I only recently have become acquainted with Linda Outterson via social media but the spirits being produced by the distillery there certainly have a cult following behind them having garnished several awards as well as the second to highest rating given to a single malt peated whiskey by Jim Murray (losing the top spot by only ½ a point) in his Whiskey Bible 2009. Linda is very outspoken of the industry on social media and has faced many hurdles that small producers do as well as those unique to Ohio which is a notoriously difficult to navigate control state. Woodstone is an exceptionally rare brand producing just a few hundred cases a year and was Ohio’s first micro distillery.
Linda, tell us a little about yourself and your background prior to entering the alcohol industry?
“As a kid, I sang and drew. All kids do that, but I never stopped. I was driven inward, because I contracted polio at three. I grew up in hospitals. I’d describe myself as unsocialized. I was bused out of my neighborhood for grade school, so I didn’t have friends on the street. By the time I was mainstreamed into junior high, it was hard to connect. When the music teacher tapped me to perform in a quartet, I got some applause. There I was paired with a cheerleader, the school brainiac and the most popular girl in school – a kind of enforced celebrity. It was new and different, but I liked it. I was a confirmed talent. In high school, I was offered the opportunity to sing on tour, internationally, with “Up with People”, but the financial requirements were more than my mom & dad could support. I realized for the first time – money was more important than talent. And, I gave up on getting lucky. When I got a scholarship college, I would go over the objections of my parents who would have preferred I become a nurse or a teacher. I wanted to be an artist. As far as dad was concerned, girls became wives and mothers. I moved to Columbus, enrolling at OSU. I worked full time, in addition to my scholarship to pay living expenses. Student riots at OSU drove me to Kent State – but, it was OK – I liked the smaller campus. Kent was artsier. My last year at Kent State saw the shootings of May 4th. Another major life lesson – life is not fair to the innocent. Any minute could be your last. After graduation, I found work in Cincinnati as an illustrator. Over the next 30 years, I moved away from illustration to package design, where it was easier to get employment. Another compromise, but I liked being able to buy a house, drive a nice car and eat regularly. I changed jobs several times out of necessity. Art studios were small and the darn things kept going out of business.
Enter Don. Don dragged me to exotic picture post card places and introduced me to the art of alcohol. Sitting in the beer garden at Augustiner, I realized I was a lucky girl. Unlike other guys, absorbed by politics, sports and work, Don was immersed in yeast. When we got married, I worked and he ran a consulting business out of our home. After building 53 brewpubs (for others) he got sued by a guy who, simply put, didn’t want to pay his bill. He was also a lawyer who knew how economize his torture. (Another life lesson – don’t take on lawyers for clients) About a month after the papers were served, I got laid off from my job. I didn’t want to go back – I was just plain burned out, so I freelanced for five years. The lawsuit ended with a wimper – nobody won – but it drained on for 3 years. The consulting business declined as the brewpub fad of the ’90s went from singular freethinkers to banks and professional investors. My freelance diminished, simultaneously, as I aged and my industry contacts disappeared because of their age, too. We decided to start Woodstone Creek. It was time to create something of our own – something that could not be taken away by an employer – and something that depended only on our own decisions. We would put two oars in the water. One – our own business which we would build up as a retirement hedge. Two – we’d continue to seek other employment to keep ourselves fed, insured, housed and transported. We wound up working in the same place – altho we hate it, the bennies are pretty good.”
What came first; wine, mead, or spirits? What brought you guys into the industry and inspired you to pursue production commercially?
