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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

10 Restaurant Week destinations for date night out

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Sometimes just getting out of the house is the priority. Other times, getting out of the house without the kids is the priority. When that time strikes, get the sitter on lock and hit the town.

Restaurant Week July 15-20 is the perfect time to reconnect with your significant other without breaking the bank. Here are our top 10 picks for date night out during Restaurant Week!

South Village Grille | 197 Thurman Ave, Columbus

South Village Grille is a romantic little spot tucked in a happening strip of Thurman Avenue. During Restaurant Week, indulge in oysters (aphrodisiac), scallops, and even pork chops. Round out your night out with beignets.

Wolf’s Ridge Brewing | 215 N 4th St, Columbus

You may have been to the taproom out back, but have you dined in the front? It’s a beautiful space where beautiful food is served, like lamb racks and Black Forest Chocolate Cake.

Trillium Kitchen & Patio | 2333 N High St, Columbus

Trillium is a modern kitchen with a splendid patio, often times hosting live entertainment! Wine and dine your loved one with Trillium’s diverse wine list, tasty Restaurant Week menu, and romantic digs.

The Keep Kitchen & Liquor Bar | 50 West Broad Street Mezzanine Level, Columbus

With the watermelon salad in the first course, BBQ chicken in the second, and strawberry shortcake for the third, this summer-time menu will be the perfect seasonal date. And the dark wood ambiance will make you want to cozy up close to your date.

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The Boat House at Confluence Park | 679 W Spring St, Columbus

Suggested wine pairings with every course during Restaurant Week will help direct you and your lover down a path of sensuality. And if you’re lucky enough to get seated by the fireplace, the heat will turn up even more, literally.

M at Miranova | 2 Miranova Pl, Columbus

M recently underwent a stunning remodeling that is sure to wow your date. The menu features both surf and turf, so your taste buds will be wowed, as well.

Asterisk | 14 N State St, Westerville

This intimate supper club will really encourage you to relight the flame between you and your significant other. And with familiar favorites like ravioli, meatloaf, and chicken pot pie, you’ll go back to your roots and remember why you feel in love in the first place.

Lindey’s | 169 E Beck St, Columbus

We know it’s hot outside, but Lindey’s patio is worth the sauna experience. This restaurant is the epitome of romance and can be yours to experience for just $35 during Restaurant Week.

Spagio | 1295 Grandview Ave, Columbus

Spagio is the perfect spot for a nice dinner and, with a window on Grandview Avenue, people watching. Let the conversations flow over seafood, pastas, and prime cuts of steak during Restaurant Week.

The Market Italian Village | 1022 Summit St, Columbus

For a fun, light-hearted date with lots of character, this is your destination. Exceptional quality, outstanding service, and approachable atmosphere: The Market Italian Village.

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Newly-remodeled M at Miranova has the most unique cocktails ever

Laura Dachenbach

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After a quick spring break, M at Miranova is back and open to the public with a new look, shedding its old browns and bronzes for pops of purple and elegant, cooling grays. The 18-year-old fine dining establishment is ready to show off a beautiful wooden floor, its terrace with spectacular views of the river and the city, its lounge made for an evening of small bites, an almost complete menu change, and its new line of seasonal signature cocktails.

Two Ships (Photos by Brian Kaiser)

Developed by award-winning bartender Cris Dehlavi and the beverage team, the line showcases the classic flavors of summer: coconut, pineapple, lemon, and rum.

M at Miranova aims to welcome all, and the line covers a spectrum of tastes. There’s something for everyone at your table, from the light, refreshing oral mix to the heavier, spirits-forward drink, all with an emphasis on superb and fun presentation.

“Gone are the days of the plain old glass,” said Dehlavi from behind the bar, bringing forth her concoctions.

Magic Elixer

The appropriately-named Magic Elixir, a beautiful balance of spirits and flavors, comes to your table as a blue liquid (thanks to butter y pea tea) poured over ice and garnished with flowers. Your server will add a vial of lemon tableside and ask you to stir as chemistry turns the drink a beautiful lavender. Botanist gin and an aloe vera liqueur give the drink a taste as sophisticated and surprising as its presentation.

“There’s nothing like the look on somebody’s face when you put something down in front of them like that,” said Dehlavi.

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The AHA!, a simple and refreshing drink combines a California Brut sparkling with pineapple and coconut flavors, and comes served in light- bulb shaped glassware, a nod to its moment of creative inspiration.

“We really wanted a low-proof cocktail, and kept playing with different ideas. Nothing was working,” said Dehlavi. “My daughter loves coconut water and she had coconut water in the fridge one day and I had a swig of it […] and I thought, ‘What about pineapple liqueur, coconut water, and bubbles?’ and it worked.”

AHA!

Ordered solo, the Two Ships combines Don Pancho rum, amaro, banana, and bitters over whiskey rocks. Ordered for two (or as a taster for four), the drink comes in a globe suspended on a wooden stand containing a blown glass ship and a bit of dry ice for effect.

The creamy You’ve Met Your Matcha and the rich Great Vieux round out the summer line. Your server will snap a Polaroid of the latter, but each of the drinks plays to an audience of Instagrammers, so your own phone is welcome, too. After all, it’s an experience—an impressive, yet accessible array of cocktails, and Dehlavi notes a few are already starting to become favorites.

You’ve Met Your Matcha

“I think presentation is super-important,” said Dehlavi. “We take a real culinary approach to our cocktails. Just like a culinary approach to food, you can put a piece of salmon on a plate with some asparagus and there it is, or you can make it gorgeous. And we always think about that with cocktails, too.”

M at Miranova is at 2 Miranova Pl. To book a reservation, visit matmiranova.com.

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Get an insanely delicious dessert + a laugh at comedy bake shop coming soon

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Soon, you’ll be able to get some sweet comedy and even sweeter desserts in Old North. High on Sugar will be open in the space formerly occupied by Buffalo Exchange at 2643 N. High St. sometime in September.

The menu will feature inventive indulgences like shakes piles high with different cakes, ice creams, and toppings—all built your way.

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Entertainment will be offered daily, along with free WiFi and comfortable seating options. More details on the comedy component to surface closer to the open date.

Want to help make sure this sugar train stays on the tracks? Check out High on Sugar’s GoFundMe campaign here.

Learn more about the comedy bake shop here.

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