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Whiskey Business: Ohio steps up its bourbon game

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The title “Superintendent of Liquor Control” may conjure the image of a barrel-chested, prudish, and punitive sheri from the Wild West, but that’s far from the a able persona Jim Canepa displays when discussing his role as the CEO of Ohio’s liquor operations.

In fact, Canepa’s job as Superintendent is less about enforcing stringent liquor laws and more about recruiting highly-regarded distillers to send their product his way, for the benefit of Ohio’s consumers and spirits enthusiasts. The former cold case homicide prosecutor and veteran government servant took charge of the Ohio Division of Liquor Control (ODLC) in early 2017, tasked with overhauling a 40-year-old inventory system and addressing consumer concerns. He’s embraced the role with aplomb, and in just over two years ODLC has made innovative strides to expand the selection of and ease of access to a variety of liquor.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

“When you compare doing a murder case or selling bourbon, I’m in the selling bourbon mode of my life right now,” Canepa laughs. “So I think that’s a lot of fun.”

The history of alcohol in the United States is storied, divisive, and remains complex. All states regulate alcohol in compliance with some standard federal rules, such as a prohibition on any purchasing by people under 21 and investigating illegal resales on the black market. Most states are considered “Open.” Retailers can purchase high proof spirituous liquor—defined in Ohio as greater than 21% alcohol by volume, or 42 proof—directly from manufacturers to sell.

But Ohio is 1 of 17 “Control” states, where manufacturers sell directly to the state, which then owns the product and sets retail prices through a statutorily-defined formula.

Canepa contends Ohio’s arrangement has many advantages. For starters, control states are able to take more risk in purchasing bulk inventory than individual, risk-averse retailers in open states. Although these retailers maintain a greater degree of freedom and can satisfy the desires of liquor connoisseurs, states possess far superior purchasing power and ability to negotiate with manufacturers.

“What the data has shown, is where you have an open system, the product selection is a lot less,” says Canepa.

Bourbon is a particularly complex case study. Manufacturers have the ultimate leverage in choosing which markets to sell in, due to the unique process of distillation and the “crazy, out- of-control demand” across the globe, according to Canepa. Sure, manufacturers can make a healthy return on an individual barrel of high- quality bourbon, but that doesn’t necessarily help them achieve their number one goal: greater market share. By selling directly to the state, manufacturers can ensure consistent sales and a runway to market a wide swath of spirits.

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“With regard to bourbon, the manufacturers hold all the cards in terms of merchandising, in marketing, in where they want to put it,” he explains. “With regard to everything else, we hold all the cards because they have to convince us that that vodka is going to sell, that tequila is going to sell, that gin is going to sell, because the demand for those things is fairly at.”

Some whiskey collectors see Control— and more specifically, Ohio Liquor (OHLQ), a partnership between the Ohio Division of Liquor Control which manages retail and wholesale operations of spirits, and JobsOhio Beverage System (JOBS), which owns spirits purchased by the state and supplies them to private, licensed agencies—as an adversary.

But from the viewpoint of Dylan Richards, a bartender at OPA Grill and Tavern in Delaware, working with the state is a necessary part of the sales process. “From a behind the bar standpoint, we can get the product we want and need in a fairly reasonable fashion.”

At OPA, Richards manages one of Ohio’s largest whiskey inventories, over 1,000 bottles all told. “The system we have isn’t perfect, but it works. A lot of people complain, but that’s human nature.”

Even though it can be more difficult to find rare bottles under the Control parameters, “the upside is that [in Ohio] everything is sold by the state at retail, so if you do find a hard-to-find bottle you won’t be charged an arm and a leg for it,” he explains.

Canepa underscores the point: “My main job, my sole job, is to create a market that’s fertile that will entice those manufacturers to bring their bourbon to the state of Ohio.” By building a consistent, growing market, Canepa expands his credibility, leverage, and—crucially—his trust with manufacturers, who ultimately hold the power to bring exclusive and rare product to consumers.

Canepa’s team hasn’t been afraid to test innovative ideas. OHLQ now operates “Last Call” stores, such as the Neil Avenue Giant Eagle, which offer discontinued, eclectic, or slow- selling product (clearing JOBS’ spirits backlog in the process), and purchases barrels directly from distilleries, and operates raffles for exclusive bottles. These events have been smashing successes.

With 1,200 people turning up at a Giant Eagle in Dublin for 84 bottles of Weller 12, and 500 people for 63 bottles of Old Fitzgerald 9-Year-Aged at a Kroger in Clintonville, the buzz for bourbon speaks for itself.

And which Ohio distillers offer the best product? Columbus’ own Watershed Distillery, High Bank Distillery, and Middle West Spirits ranked 1, 2, and 3, respectively in Ohio sales in 2018 among all producers of less than 100,000 gallons.

For Richards’ money, Ohio’s top distillers are Middle West Spirits (OYO), Watershed, and Cleveland Whiskey. But at the end of the day, he says, “We’re still Ohio, and most people are looking out for stuff that comes from Kentucky.”

