Introducing Dayton to Microdistilling
By Kevin J. Gray
In late 2009, a group of four Ohio natives, dismayed at the crumbling Dayton economy, resolved to launch a local green product — artisanal vodka. Crystal Spirits, makers of Buckeye Vodka, is a family company run by Jim Finke, his brother Chris, brother-in-law Tom Rambasek, and their close friend Marty Clarke. For years, the four had talked of going into business together. When Chris pitched the idea to produce small batch vodka, the road from inception to market was surprisingly short.
CEO Jim Finke credits what he calls a “blind faith” in their ability to launch their product. He also credits help along the way (singling out the City of Dayton for their assistance), as his team learned to navigate the tricky regulatory and distribution hurdles. A year and a half later, the first cases of Buckeye Vodka rolled off the bottling line in downtown Dayton, ready to be shipped to 175 retail and restaurant establishments in the state.
The Growth of Microdistilling
When asked, “Why vodka?” Jim notes that in addition to it being his drink of choice, there is tremendous opportunity for artisanally-produced spirits. While small batch spirits have been around for some time, particularly in Europe, several large players cranking out giant batches control the American spirits market. Entrepreneurs like the Crystal Spirits team are challenging this trend.
Artisanal products such as Buckeye Vodka come out of what has become known as the microdistilling movement. Microdistillers, like microbrewers, focus on high quality products produced in small quantities, in direct contrast to mass-market producers of often-mediocre products. These products tap into the public’s growing desire for better quality consumables like coffees, beers, wines and foods. However, unlike the craft beer industry, which has shown strong growth for more than a decade, the craft spirits community is only just beginning. According to Jim, it is “an infant industry, really. There were only, 10 years ago … across the country, only 25 or 30 [craft distillers]. Now there are, like, 200 or 300.”
The American Distilling Institute backs up Jim’s claim. According to the group’s website, in 2003, there were about 69 eligible organizations. Today, there are nearly 250, and the organization predicts that number will double in the next four to five years. Craft distillers are scattered throughout the country, with a heavy concentration on Colorado and Oregon. The makers of Buckeye Vodka, the only small batch spirit produced in the Miami Valley, joins a tiny group of Ohio producers, including those from Cincinnati’s Woodstone Creek, the state’s oldest distiller, and Columbus’ Middle West Spirits.
One Batch at a Time
To make Buckeye Vodka, Crystal Spirits uses only two main ingredients: premium grain spirits and some of the Miami Valley’s highest quality water. The vodka starts with high-end sourced raw grain spirits. The team distills these spirits 10 times per batch using a custom-built 20-foot tall column still. Each trip through the still increases the purity of the product. Desirable ethanol alcohol separates from the harmful methanols and fusel oils. The spirit makers have refined this process to be both highly efficient and ecologically smart. The cooling water never comes into contact with the product, so the nearly 3,000 gallons of water are trapped, cooled and reused. And steam, rather than electricity, powers much of the operation.
After the last distillation, the alcohol is blended with water that has been tightly controlled to match the distilleries’ proprietary specifications. The distillery leverages Tom’s expertise in the water business (he is the owner and operator of Crystal Water). With about 60 percent of the finished product made up of water, the team credits the high-quality water as being a major contributor to the finished product’s smooth finish. Once the blending is to specification, the vodka undergoes a series of filtration processes to remove any remaining impurities before going on the bottling line.
True to the artisanal nature, the Buckeye Vodka bottling line is small and worked by hand, like much of the rest of the operation. The team develops only a single batch of Buckeye at a time, producing a few hundred gallons over the course of several days. Lining the shelves of the facility are nearly a dozen pallets of finished product, boxed up for distribution, and one imagines the hours spent amassing this fledgling inventory.
The Taste Test
Buckeye is smooth, like a top-shelf vodka, but surprisingly, it is priced as a mid-range product. In a recent taste test, Jim and Tom laid out samples of Buckeye against Absolut, Grey Goose and Ketel One. Buckeye blew out the iconic Absolut, which comes across harsh and grainy in comparison, and stood firm with the other two premium spirits. At around $19 per 750 ml bottle, it is aggressively priced for such a smooth drink, making it around $14 less than Grey Goose. Add to the fact that it is locally produced using green technology and you have what is sure to be an in-demand product, poised to contribute to the growth of the both Dayton’s economy and the small batch distilling industry at large.
Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@daytoncitypaper.com.