If you’re interested in making a meaningful contribution to your community but aren’t sure where to start, opening a craft distillery might not be your first thought. But that’s precisely the motive behind Columbus, Ohio’s Watershed Distillery and the recently opened Watershed Kitchen & Bar, both founded by local entrepreneurs Greg Lehman and Dave Rigo.
“We always knew we wanted to have a business that was an integral part of the community in which we lived, but we didn’t know what we wanted to do,” says Lehman. “We saw how craft beer was booming and realized that there was a void when it came to craft spirits. After going through all of the necessary licensing (which was a pretty big undertaking) and learning as much as we could about distillation, it was just us and a still in an old industrial building.”
The duo started distilling vodka and then moved on to gin, admitting that the first batches needed some serious improvement. They kept at it and are now on batch 135 of their renowned Four Peel gin, a light and modern gin, and have expanded their lineup to include bourbon and a black walnut liqueur called Nocino. Watershed also recently released the first batch of their Ohio Apple Brandy, which Lehman encourages imbibers to try in place of bourbon in classic cocktails like Old Fashioneds and Manhattans.
Lehman notes that they had no prior hospitality or epicurean experience before opening Watershed in 2010, but insists that their determination and dedication to serving the community sets them apart from other craft distillers.
“It was a challenge from day one,” says Lehman, “and we continue to face the challenge of telling our story to anyone who will listen. When we launched, Dave and I were the only two working here. We had no other employees. We swept the floor. We turned on the still. We ordered the grain. We ran the fermentation. We called on the customers. We had a $0 marketing budget. It was a challenge to tell people about our small company, but that was the only way we could grow.”
He continues, “We apply that same gritty approach to how we try to make a difference in the communities that we live and work. We don’t come with a big budget, but we have in a way been involved with over 200 community fundraising organizations in our short seven-year history. We believe that as members of the community it is up to us to be a force for positive change within that community.”
In 2017, Lehman and Rigo expanded and opened Watershed Kitchen & Bar, which was designed to complement the distillery’s vision. With Midwestern food served by Executive Chef Jack Moore alongside a carefully curated bar program led by award-winning bartender Alex Chien, they’re hoping this new extension adds to their brand appeal.
“We used to tell ourselves that we would never open a restaurant. It was a business we wanted no part in, and for years it was a business that we couldn’t take part in due to the laws in Ohio,” Lehman explains. “At the time, we could only serve four .25 oz room temperature samples to guests at the distillery, which is a pretty awful way to taste spirits. When legislation was passed allowing us to open a restaurant and bar at the distillery, we took a step back and realized that by opening Watershed Kitchen & Bar, we could allow guests to come in and really experience Watershed spirits in ways they were meant to be enjoyed: in a cocktail, shared with friends, or paired with great food.”
While the company’s expansion is cause for celebration, Lehman notes that there’s always more work to be done as they continue to refine their craft.
“We have seen great success since we began, but knowing more success is coming is never that easy,” Lehman says. “We still show up every day trying to be a force of positive change in this community, trying to make great booze, and trying to build the right team to successfully run this business.”
With the new release of Watershed’s Ohio Apple Brandy and a renewed focus on producing great products, Lehman is looking forward to 2018. He does offer one hint at a potential future product. “We did fill up those empty apple brandy barrels with some of our oldest bourbon! We’ll see how that matures over the next 12 months. That product might make a good barrel strength whiskey.”
To visit Watershed Distillery or Kitchen & Bar, head to http://watersheddistillery.com/home.html for more information.