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Robb Report Vices

Sipping A Sense of Place

Shaun Tolson

Five years ago, Brady Konya and Ryan Lang launched Middle West Spirits in Columbus, Ohio. Through their OYO [pronounced “oh-why-oh”] brand of vodkas and whiskeys, which are distilled from local red winter wheat and dark pumpernickel rye, the duo quickly developed a dedicated fan base. One sip of the brand’s Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka is all it takes to understand why. The spirit—which is crafted from locally sourced wheat and wildflower honey and offers hints of fair-trade Ugandan vanilla—made us instant believers in the Middle West philosophy.

We recently sat down with Konya to talk about all things craft. What he reveals might just change what you drink and how you drink it. (Cocktail recipes for our favorite OYO spirits follow this Q&A.)

Where did you find your passion for distilling, and how did OYO come about?

Several years back, Ryan and I met each other over a company dinner in Columbus. A mechanical engineer by trade and a fourth-generation distiller by blood, Ryan brought to the friendship the mechanical know-how, family heritage, and street cred that made the idea of founding a distillery more than a crazy pipe dream. I grew up in Seattle, a city known as the ground zero for all things micro—coffee, farm wines, brewhouses, and now micro-distilling.

Middle West Spirits was founded back in 2008 with an intense passion for bringing the craft of distilling back to Columbus, Ohio. Every day we walk in the front door, we work to honor the family heritage, inspire the palate, and actively catalyze the makers movement in Ohio. Our vision for Middle West Spirits—and OYO in particular—was never to be just a great local distillery, but to put Ohio back on the international map for craft distilling.

What made you choose Ohio as the place to launch your brand?

Farms in northwest Ohio—often referred to as the Napa Valley of wheat—grow some of the finest soft red winter wheat available in the market today; and it’s all being harvested right in our own backyard. Ohio also plays a unique role in the history of U.S. spirit production. It was a critical part of the original whiskey trail that started as far north as Pennsylvania, across and through Ohio, and then south into Kentucky.

How has the craft-spirits movement evolved?

Over the past five to six years, the number of entrants in the micro-distilling movement has increased from a mere 40 to more than 400. Lost in the land grab for shelf space has been a real appreciation for what the craft of distilling actually means. Terms that once proudly differentiated the craftsmen distillers that sourced farm grains, mashed, fermented, and barrel aged their spirits in house, are now liberally used by distilleries that have neither the competencies nor the production facilities to actually make any products from scratch.

Our mission at Middle West Spirits has always included a very strong position on ensuring there is real integrity in the words described to honor the folks out there that are being recognized for the world-class products they make.

Is there something in the ethos of OYO that connects all of your products?

OYO is an old Iroquois reference for the Ohio River, the estuary that feeds the Ohio Valley and the farms where we source most of our ingredients. But it’s more than a brand moniker that ties all of our products together; it’s our commitment to championing a distinctive sense of place in the way that our spirits taste.

We coined the idea of culinary spirits to describe how we see OYO as something different—recipe-driven spirits designed to challenge category boundaries, inspire the palate, and capture the flavors that are unique to our place of origin. In practice, this means we honor our grains the way vintners honor wine grapes.

OYO Recipes to Remember

Honey Bee (featuring OYO Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka)

1 oz. OYO Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka
1 oz. vanilla-bean-infused Cognac
½ oz. Mockingbird Meadows coffee-infused honey
2 dashes Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters

Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake hard, and strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with a vanilla bean or float a few coffee beans.

Boulevardier (featuring OYO Bourbon Whiskey, Michelone Reserve)

1 oz. OYO Bourbon Whiskey, Michelone Reserve

1 oz. Campari

1 oz. Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
2 dashes bitters

Build in a collins glass over ice and garnish with an orange peel.

Scofflaw Crest (featuring OYO Rye (White) Whiskey)

1 oz. OYO Rye (White) Whiskey
1 oz. OYO Bourbon Whiskey, Michelone Reserve
1 oz. Dolin dry vermouth
¾ oz. fresh lemon juice
¾ oz. pomegranate molasses

Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake well, and strain into a chilled martini or coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon or orange twist.

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