Next time you visit a cocktail bar that knows its stuff, chances are you’ll see new-to-Ohio spirits like Smith & Cross Jamaican Rum, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram and Hayman’s Old Tom Gin behind the bar.
For that, you can thank Adam Roelle, current Spirits Manager for Cavalier Distributing, previously the Beer and Spirits Manager at Weiland’s Market and a Chicago bartender before that.
“When I first came back from Chicago to Columbus I was like ‘Oh my god, how does Ohio not have this stuff yet?’” Roelle said.
The simple explanation for why Ohio’s spirit selection is so limited (though becoming less so thanks to Roelle) is that Ohio is one of 17 control states, meaning that any spirit over 21% alcohol is stocked and shipped through the State of Ohio government.
There are two ways to bring a new spirit (legally) into the State. The first is through special order – any bar or restaurant can get any spirit they want, as long as they buy an entire case, and are willing to wait up to two months to get it.
The second is to convince the state to have the spirit in bailment, which means the spirit will be available through state liquor stores and a bar can purchase just a bottle or two as needed.
So why would Ohio not make as many spirits as possible available? Unsold spirits are a liability. The supplier – say, Watershed Distillery – gets paid by the state when a bottle of their spirit leaves the bailment warehouse. The state, however, does not profit until that bottle is sold by a liquor store, making stocking products that aren’t guaranteed to sell a risky endeavor.
“It’s the state’s money on the shelf,” Roelle said.
In short, if you’re a bartender trying to whip up a pre-prohibition cocktail that calls for a Navy Strength gin, and there isn’t one currently sold in the state, it’s kind of a pain in the ass to try to bring one into Ohio. Roelle is trying to change that.
“There’s just never been anyone proactively on my side, where I’m at now as a broker, to help bars and restaurants do this because they don’t really understand how to do it and they don’t have the time to do it,” Roelle said. “Me, coming from a free market and from the bar world I know how that works, I know how the state works from running a state agency and working with the state before, so it’s kind of perfect.”
Most of the spirits Roelle has brought or is working to bring into the state are key ingredients in classic cocktails – spirits like Sloe Gin, Old Tom Gin and Navy Strength Gin, three very different types of gin.
“There’s all these old cocktail books with all these ingredients that people don’t know what the hell they are, because after prohibition [the ingredients] didn’t come back,” Roelle said.
Roelle collects stacks of special order forms for these type of spirits from specialty cocktails bars like Mouton and Curio to try to prove the demand to the state and get the spirit in bailment.
“I want [a new spirit] to be in bailment because I don’t want places to have to buy it by the case, but at the very least, here’s my special order forms and [the state] kind of has to take [the order] any damn way,” Roelle said.
Will Ohio stop being a control state anytime soon? Unlikely. There’s too much revenue at stake, which is promised to JobsOhio – a private corporation responsible for economic development activities in Ohio – for another 25 or so years. So, short of a massive grassroots voter referendum, Ohio will remain a control state.
“What I would always say at Weiland’s when people would come in and be like ‘Hey, could I get whatever product?’ and I’d say ‘Sorry, that’s not listed in the state’ and they’re like ‘Why not?’ I’d say ‘Because you allow yourself to live in a control state,’” Roelle said. “[The lawmakers] work for you. You’re a taxpayer. You could do something about this. Make a placard that says ‘liberate our libations’ and hit the statehouse lawn.”
Until that happens: “Stop bitching about how we’re in a control state because it’s not going to change,” Roelle said. “Here’s how to work with the system.”