When I pulled up in front of the Middle West Spirits distillery, little did I realize that I was about to have a spirited religious type of experience. Now, I have been to dozens of distilleries over the years and many have started to look alike but the big difference between them all is the folks who run them. And I was about to meet the most passionate pair of principals I had ever met.

Talking to Brady Konya and Ryan Lang is like attending an old time revival meeting in a tent, in the middle of a corn field, in the heart of Kansas, on a sweltering summer night. The minute I walked in, they climbed up on their bully pulpits, and just like the hell fire and brimstone preachers of days gone by they began to convert me to believe in the Goddess OYO. OYO is the name of their vodka and whiskey and is pronounced like Ohio but with a Y in the middle instead.

Their tale begins with them wandering through the fields of Ohio for two years with no food or water, sleep or shelter, seeking enlightenment much like Moses in the desert. Actually they were looking for a special type of grain, one that held the essence and spirit of OYO so they could set her free and bring her to an unenlightened but much needy people. Once they found that grain, they built a temple to the Goddess: their distillery. They brought forth Teutonic pots and stills (that would make even Rube Goldberg jealous) from across the ocean and shined them up and fired them up and set the Goddess OYO free. They have what looks like a pot still attached to, not one, but two column stills that automatically distills the spirits more than a dozen times in one pass. So thorough is this conglomeration of contraptions that they don’t even have to filter the final product! Never have I heard of such a thing!

Unlike the alchemists of old who tried to turn lead into gold, they have succeeded in turning grain and water into vodka and whiskey. The distillation process is a combination of science and art and magic, and they have mastered it.

The OYO vodka comes in an apothecary style stout bottle (as does the whole line up) and simply describes the product within as; “A smooth, small-batch artisanal vodka made of Ohio’s soft, red winter wheat”. Popping the cork on the bottle releases a miasma of wheat and grain and yeast and buttery and bready and vanilla aromas. This is no ordinary vodka nose. This baby has a fair amount of terroir permeating through it. Vodka is by definition an odorless and tasteless neutral spirit, and this definitely is a vodka that defies that definition, but then again that’s what the high priests of OYO were after. They didn’t want to produce another Grey Goose; they wanted something unique and different but equal – so far so good. On the palate, there is a definite minerality (is that even a word?) and depth unlike classic vodkas that are crisp and clean. The wheat is backed by yeast and bread with hints of vanilla. That mélange of flavors is well balanced and very, very mellow and smooth. I’ve never said this about a vodka but this hooch is complex and yet it works. The finish is smooth as well and leaves a welcome warmth and subdued flavors that remind me of standing in a bakery just after they have pulled the last loaves out of the ovens. This is a good vodka with unexpected pleasures but may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Traditional, it certainly isn’t but it does have its place among premium vodkas. I just might allow myself to be converted to OYOism but that will be determined by the remaining OYO sisters. This sells for around $35.00 per bottle.

Next is the OYO Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka. If you’ve been following my adventures you know I’m not a big fan of flavored vodka or flavored almost anything else. However, I must admit a few folks have really gotten it right. Let’s see if the High Priests make their Goddess proud. The nose is very subtle with hints of vanilla and honey and no alcohol up front. There’s a spice note as well but the nose has changed from the previous product even though I know it’s the same base vodka. I almost feared it would be overpowering, but much to my surprise and delight, the vanilla comes through clearly on the tongue followed by the sweetness of the honey. The vanilla is interesting in that it has depth and a few layers and is not your ordinary, everyday vanilla. As a matter of fact, the guys import these fair-trade Ugandan vanilla beans, and they’re premium vanilla and the flavor is not lost in the vodka. The honey is just transparent enough not to be cloying, yet has presence, and remains sweet and adds body to the mixture. Beneath all the vanilla and honey, I can just barely discern the terroir of the base vodka, but it is there and adds its own flavor to the mix. Needless to say the finish is smooth and leaves a lingering and pleasant aftertaste that is not overpowering not over sweet and just right. I’m almost converted, but there is one more step in the conversion process ,and it’s a long way removed from vodka. This also sells for around $35.00 per bottle.

OYO Whiskey is a single cask small batch whiskey made of that same Ohio soft red winter wheat as its vodka sisters. Ahhhh whiskey, it’s that amber liquid that has elevated civilizations as well as brought them to their knees. This is one sweet and gentle smelling whiskey. I get the slightest hint of the terroir since they use the same wheat that comes from the same Ohio farms as their base vodka, but then it takes a twist and a turn. I discern hints of oak and char and subtle pepper and a touch of smoky scotch, and yet it all stays clean and the aromas play nice with each other. It’s definitely whiskey on the palate, but it is so tender, I am surprised. It has all the whiskey flavors anyone would expect but it is not as abrasive as most straight up whiskeys are. I get young oak up front on the tongue followed by vanilla and pepper and a smokiness, followed by a subdued spicy finish that lasts a short while. I’ll bet if this hooch were aged a few more years, it would become more complex; however, this a great start in the right direction. This is around $46.00 per bottle.

All right you High Priests of OYO, take me down to the river and baptize me in the wiley ways of OYO. I believe I am prepared to convert. And so it came to pass that the High Priests of OYO took me down to the Ohio River that very next Sunday morning at sunrise and before a gathered crowd of the faithful, I waded into the river, into chilly chest high waters, and they commenced the ritual. I was given a drink of the vodka and the priests grasped me by the top of my head and forcefully thrust my head backward underwater and forcefully kept it there for at least 15 seconds. When they brought my head up out of the water, I was sputtering and spitting and felt pretty much like a prisoner at Guantanamo who had just been water boarded. I finally opened my eyes and looked into the eyes of the High Priests and they screamed at me, “Do you believe?” I immediately shrieked back, “I believe,” and at that very moment they threw my head backward underwater again but this time for at least 45 seconds. When they pulled me up out of the water, they again peered intently into my eyes and screamed even louder than before, “Do you believe?” In between desperate gasping attempts to breathe, I managed to screech back, “I believe”. Again, they threw my head back into the river’s water and this time they held me underwater for at least a minute, even though it seemed to me an eternity and finally they dragged my sodden face out of the water and intently staring into my eyes they screamed again, Do you believe?” And I, spitting water and blood out of my lungs with every desperate attempt to suck in air cried out, “I believe”. And then they screamed back at me, “What do you believe?” And I defiantly shouted out, “I believe you’re trying to drown me”.

And so it came to pass, and I was accepted into the fellowship of the OYO cult, and we all headed back to the temple to partake in the spirits and become one with the universe or, at the very least, falling-down drunk. Amen.

By George Brozowski

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