From Field to Glass: the Journey of a Local SpiritNovember 11, 2011
Brady Konya sits on a wooden table, grabbing and releasing handfuls of Ohio-grown red winter wheat in a large stainless steel pot. As he talks his hand repeatedly dips into the pot, feeling the wheat like he is testing the water at a pool. Konya’s affection for this grain is probably because it is the vital ingredient in OYO Vodka, the flagship spirit of his company, Middle West Spirits.
Having celebrated its one year anniversary of being open to the public in July of this year, Middle West Spirits has been flying high, with their vodka becoming increasingly present in bars in Columbus and around the state.
The red winter wheat that Konya has his hands in comes from the area around Fostoria, Ohio. “When we say local, we mean it,” says Konya. “That means a local flavor profile and local sourcing.”
Middle West purchases approximately one million pounds of the grain from within Ohio each year. According to Konya and his business partner, Ryan Lang, that local flavor profile is what gives the OYO vodka its distinctive flavor and its burgeoning popularity.
These guys aren’t just paying lip service to their local product: they can wax poetic on the quality of soil around Fostoria and other regions of the state (there really is a difference). Konya notes that the area where their wheat comes from—an 80-mile radius around Fostoria—has soil with a particularly high clay content, leading to higher water retention and higher starches. The starch levels are particularly important for those in the spirit business because they’re what yeast feeds on to produce alcohol.
“It’s like a wine variety,” says Konya. “There’s different grapes that thrive in different locations, different soil characteristics, and that all comes together to make it distinctive.”
While vodka has been in existence for 600 years, it’s only had a presence in the United States since the 1930’s. American drinkers are also used to a vodka that has been created to be odorless and flavorless, which is a byproduct of carbon filtering, Lang explains. That’s why Middle West uses a paper filter to retain more flavor, creating a vodka that’s highly sippable. “Vodka is meant to be sipped like whiskey,” Lang said. “That is the traditional European style.”
Middle West’s brand mixologist, Cris Dehlavi, who also tends bar at M and Mouton, echoes this sentiment. The spirit has been well received in her establishments, and has been compared to everything from white whiskey to tequila. She adds that “I knew I wanted to represent a brand I believed in wholeheartedly. I never expected I would be lucky enough to represent one in my own city that embraces local, which is something near and dear to me.”
Lang’s business rests on a strong heritage of distilling: his family was involved in bootlegging during Prohibition. He also notes that Columbus’ own distilling history goes back to the mid-1700’s, and that several notable liquors have roots in Ohio. “That Tennessee whiskey comes from Ohio corn,” he proclaims.
The ties to Ohio agriculture are strong at Middle West, bordering on passionate. “We’re paying homage to the farmers of this state,” says Lang. “These farmers are wonderful. If there’s a strain of wheat I want to change, I’ll be able to find someone to do it. I’ve been in all these flour mills, and they’ve all have open doors for us learn about what they’re doing.”
Middle West is headquartered in a refurbished building on Courtland Avenue, one block east of the intersection at High and 5th Avenue. The garage door in the front of the building signals to its former purpose as a taxi company.
When you walk in the door at Middle West Spirits, the first thing you notice is the smell, something close to baking bread The concrete floors of the gift shop and reception area are covered in worn rugs and reclaimed wooden furniture. A chalkboard in a gilded frame lists the pricing for Middle West’s three available spirits, and on the table an antique cash register sits and a Mac sit side by side, a gesture of old and new.
Lang said that he has been impressed with Ohio’s commitment to all things local, and he wants to return that loyalty by putting the state on the map for micro distilling. He says of Middle West, “we had restaurants and bars on board before we even started producing. We just told them who we were and what we’re all about, and they joined us.”
With their products currently available in several states, they are hoping to keep spreading the gospel of the Ohio spirit. Lang, in noting that Middle West has provided over 10,000 tours since they opened, said, “We’re one hundred percent open to any bar or restaurant in the state. We welcome businesses to bring in their employees for a tasting.”
In addition to the original OYO Vodka, Middle West also produces a Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka created with honey from Lancaster, Ohio, and has just produced its first whiskey made from that same Ohio red winter wheat.
While Konya and Lang hope to expand Middle West’s operation by growing their facilities as well as the employee base, they’re dedicated to remaining a good Ohio citizen by minimizing the operation’s environmental footprint. Lang explains that this is one reason why their distilling process starts with wheat in flour form, eliminating the need to boil the raw grain. They’re also working with the Agricultural Sciences Department at Ohio State to install solar panels on the distillery’s roof, after calculating that a solar installation could provide one and a half times the electricity they require.
Middle West sends its spent mash to local farms to use as feed for cattle. The 10,000 liters every week of spent mash would otherwise be a waste product.
According to Konya, Middle West’s first year of operation has been “amazing.” “Columbus is a great place to be a small business. There is a creative thread that ties everything together. This first year has been like a big hug."