COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Tuesday marks National Bourbon Day, a reason to pay homage to America’s native spirit.
In Ohio, Middle West Spirits has been producing renowned bourbons, whiskies, vodkas, and gins since 2008. More than a dozen distinct spirits culminate around Middle West’s flagship Michelone Reserve Bourbon, named after co-founder Ryan Lang’s grandfather.
Beyond the distillery, Middle West owns and operates Service Bar in the Short North. The restaurant closed temporarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but is preparing to reopen later this year, Lang said.
Middle West and the Michelone Reserve Bourbon have won a slew of awards, including U.S. distillery of the year by the Berlin International Spirits Competition in 2016, best four grain bourbon by the 2019 Heartland Whiskey Competition, and more.
Through the success, Lang credits his family and team, dedicated to producing the best.
“The initial motivation for [Middle West] came from a little bit of family history,” Lang said. “Over the years, what keeps the passion going is the quality of the products, how they improve and seeing our team doing well. It takes more than a single person to do this – you have to have a pretty large group of people that are capable of executing to a high standard.”
Producing the acclaimed bourbon has taken years of trial, error, and delicate timing. The bourbon begins with corn, harvested every year in the fall. Federal regulations require at least 51% of the grain bill that produces bourbon be corn, Lang said.
The corn is placed into a cooker with pumpernickel rye, wheat, barley malt, and water. Middle West aims to be completely Ohio sourced, with the corn and most of their grains coming from in-state.
Enzymes are added to the mixture, allowing the starches to convert into sugar. The mixture becomes a “mash” and is heated and cooled before being transferred into Middle West’s fermenters. Yeast is added, consuming the sugars in the mash. Over the course of three to four days, gas is released from the mash creating a byproduct of carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol, Lang said.
The product is beer for making whiskey. The beer is put into a still where it is heated again, allowing the alcohol to be boiled off. The vaporized alcohol is then converted back to a liquid and collected.
Then it is transferred to a warehouse and put into a barrel, where Middle West begins adding water to reach a desired proof. The barrels are also Ohio-sourced, coming in from Jackson.
Now, the wait begins. Lang says each barrel can sit from five to 10, even 15 years. As time passes, the product warms and cools, allowing it to age.
While the alcohol is in the barrel, it seeps into the container’s wood and removes tannins, a bitter that provides flavors like vanilla, which are extracted into the product. Tannins are also how the bourbon gets its color.
When a barrel appears matured and ready for bottling, Middle West will sample the barrel and decide if it needs to sit longer or not. If the product doesn’t hit the sweet spot Middle West is looking for, the barrel sits again for another year or two, or longer.
“It is an art,” Lang said. “Even three months, six months, a seasonal change, will drastically change the flavor of the [product].”
In addition to reopening Service Bar, Middle West is looking forward to new product releases later this year and developing current products to be even better.