Catching up with the Bluegrass State will be no easy task, yet Richards remains optimistic about the progress made at home. “Ohio distilleries and bourbon lovers are beginning to make a name for themselves on a broader spectrum.”

“They don’t have the marketing power that these giants have,” says Canepa of Ohio companies. “But these distillers are making some really good stu right here [in Ohio].”

And when the workday is over, what does Ohio’s authority on liquor control himself prefer to sip?

“I like all my children,” he says with a smile, before delving into a specific fondness for McKenna’s 10-Year Bottled in Bond, Old Forester Statesman, Maker’s Mark Rye, and Sazerac products.

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Food & Drink

I had a Baja Blast at High St’s recently-opened Taco Bell Cantina

Asa Herron

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Once again, Taco Bell has surprised us all by adding alcohol to their drink menu. Upon hearing that the Taco Bell Cantina at 1525 N. High St. obtained its liquor license, my expectations were very ambivalent. Am I going to walk in and see a full bar with a separate area to order food, a la Plaza? Or are they going for something like Chipotle with bottles of beer and fresh margaritas available to order at the register?

Taco Bell’s drink menu turns out to be a similar, cheaper version of Chipotle’s drink menu. Instead of bottled Coronas and Patron margaritas, Taco Bell offers beers on tap and the option to add rum, vodka, or tequila to your freeze. All of the freeze flavors are available to make alcoholic––including the holy grail of Taco Bell beverages, the Baja Blast.

Photos: Amal Saeed

In keeping with Taco Bell tradition, the prices for the drinks are fairly cheap. You can get a 16-ounce Bud Light for $3, Corona for $4, and Thirsty Dog or Lost Coast for $5. However, the real treat here is the alcoholic freeze, which is only $5. The key to enjoying one of these boozy Baja Blast freezes is to keep mixing it and drink it fast. Otherwise, the alcohol you have mixed in will all go to the bottom.

The numerous televisions on the wall and high-top tables with stools to sit at create an atmosphere that could loosely pass as a casual bar. The real potential of this Taco Bell drink menu lies in its ability to transform your pre- gaming on your way to Short North bars. It’s a great quick stop before the rest of the night, or a way to bring it to a close with one last drink.

I’m not so confident that this new drink menu will go well in hours just before the south campus hotspot closes at 4am, but I can only imagine the level of intoxication that will be reached by some individuals. It’s no secret that Taco Bell is caviar to anyone under the influence. As long as the one security guard on duty can handle his own, you can bet we’ll be back for drinks at Taco Bell Cantina.

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Columbus is nuts for Krema Nut Company

Laura Dachenbach

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I remember the smell of Wonder Bread being voted one of the best aromas in Columbus in some sort of poll. Obviously, these responders had never been to the Krema Nut Company. When I enter the Krema retail space and headquarters on West Goodale in Grandview Heights, the irresistible aroma of roasted nuts and popcorn hits me like a circus and movie theater rolled into one. I know I’m not going to leave here without something in my hand.

The Krema Nut Company was founded in 1898 by Benton Black. The building was located at Second and High Streets, and primarily ground spices. However, Black also discovered the practicality and marketability of grinding peanuts into a paste, creating a protein supplement for people who were unable to chew other types of food. (Adequate dentistry was still in development.) The company moved to its present location in the mid 1920s, and while it started roasting the peanut butter, the product is still decidedly “old-school.”

“We do it all natural, so there’s no sugar, no salt, no hydrogenated oils. We use the number one fancy-grade Spanish peanut, dry roast it, take the skin off, take the heart out [the bitter part of the nut] and grind it. So
it’s real simple,” explains Brian Giunta, Krema’s Senior Vice President. 

Roasted nuts led to candies in the 1990s. Krema’s signature confections include Cashew Crunch, a handmade toffee; Buckeye Crunch, a caramel corn coated in peanut butter and chocolate; and Pecan Turtles—as well as chocolate-coated nuts, pretzels, and raisins. 

Giunta’s family bought Krema Nut in 1991, when he was a teenager. He knew he enjoyed business, but didn’t know where to channel that interest, and began discussing his plans with with his parents and others. “That was right when the internet was starting to really kind of pop.” 

Guinta recalls his father being interviewed by Business First about the company’s website, one of the first in Columbus. “There’s a picture of my dad holding a big scoop of nuts out front talking about the internet, if it was going to take off.” 

Inspired, Giunta joined the Krema team after college, and has played a role in preserving its traditions, but also carrying the company forward as his parents work towards full retirement.

“I came on in 2000, and so I started from the bottom and worked my way up. Every single job in this place, I’ve done,” Giunta says. “[Taking over the company] is awesome, but it’s a lot of weight on the shoulders.” 

