Brothers Drake and Middle West Spirits Express Ohio Terroir
Sitting side by side in the Weinland Park area of Columbus, Ohio’s trendy Short North, Brothers Drake Meadery and Middle West Spirits share a lot more than location. They share a goal that’s familiar to many winery owners — creating products that are unique to the area where the spirits or wine are made. Terroir may be a term familiar to the wine world, but micro-distilleries are beginning to understand that if they want to compete with national brands and cash in on the current ‘locavore” movement, their product needs to capture that same sense of place or terroir that distinguishes so many good wines. Brothers Drake Meadery and Middle West Spirits are achieving their goal in the same way — by growing or sourcing local ingredients.
The vodkas, gins and whiskeys made by Middle West spirits come from wheat, of course, not fruit or honey, but the search for a flavor footprint is the same. ‘To get started, we pulled wheat from all regions of the state,” says Ryan Lang, head distiller and part owner of Middle West Spirits, along with business partner Brady Konya. They learned that wheat in Northwestern Ohio grows in heavy clay soil that produces a high-flavor, high-starch wheat. ‘The soil draws water from the wheat, and what’s left is a flavor that’s more caramel in taste than that found in wheat from other Ohio regions,” says Lang. ‘That’s the flavor we wanted as our footprint.”
Sarah Jones, who handles marketing and other duties for Brothers Drake Meadery, says they are just as diligent about sourcing the right local ingredients for their honey and fruit wines, but they up the ante a bit.
‘We have a philosophy that seeks out not only what is local, but also what’s grown sustainably,” she says. ‘Those are the people we want to work with and support.” The meadery has successfully located organic fruits and ‘green” hives — and while cinnamon and other spices can’t be sourced locally, ‘We try to buy only those grown in a sustainable way,” says Jones.
It was the Brothers Drake honey source, Brad McClincy, who originally brought the meadery together with Middle West. Long before Brothers Drake moved to the Short North, Middle West approached the meadery about a local source for honey. Woody Drake, owner of Brothers Drake and head mead maker, generously pointed them to McClincy. ‘Now, we use him too,” says Lang.
Brothers Drake and Middle West also share storage space and equipment. ‘We now use Brothers Drake filter plates,” says Lang. Middle West’s filtering system was adequate for a while, he explains, then production expanded. Rather than investing immediately in larger plates, Middle West was able to defer its outlay by using its neighbor’s plates. Lang hastens to add that the only filtration Middle West makes is sediment filtration. ‘We don’t do the kind of carbon filtration most of the commercial brands use.”
Brothers Drake also does only sediment filtration. ‘We use minimal processing,” says Jones. ‘And we don’t use sulfites. We do use potassium sorbate.” As she points out, if the goal is to achieve terroir, filtering out everything that makes the spirit taste the way it does defeats the purpose.
The goal of creating a natural product is also why Middle West has chosen to age its spirits in a French oak-type barrel (which they obtain from a Minnesota vendor). The barrel flavors the spirit only slightly.
When it comes to mead, ‘Age is critical,” says Jones. ‘The older the mead, the better it is.” That’s why Brothers Drake has recently incorporated comparison sampling as part of its tour. ‘Visitors taste mead after it has aged a few months, then after it has aged a year or more,” says Jones. For the first time, Brothers Drake has bottled its first Reserve mead. It will be aged two years, a year more than their current meads, and will be released in 2014.
While the tasting part of the tour is something new for Brothers Drake, Middle West has offered samples from the beginning, and they’re bold enough to offer comparisons with best-selling national brands. ‘Because we don’t filter our spirits, they’re more full-flavored than other vodkas out there,” says Lang. ‘We put it in front of guests so they can taste the difference. Some like it, some don’t.” At the end of the tasting, visitors leave with a better understanding of terroir — and why spirits made by Middle West and Brothers Drake distilleries taste the way they do.
Photo: Brothers Drake Meadery Tasting Room, Columbus, OH