When the owners of Middle West Spirits opened their business, they were less concerned with capturing the marketplace than in capturing the flavor of a place, Ohio in particular.
Owners Ryan Lang and Brady Konya hope their whisky and vodka products have done both.
“We made a decision early on to go against the grain, so we have a line of unfiltered, traditional Eastern European-style spirits like you’d find in Russia or Poland that are about championing flavor. Grains are just like grapes: They have nuances based on the region they’re grown,” Konya said.
Most Americans, Konya said, subscribe to the idea that spirits such as vodka should be flavor-neutral, so Middle West Spirits spends time educating consumers at 1230 Cortland Ave. near Victorian Village in Columbus through what the owners call “branded manufacturing.”
“The space was really designed as an educational venue. It doesn’t look or feel like 100-percent manufacturing. It’s very creativity driven – a mashup of retail and exhibition – branded manufacturing,” Konya said.
“We designed a cathedral around our product with a retail frontage. This is also a chance to contribute to the idea that urban revitalization comes through people and businesses being productive, so we are creating things that become part of that story in Columbus.”
Lang and Konya originally relocated to Columbus from the East and West coasts, respectively, leaving behind their own careers to support their partners’ careers at Abercrombie and Fitch.
“Ryan and I met over dinner one night. He has an industrial engineering background and I have a marketing and advertising background,” Konya said. “We moved here with the intent of being supportive plus-ones, but when you have two very entrepreneurial guys, well, we needed to be more than just supportive.
“Ryan also happened to be a fourth-generation distiller from an Italian bootlegger family. So that lineage and our collective background led us to this.”
Neither man knew much about Columbus before moving to the city in 2007. They soon realized it was a world-class location for creating their specialty spirits.
“Columbus is an epicenter for agriculture, all of the grains available here that no one was championing, so we want to reflect the origin of flavors, from here where they’re grown,” Konya said. “The community here is really open to new things because it is diverse, younger and more affluent than we imagined.”
Federal and state regulations and taxes have been a challenge to running a small distillery, Konya said. By focusing on a larger regional and, possibly at some point, a national market, the company is overcoming those barriers.
“This business was a risk since, currently, the liquor system is designed more for billion-dollar companies. We see what we are doing as reintroducing a type of production to Ohio that we (as a state) left in the 1920s when everything was shut down (for Prohibition),” Konya said. “Our products have been received fairly well regionally. We’re distributed up and down the East Coast in seven different regions.”
Konya said the keys to their success have been hard work, educating customers and being unapologetic about the products’ Ohio roots.
“This is an Ohio story,” he said. “Ryan and I have stayed on the clear path … we have a goal to build a legacy business in Columbus that is part of the fabric of living here.
“A company is an ecosystem for an idea, not just a product, so we are maintaining a clear path to that vision.”