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OYO Vodka with a Twist of Soul

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A couple of Saturday nights ago we gave the OYO (Ohio River Valley) new Honey Vanilla Bean (infused) vodka a test run at my tiki bar on the west side of Chicago.
We put on Mavis Staples' 1970 "Only for the Lonely" Stax recording (ladies choice) and sipped the velvet smooth spirit from souvenir shot glasses I purchased at Rock City, Tn.

It doesn't get more romantic than that.

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The vodka's gentle touch was not overbearing and encouraged me to try some recipes I was given by Ryan Lang, OYO's head distiller at Middle West Spriits in Columbus, Ohio. Middle West is Central Ohio's first and only "grain-to-bottle" micro-distillery. I'm not much of a vodka drinker, but the $34.95 investment for OYO was a high five-o.


......Despite its cutesy name, I might try the "Sugar and Spice":
* 1.5 oz OYO Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka. The vodka is infused with Ohio wildflower honey.
* .5 oz. St. Germaine Elderflower Liquer
* 1 oz. Fresh Ruby Red Grapefruit Juice
* .5 oz Agave Nectar
3 pink peppercorns, muddled (this sealed the deal for me)
Muddle peppercorns with agave, then add grapefruit juice, elderflower, vodka. Shake well with ice and double strain into chilled martini glass. Garnish with 3 floating pink peppercorns.

The next time we spin some Johnny Cash, there's the special Orange Blossom:
* 1 oz. OYO Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka
* 1 oz. Grand Marnier
* 1 oz. Fresh squeezed orange juice
* 5 drops orange flower water.
Build all ingredients in rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with long orange twist.

"We love the flavor profile," said Middle West GM/principle Brady Konya, 38 after I visited the 3,200-square-foot, open air distillery a few weeks ago. "We don't filter it using activated carbons so it maintains all the character and body from the grain. It is just like a wine. From one micro-climate 80 miles around Fostoria, Ohio, about 1,000 farms contribute to the mill from which we source all of our grain. The mineral characteristic and acidity from the precpitation in that part of Ohio effects the flavor of the grain that ultimately translates into what OYO tastes like."
But vanilla orchids don't flourish around Columbus. Middle West finds raw beans in Uganda and scrapes them to obtain the ultimate flavor.

Middle West is a window into the boom in regional distilling. In the early 2000s, there were 64 operating distilleries in the country. Today there are 301. "And only half of them are producing commercial product," said Konya, who moved to Columbus from Seattle in 2007. "Our idea was born after microbrewing and what's happened the last 15 years with beer in the Pacific Northwest. People like to know what is in their consumer package goods.
"Ohio is the perfect birthplace for this movement in the midwest because the appreciation for field to table has been authentic here for decades. Everyone is one degree from separation from somebody who works in manufacturing or agriculture."

Middle West deploys the first pot and column of its kind in North America. The distillery's 600-liter copper interior and stainless steel (exterior) distilling vessel was imported from Germany and built on site by German master-craftsmen. It was distributed through Chicago.

Maybe the best part of the Middle West story is in the fact that its 2011 projection calls for using between 800,000 and a million pounds of 60 pound bags of wheat in 2011. "That can easily support two of three small farms independently," Konya said.

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(L to R) Middle West sales manager Josh Daily, head distiller Ryan Lang, GM Brady Konya. (Middle West photos by Dave Hoekstra)

Middle West loves telling its story as much as Mavis must have loved singing the Dusty Springfield hit "Son of a Preacher Man" in 1970. She sang in a provocative, silky style that was served from the deep well of church,
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"It's the fun part," said Lang, 32. "One person at a time. We don't have the ability to spend a million dollars on a marketing campaign. But we do have the ability to tell every single customer our story every single time. We've had nearly 5,500 people in this facility since we opened (three years ago). And we told that story. That person tells five people and there's our marketing campaign. People love it. And when we get people to actually consume it you don't have to say anything. You can see it in their faces."


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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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