As he moves around the space, it doesn’t seem there isn’t a job that Giunta can’t or won’t do, from taking calls to running equipment to helping behind the register. Today’s task is to make Hot and Spicy Peanut Butter, a natural peanut butter with a bit of cayenne pepper, a perfect addition to a cheese and cracker platter. (Giunta especially enjoys this treat with saltines.)

Giunta takes me back into Krema’s production area, occupied by old but well-built machinery, and the simplicity of the process becomes clear.

“Our grinder is very small. It’s low output. We do small batches. We make peanut butter every week. It would probably make much more sense to do a month’s worth, put it on a skid and put it in a warehouse and let it be. But that’s not us. We want it to always be fresh. Same thing with the oil roasting. We do it every week. So again, it would make more sense to just roast for a couple days and fill up all of our inventory. But that’s not us. So it’s like Groundhog Day every week.”

And there’s no fooling around. After master roaster Doug Vorhies loads the spicy peanuts (yes, just peanuts) into the grinder, he sits down to collect the thick, smooth butter in pre-labeled glass jars and hands it
off to to be immediately (yes, immediately) sealed, locking in the freshness as promised. 

“I can burn 300 pounds in a matter of seconds if I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing,” said Vorhies, who has been roasting and grinding peanuts at Krema for a decade. “When I get the peanuts in, I look at the lot number and see if that’s changed. Or you feel the weight of the bag and sometimes they’re a little bit looser because the moisture has evaporated out so the nut would tend to shrink down.”

Although visitors aren’t allowed in the production area, much of the process is still visible through the retail store windows. Krema’s retail space is split between its store, which carries its nut, popcorn, and candy products, and its cafe, which offers a dozen gourmet nut butter sandwiches. The Krema Special, an upgraded PB and J, is a top favorite. The Classic Old Timer, a sandwich of crunchy peanut butter, strawberry preserves, and sliced strawberries, is a close second. Ice cream and milkshakes are available, care of Johnson’s Old-Fashioned Ice Cream in Bexley.

“We have a nice relationship with them where they’ll use our peanut butter […] and we’ll use their ice cream for our milkshakes and sundaes,” said Giunta. “They do a great job over there.”

I give into the sensory overload and my undeniable hunger and try a Peanut Butter Apple Cheesecake sandwich, an absolute tribute to the comfort childhood with a grown-up taste. There’s hardly a way to not get sticky eating this treat, but I don’t really mind. Peanut butter always seems to hit the spot. 

As I’m leaving, Giunta notices a stray nut on the floor. It would be easy to leave it and let it be swept up later during a dedicated cleaning time. But instead, Giunta picks it up and discards it, lest it be crushed underfoot. It seems to be exemplary of his sense of pride and drive for quality and customer satisfaction that’s summed up in a simple mantra.

“I just want everything to be perfect.”

The Krema Nut Company is located at 1000 W Goodale Ave.
For product information and to order online, visit krema.com.

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Review + virtual tour of stunning new Columbus brewery

Regina Fox

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On an unusually warm September day, a few of us (614) staffers made the journey over to Olde Towne East to pay Columbus' newest brewery a visit.

Gemüt Biergarten, located at 734 Oak St., opened to the public on August 22 and offers guests a cultural drinking and dining experience in a setting just as unique.

The Firehouse, formerly known as the Columbus Music Hall, is a grand and beautiful structure, one that owners Kyle Hofmeister, Rob Camstra, Nick Guyton, and Chelsea Rennie were careful to maintain during the renovation process. The original brick walls remain throughout the brewery and beerhall, but new and stunningly beautiful stain glass windows were installed behind the bar to greet customers upon arrival and illustrate the different Gemüt brews.

Speaking of beers, I went with the Alfheim Hefeweizen which was bright and, much to my delight, not too fruit forward. The dark and toasty Woden’s Hunt Dunkel and the crisp Helheim Helles are also debut beers at Gemüt with a couple kolschs, a marzen, and a pilsner hitting taps soon.

Inspired by European cuisine, the food menu offers a variety of German sausages, Schnitzel, along with several appetizers and large plates. Sunday brunch specials are also offered—keep an eye on Gemüt's Facebook for updates.

With our beers in hand and our minds on the amazing Gemüt grub, we made our way out of the biergarten. The path to the patio took us past the pristine brewery where we got an up-close-and-personal look at the magic behind the malts.

We emerged onto a stone and brick plaza covered in picnic tables and partially covered by an upscale pergola. In the far corner, a fun-sized tables and chairs sit next to a Little Free Library—the perfect place for the tots to hang while the adults have their fun. A cute wooden gazebo populates another corner of the biergarten next to the al fresco bar.

As a resident of the Olde Towne East neighborhood, I've driven by Gemüt Biergarten in the evening many times to see the patio illuminated by dozens of Edison bulb string lights and wished I was there. And now that I finally got a chance to patronize the place, I wish I never would've left.

Take a virtual tour of Nosh in the gallery below! 
Note: use the left/right arrows in the upper-left corner to navigate between images.

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