By Richard Thomas
I have fond-if-dim memories of Columbus, Ohio, because that is where my grandfather lived prior to his retirement. Although I was likely a pain in the neck on the long drive there from Lexington, as small boys usually are, I liked being there once the trip was over. So with that in mind, I thought my Mom would approve when I told her about Columbus’s Watershed Distillery and how I would be reviewing their bourbon.
She gave me a disapproving look and said “Yankees can’t make bourbon.”
“Ohioans aren’t Yankees. They’re Buckeyes,” I replied.
“It’s the same thing, and they can’t make bourbon.”
Yet with the craft distilling boom, more and more locally made bourbon is coming from places north of the Mason-Dixon line, and it’s not like Ohio is a stranger to whiskey-making. I know for a fact there was such a thing as Ohio bourbon during the Civil War years, having read references to it, and the state boasted a sizable distilling industry until Prohibition. So when Greg Lehman and David Rigo opened their micro-distillery in Columbus, they were less puncturing some Southern misconceptions and more reviving a tradition that had been dead for nearly a century.
Watershed has an odd duck in that they’ve made a four-grain, spelted bourbon. You read that right: spelted. Also known as hulled wheat or dinkel wheat, spelt fell out of favor with farmers and food processors decades ago because it is harder to thresh. However, spelt has different qualities from common red winter wheat that has brought it into favor with craft bakers in recent years, so why not craft distillers as well?
The bourbon is aged in 10- and 30-gallon barrels, making it a small barrel whiskey (note that it is not designated a “straight” bourbon, so the liquid is less than two years old). Watershed has bourbon aging in standard 53-gallon barrels, but that isn’t ready for market yet.
Bottled at 47% abv (94 proof), the color of Watershed’s bourbon is surprisingly light. Even young small barrel bourbons can come out quite dark, but this has a bright, coppery, middle amber appearance.
The nose is fragrant with cedar and pine, giving it a crisp quality that balances against the corn sweetness and dollop of vanilla. The flavor is light, offering up a subdued caramel sweetness and a note of toasty wood. A tiny rye spice note is in there too, one that grows on the tongue to the point of elbowing the other flavors off center-stage. The finish leaves a light, lingering spicy afterglow.
So can a Buckeye make bourbon? Yes they can. Perhaps it has rubbed off on them. They do share the Ohio River with us Kentucks, after all.
Watershed’s bourbon is reasonably priced by the standards of craft whiskey, running about $40 a bottle.