. These stories are charming but often you find the facts don’t always add up when you scratch below the surface. That is why I was so impressed by New Riff’s attitude toward the outside resources they are using to get started. One resource in particular is the consultant who was instrumental in the development of New Riff, Larry Ebersold. Ebersold is the former master distiller at the MGP distillery in Lawrenceburg and Jay repeatedly credited him for his contributions to New Riff. And speaking of that Lawrenceburg distillery, that is also the source of the OKI Reserve bourbon that New Riff will begin selling this summer. Neither of these things, hiring a consultant or bottling a sourced bourbon, are at all unusual in the world of whiskey, but it is rare enough for a distillery to even admit doing it, let alone celebrate it.
Although small compared to other well-known bourbon producers, New Riff is large for a micro-distillery and even though they just opened their doors, they are planning for growth. In the meantime, while waiting for the barrels to age, you will be able to book one of their two beautiful event spaces for private events. You can also become a part of their innovative Ranger Program. Becoming a New Riff Ranger not only gives you a lifetime membership, a discount at the gift shop, and bragging rights, it allows entitles you to one personalized bottle of single barrel bourbon four years after you purchase your membership. Buy one for your friend’s wedding this summer and they can toast you with their bottle for their 4th anniversary.
Needless to say, I left New Riff feeling very excited. It is great to see that our area’s distilling history is starting to be revived alongside its brewing history. And may I say, well done to Ken Lewis. Bellevue now has the country’s largest beer and spirits store with a microbrewery and a distillery all in the same location. If he can just build a monorail to take you to each location he would be the Jungle Jim of the alcohol world.
Craft distilling is the biggest thing to happen in the spirits industry since prohibition. In 2005 there were 50 licensed distilleries operating in the United States and in 2012 that number had climbed to 250. At first glance Middle West Spirits in Columbus Ohio looks a lot like many of the other micro distilleries that have opened in that time frame. Owned by a small group of dedicated young professionals who left (presumably) lucrative jobs in other fields to start a distillery, Middle West has the slick marketing, steep prices, and even the obligatory connection to moonshining that I’ve seen at a lot of other craft distilleries.
Once you get a little deeper into the distillery, you begin to notice the things that make Middle West different. Full sized barrels of their own whiskey aging in the corner. Sacks of grain from Ohio farms. Craft vinegar bottles ready for sampling.
Charlie and I visited with one of the owners, Brady Konya, to talk about what makes them different and recorded a great interview. We had a very interesting discussion and were even able to get a few samples of their products for review. So, here are my thoughts after being able to sit down with the Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka, an infusion made with local wildflower honey and fair trade vanilla beans.
OYO Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka
OYO’s traditional vodka is made with 100% soft red winter wheat and is the flagship bottle of Middle West Spirits. They do two seasonal infusion with the vodka, a stone fruit and the honey vanilla bean. The base spirit is really important to the overall taste of the infusion so let me speak a little bit about what makes OYO vodka different. Most American vodka is very focused right now on being as pure and tasteless as possible which is one of the reasons I don’t really get that excited about vodka. But in direct contrast to this trend, OYO Vodka is very minimally filtered. The flavor of the grain, yeast, and natural sugars come through and it actually makes a vodka that not only has flavor, it is a really complex and pleasurable flavor. So when making infusions with OYO vodka you are not starting with a blank slate. Middle West has clearly been very thoughtful about which flavors to pair with the vodka and it shows.
And now for honey vanilla vodka itself. It has a nice body with a creamy mouth feel. The nose is sweet and floral with a clear vanilla scent. On the first taste the honey and vanilla flavors are there but they mingle nicely with more delicate notes of grass and almond. At 80 proof this is a true vodka infusion and the alcohol content is strong enough to stand up to the sweetness. The result is a peppery finish the leaves heat in the mouth but is nicely smooth going down. I really enjoyed sipping this vodka neat but the flavors would also lend themselves to mixing with citrus, pear, or coffee flavors in a cocktail.
If you want to try the Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka, I will be featuring OYO vodka and bourbon at the Local Beers and Spirits class I am teaching February 4th at Gorman Farms. I’d love to see you there and get your opinion of the Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka as well.
In my unending quest to be both a booze snob and a cheapskate I can never resist trying a new, reasonably priced vodka. With craft distilleries popping up every week it is hard to resist the fantasy of discovering a new product that is half the price and twice the quality of the big names. Of course this is usually a fool’s errand. It is true that with names like Grey Goose or Crystal Head you are paying a considerable amount for advertising and the perceived value but with alcohol as with so many things, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is.
But when I was at The Party Source debating which vodka to purchase, my prior experience didn’t stop me from being hopeful when I spotted a new and distinctive label sitting on the shelf. It was brightly colored, folksy, and claimed to be the product of seven generations of family distilling. At just about $11 a bottle the price was right for me to take it home and give it a try.
First the back ground. There is no real information about Hank Birdwell’s Vodka on the web. No flashy websites bragging about their column stills or organic ingredients. No corporate website listing the vodka as one of dozens of holdings either. The label says the vodka is distilled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana so I am going to have to assume that this is a new product out of Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana LLC. You may not have heard of LDI but you may have heard of Bulleit, Smooth Ambler, or High West. These are just a few of the craft distilleries that source their bourbon and other whiskies from LDI and bottle them under their own name. There is nothing wrong with sourcing your whiskey, especially while you are getting your distillery started. I point this out to illustrate that just because something says it is ‘crafted’ or has ‘seven generations’ of history behind doesn’t mean that is the whole story. The LDI distillery has indeed been around since 1847 but during that time it has been sold many times over, most recently to Kansas-based MGP Ingredients Inc in 2011. So I am not sure if Hank Birdwell’s is being bottled by someone else who is purchasing it from LDI or if they are selling it directly, but I do feel confident in saying that this is not a product that has been in anyone’s family for one generation, let alone seven.
All sounds pretty harsh and cynical but the real question is, how does the vodka taste? Charlie and I tried it for our podcast this week and I will say that while it wasn’t exactly good, it was not bad either. I can’t say for sure but my money is on this being a 100% corn vodka. The nose was strongly astringent; you can smell the alcohol and not much else. We tried it ice cold, neat and on first sip it had a surprisingly sweet taste with a strong vanilla flavor. But before you can even appreciate what you are tasting the alcohol comes in and burns away any flavor notes that might have been coming into focus. It wasn’t a hot burn but the ethyl flavor did take over the tongue and then lingered awhile after you swallowed. So not a sipping vodka for sure. Or course I can’t see why anyone would want to sip vodka in the first place, so I always follow up the tasting by making a cocktail with it. Vodka’s beauty comes from it’s ability to add alcohol to other flavors so to really test it you have to mix with it. In this case I made a vodka gimlet and here the Hank Birdwell’s performed much better. Mixed with fresh lime juice and simple syrup the ethyl flavor faded to the background but surprisingly the vanilla flavor came forward. It ended up being a much more enjoyable cocktail than I expected and lead me to upgrade my opinion of the vodka just a bit.
So should you give Hank Birdwell’s a shot? Like I said at the beginning, this is an $11 bottle of vodka and compared to other vodkas at that same price point it is perhaps slightly ahead of the curve. But if you have the money to spend, go ahead and spend a few dollars more to get some Tito’s.