At Woodstone Creek, urban bourbon's the thing

The first licensed microdistillery in Ohio sits deep in the heart of Evanston, in a former factory turned winery, meadery and port house. 

At Woodstone Creek, there are no production lines, no automated equipment, no computers and no employees. Just Don Outterson, 58, a winemaker and certified brewmaster; and his wife Linda, 63, his partner in distilling.

Woodstone is beyond “old school;” it’s a one-room schoolhouse in the hood. The Outtersons do their business their way, an old-fashioned way, perhaps, but one that satisfies their emphasis on quality—and their respect for and admiration of processes from the past.

What Woodstone lacks in volume, it overcompensates for with a mind-bending variety. Wines include a range of whites (Chardonnay, Niagra, Riesling and Vidal Blancs) and a collection of reds (a full-bodied Syrah (Shiraz), a lighter blend described as a mix of Cab Sauv and Merlot and an award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon). 

And that’s just the start. The business also produces red and white port and fruit dessert wines, and a full selection of meads and honey dessert wines, including raspberry, pomegranate and blueberry mead.

Then there are the spirits. A partial inventory includes Woodstone Creek, a 10-year-old Single Peated Malt Whiskey; a Premium Dry Gin; White Wheat Vodka; a Spirit Whiskey described as a blend of three 8-year-old malts; a 3-year-old wheat whiskey; and Ridge Runner Five Grain, a moonshine version of Woodstone’s premium five-grain bourbon.

Linda and Don, who has helped design, construct and open more than 53 brewpubs in America and Australia, typically work two hours a day on Woodstone before starting the full-time jobs they hold, in part, to support their spirited endeavors. 

Then there are the weekends. Don, an accomplished mead mazer and master distiller, works all day Saturday and often Sundays. Linda holds court in the tasting room on Saturdays, from 1-6, Woodstone’s only public hours.

Theirs is a small business where conventional wisdom and typical profit-seeking expectations don’t apply. The business’ numbers are not impressive. When pressed, the Outtersons say they “make less than the big guys spill on the floor.” 

And they charge a premium for what they do make—Woodstone whiskeys run $85 to $100 per bottle. 

The author of “The Whiskey Bible” called Woodstone’s single-malt whisky “brilliant” in 2009. The American Whiskey website adds to the chorus of praise, comparing Woodstone bourbon to pre-Prohibition whiskey: “. . . it seems as though Cincinnatian Outterson has created a straight bourbon whiskey that truly appears to be of the same (somewhat eclectic) style as the Old Burnett from over a hundred years ago.”

Outterson knows well that throughout the 19th century, Cincinnati's distilleries eclipsed its more-recognized breweries. In 1865, Cincinnati distilleries churned out a total of 1,100 barrels of whiskey a week. The 1984 edition of The History of Cincinnati and Hamilton County described the whiskey trade in Cincinnati as “…immense..” noting there were no less than nine full distilleries and some 58 rectifying plants in the area.

Like those before him, Outterson loves creating high-quality, hand-crafted and original products. This obsession does not, in and of itself, make him unique. There are many local folks who love to brew beer, make wine or even distill liquors. And many do these things well.

But Outterson is not obsessed with just wine or bourbon or whiskey or mead or beer. He moves freely between producing wine and whiskey and mead on a continuous and constant basis, all under the same roof. 

For him, it’s all about the land. And yeast is the common thread.

“He loves to discuss yeast the way an accountant loves to talk numbers; or a banker, money,” Linda says.

Outterson, who looks like a smaller and younger version of the grizzled writer Jim Harrison, has plenty to say about the art of fermentation and has written widely on the subject. He’s a philosopher and historian who is also a hands-on distiller, vintner, brewer and mead mazer.

Still, conversations about his many talents invariably return to bourbon. It’s clearly a special passion for Outterson, who creates his bourbon in a potstill which he built with his own two hands.

For those not steeped in the world of whiskey, bourbon is defined as a straight whiskey distilled from a mash having at least 51 percent corn in addition to malt and rye.  

Bourbon, therefore, is corn whiskey. It’s traditionally made in Kentucky and Tennessee, though there is no law, as Outterson is fond of pointing out, that bourbon has to be made in Kentucky.

For Outterson, bourbon is the essence of our region, the resulting distillation of the best raw agricultural products native to this area. 

Just as Napa has grapes from which it can produce some very fine wines, we have corn and grains from which comes very fine bourbon.  

“I take that varietal specificity,” he says, “and apply it to corn and put it into the base of the bourbon ...and add it to other grains which accentuate the flavor and tune it up.... I want that pure expression just the way it is.”

That distillation of local culture is well received. Brian McKinny runs the liquor store within Lehr’s Meats in Milford. Lehr’s sells Woodstone’s Creek’s blended whiskey as well as Woodstone’s Bourbon.  

McKinny says that he recently sold his entire inventory of four bottles, at more than $100 per bottle, to a one gentleman who wanted to give the bourbon as gifts. 

Such appreciation, McKinney says, is not unusual. 

“People love it,” he says. ”They like that we have a quality product which is made in Cincinnati.”

For Don Outterson, it’s a question of doing things the right way, not the easy way. He’ll gladly navigate permits and even craft legislation if he needs in his efforts to create the best products available today, which happen to mimic those of eras long gone by.

“In the new era, the accountants are in control of the flavor profile...where.. historically it was the master distiller,” he says. “So when I have a choice between a bean counter and a master distiller, I’m going with the master distiller. What I’m doing isn’t something new, I’m finding out that it was better when the old guys did it.”

Linda Outterson explains her husband’s determined focus a little more simply. “He’s a Scot,” she says. “It’s his religion.”

Writer Michael Kearns says of his tasting experience at Woodstone: "I can say that the sample I bought scored well on my own personal objective test. I’ll share that finding for whatever it’s worth."

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