The Artisans of Columbus, Ohio part 2 – The Distillers and Brewers

The Artisans of Columbus, Ohio part 2 – The Distillers and Brewers

This entry is part 13 of 23 in the series Food Gifts

Today’s Recipes: Big City Salmon with Martini Sauce, Blueberry Hill Cocktail, Ohio Bloody Mary, Ohio Collins, Rich Autumn Pork Stew with Beer, Summer Espresso Martini and Vanilla Vodka Cheesecake Tartlets with Vanilla-Vodka Berries

Black Orchid Martini

When you are invited on a culinary tour you assume that you will be fed until you burst. Much to our relief and delight the team at Experience Columbus and Weirick Communications created an itinerary full of a variety of adventures, giving us a much larger view of life in Columbus.

In addition to all the wonderful chefs and food purveyors, we were introduced to some of the most talented roasters, brewers and distillers in the country. Once again the passion of the artisans blew me away. When someone is passionate about their art there is a sincerity that can’t be faked. Each one of these guys brings his whole heart and soul to their work, producing outstanding beers, coffees and liquors that all of Ohio can be proud of.

After a morning full of foods, snacks, meals, and multiple desserts, we made our way to Cafe Brioso, one of Columbus’ premiere coffee vendors. We met with Master Roaster Jeff Davis and learned about his philosophy about how to properly roast coffee beans to yield a rich, not bitter coffee. I will confess that I am not a coffee drinker, but I can honestly say that if Jeff’s coffee were available in my neighborhood, I might become a convert. Samples were passed around and we walked out with a bag of coffee to use with our hotel coffee makers!

I am always on the lookout for a local equivalent to the Cheers bar. A place where you walk in and everyone yells your name in welcome. A room with old beaten up wooden tables and chairs, worn smooth by many years of use. The bartender who knows you well enough to ask, “do you want the usual?” A place where you are instantly at ease and can spend many happy hours laughing with friends. The Jury Room is one of these places.

In business since 1831, this bar has a lot of history and beautiful “bones.” The architecture, tin ceiling, antique lighting fixtures and gorgeous bar that spans the room are all part of its charm. The deep mahogany makes it a warm and welcoming room. Small by today’s standards, I love the intimacy of it and if I lived in Columbus, the bartender would definitely greet me by name!

For many years I have gone to clubs after work and on weekends, dancing and enjoying cocktails with The Artist and my friends. I like mixed drinks where I can’t taste the alcohol. So imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that when it is made with superior ingredients, great skill and individual attention to quality, I actually enjoyed sipping it!

On a quiet street between the Short North district and Ohio State University are two hidden gems of Columbus. Middle West Spirits is dedicated to utilizing the extensive local resources in time-honored distilling traditions to make high-quality vodkas and whiskey. Ryan Lang is one of the talents behind OYO (pronounced oh-why-oh), Ohio’s first true “grain-to-bottle” micro-distiller. OYO was the name first given to the Ohio River Valley by the Native Americans and means “beautiful river” in their language.

Lang comes from a long line of distillers – legal and not so legal. His grandparents were bootleggers! I knew there was something I liked about him, because my great-grandfather ran moonshine too. He has the original still his grandfather used although these days the magic is done in a 600-liter copper and stainless steel distillation system that Lang and his partner Brady Konya imported from Germany. It is the only one of its kind in North America and was installed by German master-craftsmen.

The original family still

Made from soft red winter wheat grown on farms across Ohio, OYO vodkas and whiskey are smooth with clearly apparent characteristics of the local grains. The three OYO products and a bottle of Grey Goose vodka were lined up on an old wooden table and small cups were set out with tastes of each. Starting with the Grey Goose, we were asked what it smelled like. The resounding chorus was “rubbing alcohol.” Then we sipped it and it burned all the way down. We moved on to OYO vodka and were shocked by the difference. While there was still a burn, there was no hint of rubbing alcohol and it is a pleasant sipping vodka that would also pair nicely with mixers.

The practice of keeping vodka in the freezer came about as a way of masking the sharp, unpleasant flavors of cheaply made spirits. There is no need to keep OYO in the freezer or even serve it over ice. The care that it taken in its production makes it absolutely delightful just the way it is.

Vodka and Whiskey Tasting at Middle West Spirits

Next came their Honey Vanilla Bean vodka infused with local wildflower honey and fair-trade Ugandan vanilla beans. It has a distinct butterscotch flavor that lingered on my tongue and was my favorite. I can’t wait to try this in baked goods. It will give them a unique flavor that I know will have people begging for more!  And the final taste was OYO whiskey, again made with the red soft winter wheat. Similar to very high quality single-malt scotches, it is one spirit that I would certainly enjoy over ice. It won the Silver Medal at the 2011 San Francisco World Spirits Competition!