“Don was all in – “first” is hard to calculate. He made hard cider, mead and wine in high school. He started homebrewing beer just after high school. He got a respectable degree in psychology. But, after getting his first job in a hospital, he was assaulted by a patient. He decided to go back to his first love – alcohol. After graduating from Siebel, in Chicago, he hit the road as brewmaster. Technically, that meant that whenever the brewpub (he was working at) went out of business, he had to leave town to find another job. Brewpubs were nothing more than complicated restaurants, after all. In that respect, our career paths were similar – he kept getting unemployed through no fault of his own. When he was hired to open Cincinnati’s first brewpub – we met. He wanted me to live out of the same suitcase. I said no. He compromised and opened a consulting business. It still meant he had to travel and eventually, he outgrew the urge to wander. I knew he was happier making beer, so I suggested he do his own thing. He didn’t have the money to start a brewery, but the winery was feasible. The distillery wasn’t legal yet, so he set about changing the law. Part of his consulting was paralegal work, so he had the experience. By the time the distillation license was passed, he was ready to start producing wine, spirits and mead. The capital expenditure for a brewery would have to wait – we didn’t have the money. His ingenuity, innate thriftiness (cheap) and energy got it going. I didn’t get involved until he had product that needed packaging. With my background, I brought another facet that allowed more savings. He rented a barn for $50/month, made his own equipment from junkyard finds and went for it. I was the ad agency / PR / marketing / graphic artist / webdesigner / bottler / labeler, etc.”
What persuaded you to pursue hyper local and super small scale production, was there/is there ever a plan for “ramping up” production or is the goal to stay as small as possible and maintain more free will?
“Our size was dictated by our ability to manage it. We started later in life – than our counterparts – the downside was our age. When we were self-employed, medical insurance was outrageous. As you can imagine, the older you are the more you need medical. A compromise was to keep the other jobs we’d found so we could have group coverage. I’m sure our plan would have been different if we’d started this 20 years prior. But, free will was important, too. Being older, we weren’t as driven and personal satisfaction was more important than becoming another factory. Don’s content with hands on. If he moved to administrator, he’d never be completely happy. We learned from the examples of Don’s peers in the brewing industry. He watched them age, prosper and move behind a desk. They weren’t happy – they were resigned. Now, we’re waiting for Don to retire, collect his pension and then ramp up. Maybe take on some investors/partners. The door that opens first – gets us. Could be mead, could be beer – might be liquor. I do know Don still wants to make beer.”
Tell us a little about your wine production if you would, are you mostly using old traditional methods/fermentation or relying more on the modern American model of winemaking? Do you have a favorite out of the wines you produce?
“Don is an innovator – he’ll tell you he uses a hybrid of both. Of course, the “how” is regulated by present day regulations. There isn’t that much flexibility anyway. My wine preference varies according to my mood. I like to go shopping and try different varietals. There’s too much out there to limit myself to what we’re able to make. Since we don’t grow our own vines or keep our own bees, we’re kind of limited to what’s available. Nearby sources are constantly getting curtailed by our unpredictable weather. It’s another thing that keeps us small – the availability of local ingredients.”
Essentially the same question in regards to your mead production? Any favorites?
“Don’s all over the place with the meads. As non-traditional, there’s no rigidity or product expectations. Customers don’t know mead, so he keeps them guessing. I’m partial to the pomegranate pyment, tho. It’s great shaken with crushed ice and a shot of our gin.”
You guys designed and built your own still correct? Can you tell us a little about that project and the still you built?
“Since college, Don studied stills. He spent time in Scotland as an exchange student. There’s also a family history, from Scotland, of growing grains and distilling. With our single malts, he made a point of getting grains from his ancestral home. (lordy, it was expensive!) He also collects bookcases of old books on distilling. He put together a still that combined all the attributes he liked best. Even after assembly, he continues to tweek. His goal was to build a still that was adjustable for whatever he wanted to make. Altho, it’s just plain ugly, it’s his baby.”
How has and does the art of mead/wine making apply itself to your distillation methodology? Did you find a lot of crossover with the types of fermentation/yeast?
“There’s no singular focus – synergy exists with all fermentation. Like our Crowne Amber – it’s a mead w/added brandy, aged in oak – all three disciplines come together in the same glass. Or, with the ports, his distilled brandy is from the same grapes as the base wine.”
For anyone interested in going into the business of alcohol production what advice can you give them?
“Follow your heart – there’s always going to be advice, but, the little voice in your own head matters more.”