Columbus: Booze, Brewers Set Tone for Redevelopment

We (travel writers) are so focused on what is good for outsiders coming in that I think sometimes we lose sight of how important certain developments are for those that actually live in the place we’re exploring. I was invited to Columbus to give my thoughts on the food scene – to talk about it in terms of travel – but I think I’m going to put that on hold for a moment, take a step back. One of my main inspirations and reasons for travel is to see the way in which other people choose to live their lives, and I think this is a good time for a quick reflection.

Columbus celebrated its 200th birthday this year.

I think sometimes cities and countries are so focused on trying to attract big, broad business that they forget to embrace the personalities of their residents.

Unfortunately, most people are vacationers, not travelers, and familiar names are a welcome sight. Take a majority of the world’s cruise-ship ports, Times Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, or Inner Harbor, for example. Tourists will find things to entertain themselves and you can have a good time in these locations, but they are far from an accurate depiction of local personality, far from why residents opt to live in each respective city.

My advice to Columbus (and other cities in similar up-and-coming situations without established tourism) would be to be selfish first and foremost, focus on things about which your people are passionate.  If you build something with charm and personality that is a reflection of your residents, travelers such as myself will be attracted to that culture. While developing an area with chain restaurants and brands recognizable to outsiders might bring short-term success and higher profits, being true to local products/personality is what will generate growth and inspire from within. Most importantly and above all else, it will generate a great city as opposed to a great place to spend a few days.

During my time in Columbus, I found those in the business of booze to more than understand this concept. We visited Brother’s Drake in celebration of National Mead Day on Saturday (it’s always the first Saturday in August). Mead is a beverage similar to wine made from water, honey, and spices, and its consumption/production dates back to 7000 BC (that’s a long time ago, man).

Owner Oron Benary explained how he plans to keep the business local, and he isn’t afraid to express his disdain for big business’ obsession with the bottom line. He’s focused on earning a livable wage via his craft, he said, not maximizing profit. Other beliefs: Employees should be paid living wage, not minimum, and he believes the pollution produced in shipping something from out of the country is worth no break in price, no increase in profits. The fruits of a local product (both the mead itself and the profit from its sales) that is produced by local labor and ingredients should stay local, he said.

In a world full of corporate structures and classrooms that teach the youth that the bottom line is king, I found this mindset to be refreshing. And whereas it’s often cheaper for businesses to buy new rather than reuse assets, I was happy to observe the strong connection between the local businesses in Columbus. There are tons of examples: Middle West Spirits ages whiskey in oak barrels, then sends the empties to Rockmill Brewery to cask-age their tripel; Rockmill Brewery sends beer to Jeni’s to make ice cream flavors; Brother’s Drake refuses to ship out of Columbus, not even to Cincinnati or Cleveland.

As it was in Detroit and Cincinnati, a rebuilding Columbus is an excellent place for entrepreneurs. To reuse a quote from my trip to Detroit that I believe applies here, you can’t afford to be a struggling start-up long in cities like New York, D.C., or Los Angeles, but you can in cities that are currently getting their swagger back.

Here are a few companies to check out when you find yourself thirsty in Columbus:

Watershed Distillery: I told you that I had a nice time playing drinking games and sampling some damn-good gin. Read up here if you haven’t yet, and look for it behind the bar in the mid-west.

Middle West Spirits: The OYO label consists of whiskeys and vodkas, the latter of an unfiltered variety. We did a side-by-side tasting of OYO vodka and Grey Goose during my visit, highlighting the difference between a vodka that’s been filtered and one that has not (filtering the vodka removes a lot of the character from the grains and gives it a broader appeal, and the point of the tasting was to show the two different styles). Middle West believes (rightfully so) that unfiltered vodka carries the taste of the region’s grain. In this case, Ohio’s comes through rather pleasantly, and although I love Grey Goose, I dig the concept of the local vodkas representing the bite of the local soil. 

Rockmill Brewery: The story behind Saison, or the farmhouse ale, is that it was invented by Belgian farmers who realized that an ale is easy to produce and store, as well as an excellent calorie provider/motivator for workers out in the field. Rockmill carries on this tradition today with a tasty version of its own, but my favorite was the cask-aged tripel that grows old in a whiskey barrel from Middle West Spirits. I put a bottle in my checked bag and, despite some concern, it made it safe and sound, sin explosion.

The scoop on the Columbus dining scene is on the way.



  1. Will,
    You captured the spirit and passion of Brothers Drake perfectly. Embracing local probably starts with his kind of commitment. I was quite moved by his willingness to sacrifice personal gain for the good of the community. Makes me rethink my own purchases.

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