Ohio, known back in those wild '20s as a hotbed of Prohibition-minded legislators, is actually surfing the forefront of the microdistillery scene. Cleveland plays host to a few gems; Columbus and Cincinnati, our lesser brethren, do too. And they're all good. (Cleveland's are the best, duh.)
You could make the case that the Buckeye State has its own twisted take on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, though ours are younger and, in some cases, less conventional distilleries. Make a long weekend out of it some day, but rest assured that such an excursion should always be bookended by two of our favorites, up in Cleveland.
Neat, on the rocks, mixed, or what have you: Everything's on the table. Drink local.
Tom's Foolery | applejackohio.com
Staring us down right in the middle of Scene's Worldwide Headquarters is a bottle of third-batch Tom's Foolery straight bourbon whiskey. The five-barrel set-up produced 1,250 bottles of this elixir, and — boy, oh, boy — this one we've got right here is a dandy.
Notes of leather and clove dance around the body. Tobacco swirls around the taste buds, lingering for a moment before dovetailing into a fine and mystical burn.
For just shy of three years, Tom Herbruck, his wife and business partner Lianne, and full-time brewer Erik Rothschiller have been filling barrels full of whiskey at a rate of nearly one per day. The sour mash bourbon is made the old-fashioned way, namely by employing open wood fermenters and copper pot stills in place of continuous column stills. The bourbon is aged in charred oak barrels for at least two years. It contains zero added colors or flavors. It is exceptional.
"Why do we do it this way?" Herbruck says about the process. "We do it this way because this is the way we were taught to do it by David Beam and Dick Stoll, who were doing it this way 30, 40, 50 years ago."
The Chagrin Falls distillery has also gathered a fine reputation for its American apple brandy, called applejack, and produced entirely from apples and water.
"It is absolutely exciting," says Herbruck, seated in the barrel-filled rack house. "This has been a dream of ours for more than five years. Every step of the way has been fun. I think people are excited about the taste, for starters, but also that it's a well-made product."
Here's a recipe!
2 oz. Tom's Foolery Applejack
1 oz. fresh lime juice
Lime wedge for garnish
Instructions: Pour the Applejack and the lime juice into a highball glass with ice cubes. Top off with the ginger beer and garnish with the lime wedge. Simple. Enjoy!
Cleveland Whiskey | clevelandwhiskey.com
What was described pre-launch in 2013 as a "bourbon whiskey miracle" is now one of the region's most popular spirits. You can find Cleveland Whiskey all over town, and it pours real nicely.
"We've created a process where the normal 10 to 12 year aging process in oak barrels is achieved in days," founder/CEO Tom Lix told us back when he was getting everything wrapped up. It was an exciting notion. The resulting whiskey has a darker, more caramelized color and deeper flavor than the Knob Creek we compared and sampled — in the interest of science, of course.
Here's a rundown of how this works: Whiskey begins with grains. You've got corn, barley, wheat and rye. Bourbon is 51-percent corn. As grains are boiled, starches and sugars break down, readying the fermentation process, which involves yeast. The liquid is eight- to 10-percent alcohol at that point. Cleveland Whiskey pours that into a 132-gallon still, where the process of concentrating alcohol by separating it from the water occurs.
Then, Lix describes, "in the reflux column it further separates the bad alcohol — methanol — from good alcohol, resulting in a bourbon mash. The aging process in an oak barrel continues the concentration of oils and flavor. Up to 80 percent of the flavor comes from the wood. Once inside the barrels, there are heating and cooling cycles occurring within every 24-hour period that change the pressure in the barrel.
"Our pressurized aging process replicates the same heating and cooling process; it reduces the typical aging period of 9 to 12 years to a few days," Lix says.
You can book a tour of the distillery, to get an up-close look at just what in the hell all that science lingo really means. All we know is that it tastes good and we want more of it.
Here's a recipe!
1 gal. fresh apple cider
5 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 ½ tsp. ground nutmeg
2 ½ tsp. ground ginger
3 cups Cleveland Whiskey
In a crockpot, heat apple cider, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. When the mixture is hot (not boiling!), remove from heat and add bourbon. Stir to distribute spices and divide cider among 20 mugs. Simple. Enjoy!
Scene's annual event, "Whiskey Business," takes place in November.