Just a couple of doors down is Brother’s Drake where they ferment local honey, turning it into outstanding wines called Mead. I had only read about mead in history books and was delighted to try it. Incredibly sweet and smooth, I could see myself sipping it while rocking on a covered porch on one of Ohio’s beautiful Victorian homes. Because of the nature of bees, Woody and Eric Drake can’t guarantee that the raw wildflower honey they use is 100% organic, but it is as close to it as they can get. Their dedication to local sourcing and eco-friendly practices is so strong that they refuse to ship their wines outside of Ohio, preferring to share their products with Ohioans.

It takes 6 months to 2 years to make a mead, depending on the recipe and the Drake brothers have been in business since 2004. They do not boil either the honey or the water used in production which keeps the flavors true to the source. Honey has natural antiseptic properties so sulfites are not needed or added. Their Bergamot Blue is a delightful blueberry-scented mead with bergamot spice added to create its spicy and complex flavor. This wine was meant to be sipped slowly on the veranda on hot summer nights.

Did you know that before Prohibition, Ohio was home to dozens of distilleries producing artisan gins and vodkas? Watershed Distillery, founded by Greg Lehman, is revitalizing this forgotten craft. Their signature product, Watershed Gin, is light and smooth with the traditional juniper flavor carefully balanced with coriander and a combination of citrus peels. This lends a pleasant orange and grapefruit overtone. A newcomer to the Columbus scene, Watershed spirits hit store shelves across Ohio in December 2010. Lehman is currently working on developing a locally sourced bourbon. Lehman said, “At its heart, our business is about enjoyment. We would rather entertain and engage than impress.” That attitude is a delightful change from the air of superiority found in many boutique distillers.

Watershed Gin was featured at our welcoming reception at Milestone 229 on our first night in town and again at M Restaurant on our last night together. I am more of a vodka drinker than someone who chooses gin, but my co-bloggers certainly enjoyed consuming their Watershed cocktails.

Watershed Distillers Gin and Vodka

One of my favorite field trips was a 30-minute drive out through the beautiful countryside to Rockmill Brewery in Lancaster. Located on a refurbished horse farm with rolling green hills, a pond and a small chapel, the brewery is housed in what once was the stables. But the aromas coming from this stable make you close your eyes in delight. The fermenting grains smell like baking bread and that is just the beginning of the fun at Rockmill.

Situated at the headwaters of the Hocking River, where the water is filtered through rocks which give it a minerality almost identical to the water found in Wallonia, Belgium, Barbee combines the pure water with all-organic yeast, hops and malt. Following the ancient traditions developed by the Belgians centuries ago, Barbee creates Belgian-style beers that rival the European versions.

Rockmill Brewery

Matthew has a legacy of alcohol in the family. His grandfather started two wineries in Central Ohio and he grew up appreciating the subtle nuances of wine. As such he became something of a snob and up until about five years ago “really saw beer as a waste of time.” Then he tasted a Saison Dupont that changed the trajectory of his life.

The thing that impressed me most about Barbee was his manner of presenting his beers. Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, he sets up his tastings just like you would with wine. Coming from California, this struck a chord for me. The bright sun washed over the table laden with sparkling crystal glasses with large bells that open the aromas of the beer just as they would a full-bodied red wine. Even his voice lends itself to a more gracious event than tapping a keg at a beer bash.

Matthew Barbee - Brewmaster at Rockmill Brewery

We sniffed and sipped, pairing each beer with a specific cheese, chocolate or bread and olive oil designed to bring out their unique characteristics. If it weren’t for the rustic surroundings, my fellow bloggers all snapping photos and the rolling green hills I would have thought I was back in Napa Valley.

The last time I had beer that I really enjoyed was when I worked for a Belgian firm and visited Brussels. What a coincidence! Rockmill offers four beers, all in hand-caged 750-ml wine bottles. They have a classic light Witbier, a stronger brown Dubble, a weighty Trippel and of course, the one that started it all, a lovely Saison.

Rockmill Brewery Beers

The highlight came when we went outside to celebrate the birthday of one of our group. In a tradition founded at Rockmill, the birthday boy was offered the opportunity to “saber” a bottle. An ancient ritual, it is an art to use a large flat-bladed knife to literally cut off the top of a bottle. Listening intently to the directions, our friend succeeded in opening the bottle on his very first try to the delight of the crowd!

Did you know that today is National Vodka Day? How appropriate, LOL! Let’s get to the recipes that incorporate the fabulous beverages produced by the artisans in Columbus — Enjoy!

Big City Salmon with Martini Sauce

Recipe from Susan Spicer’s “Crescent City Cooking”

Yield: 4 servings


  • Martini Sauce
  • 1 tbsp minced shallot
  • 1/4 cup gin, such as Watermark Gin
  • 1/4 cup dry vermouth
  • 1 tsp chopped whole juniper berries
  • 1 tsp dried or brined green peppercorns, optional
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 2 tsp butter
  • 6 pimiento-stuffed green olives, sliced into rings
  • Fresh lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper
  • Salmon
  • 4 (6 oz) center cut salmon fillets (see Note)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Chopped fresh parsley, as desired
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
Read the whole recipe on The Heritage Cook