ATHENS — Athens residents Deanna Schwartz and Kelly Sauber celebrated the fifth anniversary of their business, the West End Cider House, last month.
They also celebrated another big goal for their small business: the relocation of their distillery and cidery business to a refurbished warehouse nearby.
Sauber and Schwartz had started what’s now being called the West End Ciderworks and Distillery in 2012 in Meigs County, then known as Dancing Tree Distilleryand then Fifth Element Spirits. After years of work, Sauber, a distiller and zymurgist, now has all of his equipment moved into the new locattion, just a stone’s throw away from the West End Cider House in Athens.
From the new Ciderworks and Distillery, Sauber and Schwartz will sell bottles of the bourbon, gin, vodka and unique brandies Sauber crafts (think pawpaw or elderberry brandy), and offer tastings of those liquors and cider made from Ohio apples.
While it was a lot of hard work to gut and refit the building at 237 W. State St., it’s equally hard to run a distillery business in Ohio, Sauber said during a tour of the space last month. Policies of the Ohio Department of Commerce’s Division of Liquor Control make it difficult for small distillers to grow their business, he said.
For example, if a distiller wants to sell its products in Ohio, it essentially has to bring them to a state-contracted warehouse, of which there are two in all of Ohio. The product is then sent to individual liquor stores, which sell the liquor to bars, restaurants and retail locations.
The costs relating to that and other state and federal regulations means that for every sale of Sauber’s $33.95 bottle of vodka at the Athens Kroger store, for example, he gets about $17 to $18, he said.
“It’s really difficult,” Sauber said. “That’s why most small craft distillers don’t come into Ohio.”
Still, some rules have been changed or updated in recent years, which has allowed distillers like Sauber to sell their liquors from their own establishments. The distillers also can get special permission from the Division of Liquor Control’s superintendent to essentially become an agent of the state, allowing them to sell bottles to local restaurants and bars.
Greg Lehman, founder and CEO of Watershed Distillery in Columbus, had a different take than Sauber. Lehman said that as the head of the Ohio Distiller’s Guild, which lobbies on behalf of Ohio’s distillers, he thinks Ohio’s liquor-control laws are actually more lenient than many other states’. He also said that his group has had a great relationship with the liquor control agency and the nonprofit JobsOhio Beverage System in recent years. JOBS acquired a 25-year lease to control the state’s liquor sales in 2013 and has worked with distillers to bring change, Lehman said.
That’s good, because Ohio’s distilling scene is growing, Lehman added. When he started in 2010 there were three or four distillers, he said; now, 50 distilleries are in operation or ramping up, he said.
“I think it’s partly that craft spirits weren’t really known (in 2010),” Lehman said. “Craft beer definitely was known and people were clamoring for it. For us, we were educating people on what craft spirits were.”