LAKEWOOD - Ann and Kevin Thomas stood in their 100-degree distilling facility on a July day. The smell of corn mash and fresh alcohol sticks to the heat emanating from the still, and burns the nostrils. Thousands of liters of water run through grains. The water evaporates and returns through a series stills, returns to fluid form and out comes a steady stream of vodka through a narrow pipe into a barrel. A batch is made in about 10 days. And that’s just vodka.
Their all-organic, full grain to bottle distillery in Lakewood was four years in the making, but the Thomases had finally made it.
“This is a tough business to get into,” Kevin Thomas said. “But we felt it was worth the effort.”
Western Reserve Distillers, at 14221 Madison Ave., is a little over a month into operations, and is the sole organic distillery in Ohio. The distillery has made batches of vodka and gin, and the couple plan to start making whiskey in September. They’ll have whiskey they brewed at KOVAL Distillery in Chicago prior to opening soon, too.
“It’s a huge investment in that building that was vacant for a really long time,” Ian Andrews, executive director of LakewoodAlive said. “We’re really excited and thrilled that hey have chose to make Lakewood the home of Western Reserve Distillers. It further reiterates the investment being made on Madison Avenue, not just Detroit. People are realizing that there are a lot of great opportunities there.”
The Thomases chose Lakewood as the home of Western Reserve for couple reasons. The facility it’s housed in met all their needs for operation, and the city has a diverse demographic of residents.
Prior to opening, Western Reserve worked with the city to organize open forum sessions for community members to give input on the business.
Kevin Thomas was previously an executive at Nestle in Solon, and still does consulting work on the side. As for Ann, Western Reserve has pretty much been her life for the last few years. But they wanted to create a craft product in a spirits market that is dominated by billion dollar companies.
“The supply is simply there,” Kevin Thomas said, “like it is on the beer side.”
Western Reserve’s namesake comes from the northeastern section of Ohio that once belonged to the Colony of Connecticut in the 1700s. But it’s telling of the Thomas family’s personal journey and investment in the Western Reserve. They had lived in Connecticut and Europe for some time, and came to Ohio.
“We really wanted to produce a product that the region and the city can be proud of,” Kevin Thomas said. “It draws its origin from the region.”
Their still was made by a renowned German manufacturer, and took two-and-a-half years to acquire. It arrived in three international shipping containers — the big, rectangular kind seen sitting in stacks in shipyards. The building was formerly the Fridrich Moving and Storage center, which helps, Kevin Thomas said, because they receive huge shipments of grains, 3,000 barrels of drinks.
Western Reserve is one of a few organic distilleries in the U.S., his wife said.
“We’re a zero landfill facility,” Ann Thomas said. “Even all of our leftover grains go back to the farmer for feed or compost.”
That meant going through months of certification with the state liquor agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture for an organic designation. To be considered an organic still, everything down to cleaning products must be approved.
Almost all of what goes into their whiskey, vodka and gin organic, meaning it’s grown free of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The couple works with regional farmers to buy corn, spelt, which is a relative of wheat, and other grains. Molasses is the only ingredient Western Reserve doesn’t purchase locally.
“That’s because you can’t grow sugar cane in Ohio,” Kevin Thomas said.
A batch of vodka or gin takes about 10 days to prepare, but since whiskey is barrel-aged, it can take anywhere between three to five years to make.
“That’s the reason why there aren’t a lot of craft distilleries,” he said.
Years of preparations behind them, the Thomas’s journey isn’t over yet. Later this month or in early August they’ll open Distill Table, an 85-seat restaurant with a tasting room and bar. It will focus on small-plate meals and drink pairings, with most dishes and drinks made in-house, along with regional beer and wine options as well. A chef’s table will open in Distill Table this fall for further pairing advice on drinks and dishes.
Patrons will be able to see the still their drinks came from while seated in the restaurant through a wall of glass that looks into the distillers. Luckily, the heat of the equipment can’t be felt in the dining space.
“As we start to close in on getting this up and running, it will get us to the next level,” Kevin Thomas said.
The family invested just over $3 million for the distillery and restaurant. People interested in taking a tour of the distillery can contact the Thomases through westernreservedistillers.com
Right now, Western Reserve’s gin and vodka are on shelves locally at Simone’s Beverage, 18414 Detroit Ave.; Minotti’s Wine & Spirits, 19861 Detroit Road, Rocky River; Sapell’s Bi-Rite, 1314 West 117th St., Cleveland; and Giant Eagle, 3050 West 117th St., Cleveland. They hope their drinks will eventually be available statewide. The Thomases pitch their vodka as a cheaper, organic option to Tito’s Handmade Vodka, a drink already considered affordable. A bottle of vodka is $18.75 individually, or $17.66 wholesale.
“It’s kind of humbling to know that something you created, people truly enjoy,” Ann Thomas said. “With us being a small, family-owned operation, we’re pretty excited.”