Sunday, December 2, 2012

Watershed Distillery Tour

On November 29, I had the opportunity to tour the Watershed Distillery.  Watershed is a family-run micro-distillery.  They produce small batches of spirits, which are sold through state liquor stores and their own shop at the front of the distillery premises.  The distillery opened in 2010 after receiving a license to operate from the state.

Watershed is located on Chesapeake Avenue in Columbus, which is near the intersection of Kenny Road and King Avenue.  The center it’s located in is a fairly industrial looking place, and is a few doors down from a Jeni’s Ice Cream facility.

Our tour was conducted by Mark Lehman and his wife, who are co-owners of the business.  Their nephew Greg Lehman is the  acknowledged founder of the business.

Watershed currently produces four products:
  • Vodka
  • Four Peel Gin
  • Bourbon Barrel Gin
  • Bourbon
All four products are produced on-site using two different stills.  One still, with a higher stack, produces the vodka and gin.  The other, which is shorter and wider, is used for the bourbon.

Mash Tun
Watershed starts its distillation process by mixing a batch of grain, water, and sugar in the mash tun, pictured at the left.  Yeast is added and the entire mix is heated to a specific temperature to release all the simple sugars in the grain.  At that point, yeast is added to the mix and consumes these sugars – releasing carbon dioxide and alcohol.

The mash is then transported to one of the two stills, depending on the grain mix being used.

If the grain mix in use is intended to produce vodka or gin, it’s loaded in the taller still (the one Mark is standing next to in the photo).  Once the mash is placed in this still, the still is heated to a temperature that causes the alcohol to boil into vapor.

The two Watershed Stills or Distillers
Notice the round “windows” in the stack at the top of the still.  Behind each of these is a condensation chamber where the alcohol vapor condenses back into liquid.  As they continue to heat the still, the vapor moves up from one chamber to the next. When it reaches the top, it comes out at approximately 95% alcohol (or 190 proof).  The alcohol that comes out of this process is colorless and very clear.  It has a very neutral aroma that you might associate with vodka but wouldn’t recognize instantly as any particular spirit.

Once the distillation process is finished, the 190-proof alcohol is poured into the (clean) mash tun with water and any botanicals needed for aromatics and flavoring.  Once this infusion process is finished, the liquor is ready to be bottled.  The four port bottling station (not pictured here because my camera blurred both shots I took) is used to load four bottles at a time with a given spirit.

For bourbon batches, a grain mix that is approximately 60 percent corn is placed in the mash tun.  When the mash for the bourbon is ready, it’s moved to the wider, shorter sill pictured at the left near Mark.

Because the bourbon still is shorter, the alcohol coming out of it is less concentrated than the alcohol coming from the vodka/gin still.  I believe he said this one comes out closer to 180 proof or 90% alcohol (which is still pretty concentrated!).  The clear bourbon distillate, unlike the vodka/gin, does have an aroma that you would recognize as bourbon-like.

Barrels of Watershed Bourbon aging
After the bourbon is fermented, it goes in the mash tun and is mixed with aromatics.  The nearly finished bourbon is then poured into new oak casks and left to age until it’s ready to bottle (approximately two years).

At the right, you can see photos of the bourbon barrels.

There are some who think that bourbon cannot be made outside Kentucky.  This is not true, at least with respect to the legal definition of bourbon.  To meet the legal definition of bourbon, a product must be made in the United States, be distilled from a mash that contains over 51% corn, aged for any length of time in new charred oak barrels, and be bottled at more than 80 proof.  The Watershed Bourbon meets all of these criteria.  It’s produced with a mash that is at least 60% corn, is aged in new charred oak barrels, and is bottled at around 88 proof.  (And of course, being made in Columbus, Ohio, it’s from the United States.)

Tanks of Watershed products waiting to be bottled
At the left, you see large plastic tanks.  This is where Watershed stores its finished but not yet bottled spirits.

The Watershed crew is clearly very knowledgeable about the distilling process, their products, and the business of distilling.  They studied at a variety of micro distilleries around the United States and spent time working in one before starting up their own still, in order to learn what they were doing.

The result of all this knowledge and care shows in their finished products.  Their vodka is a fairly standard one.  Mark mentioned that people like vodka to be essentially flavorless, and theirs does have a very neutral flavor.  Although I am not a big fan of gin, I did find their gin to be much more palatable than others I’ve tasted.  Their bourbon barrel gin is even better, hiding the less-pleasant aspects of the gin flavor under a bourbon mask.  And the bourbon is as good as any I’ve had.  I even took a bottle home.

After the tour is over, you’re brought back out to the store counter and tasting area to sample it.  Bottles of each of the four spirits are set up on the table, and the Lehmans pour small samples into little plastic cups.  They recommend sampling the products in “flavor” order from least-flavorful to most-flavorful:  vodka, gin, bourbon barrel gin, and bourbon.

Watershed tasting room
At the time of our tour, the bourbon and bourbon barrel gin were the most expensive Watershed products, at $39.95 per bottle.  The gin and vodka were less expensive, but I don’t recall the pricing off-hand.

Also available at the counter are Watershed drinking glasses, t-shirts, and other items.

In the photo at the right, you see what looks like a very large log with some nails sticking into it.  This is the game “board” for their “hammerschlagen” game.  This is a drinking game that is very popular in certain areas of Europe.  The Lehmans enjoy the game and insist on all visitors to the distillery playing a game or two while they’re there.

To begin, each player or team of players hammers a nail into an open part of the log.  The nail is pounded in far enough to be “solid” so that future hits or misses won’t cause it to go flying out and injure someone.

The hammer used for the game is cylnder-shaped at one end.  This end is used to place the nail in the log before the game starts.  The other end of the hammer is wedge-shaped, and comes to a blunt point.  This wedge-shaped end is used during the actual game.

On each player’s turn, they hold the top of the hammer against the side of the log.  Then, they lift the hammer into the air and swing it down onto the head of the nail in one continuous action.  Because the business end of the hammer is wedge shaped, hitting the nail head squarely is quite a challenge even if you are sober.  Since this is a drinking game, you can easily imagine that the challenge increases the more you’ve had to drink.  (Perhaps this is the origin of the slang term “hammered” for being drunk?)

Play proceeds until someone manages to pound their nail completely into the log.  In the traditional version of the game, the person who gets the nail pounded in first is awarded a prize or a small shot of some spirit.  The Lehmans say their rule is that the winner has to buy everyone else a round.

My wife and I had a nice time touring the distillery and trying the different products.  Given the relatively low cost of the tour (through a Groupon, I paid $12 per person which included both the tour and a t-shirt – but the normal tour is $10), it’s an inexpensive way to spend an hour or so learning how three different alcohol products are made.  I definitely recommend taking the tour if you have an interest in how spirits are distilled and bottled.

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