Issue: May/June 2013
2013 Manny Awards: Cleveland Whiskey
Cleveland Whiskey’s Tom Lix has reinvented bourbon by turning the traditional 10-year production process into one that spans just six months.
The curvy mannequin standing at Cleveland Whiskey’s entrance greets visitors with a tight tank top and the words “Sex, Black Bourbon and Rock ’N’ Roll” splashed across the front. The startup distillery located inside Magnet’s incubator on East 25th Street certainly sports a good-time swagger.
So does owner Tom Lix, who sometimes greets visitors with tastes of two different 100-proof bourbons: One may be Knob Creek, a premium brand from Kentucky that’s aged nine years. The other is Cleveland Whiskey’s new black bourbon. Lix isn’t looking to party. He’s just demonstrating that his bourbon and his business model can stand toe to toe with the competition.
The two whiskeys don’t taste all that different. Knob Creek holds more oak flavors and fruity complexity. The hometown upstart, released locally March 1, tastes slightly cleaner and smoother. It wouldn’t be such a big deal that they taste so similar, except Lix made his batch in less than six months.
Some whiskey aficionados would see that as corner cutting that can’t possibly replace traditional aging, but Lix doesn’t get hung up on that. If you want to know his feelings on the matter, look no further than the words on another T-shirt hanging on the distillery’s wall: “Screw Tradition.”
“I guess we are a little rebellious,” the 61-year-old says. “Some people are calling it sacrilege what we’re doing, but people said the same thing about the automobile.”
Founded in 2009, Cleveland Whiskey has all the equipment to make its signature dark spirits in house, but it currently outsources the actual production of the rough bourbon to companies in Kentucky and Indiana, which work from Lix’s recipe. After being poured into new charred, white-oak barrels — a requisite for any bourbon — the young liquor comes to Cleveland for Lix’s proprietary aging process. It’s put in stainless steel-style tanks along with chopped-up pieces of the barrels in which it was shipped.
The nine-year aging process used by distilleries such as Knob Creek can be replicated at Cleveland Whiskey in just more than a week, accelerated by machines that increase pressure in the tanks so the bourbon is forced into the wood chips as if they’re sponges. Soak up, squeeze out, repeat. From start to finish, the bourbon production spans several months rather than the decade it does at traditional bourbon distilleries throughout Kentucky.
“It will shake up the industry,” says Dave Crain, director of entrepreneurial services at Magnet and a consultant who has worked closely with Lix to start up the distillery.
He was sold on the idea not because of the product but the potential. “Everyone hears whiskey and you’re interested and intrigued from a product perspective, but there has to be a solid business plan,” Crain says. Lix’s plan makes sense, he says, because it “increases demand in a place where a product takes six to eight to 10 years to bring to market and a way to fill that demand very quickly.”
Lix says $25 billion was spent globally on whiskey in 2012, and he hopes to ultimately export his product. That has been his plan since reading about China’s growing fondness for whiskey after he moved to Cleveland in 2007.
An amateur distiller since his time in the Navy, Lix began experimenting with mason jars and wood chips in his home. With grants from Lorain County Community College’s Innovation Fund and Cuyahoga County, he turned his hobby into his business.
“American manufacturing needs to make products we can sell overseas — bottom line,” Lix says. “So a success story for me would be Cleveland Whiskey being sold in China, India, Russia and Latin America.”
According to Ohio Liquor Control, Cleveland Whiskey’s black bourbon sold at least 7,500 750-milliliter bottles in March, its first month on shelves. With a retail price of $34.95, the same as Knob Creek, Cleveland Whiskey was hard to find on local liquor store shelves. Whether the popularity says more about Lix’s marketing acumen or alcohol making, only time will tell. He claims his whiskey wins most blind taste tests. “In the end what matters is not if you have something that takes 10 years, but if it tastes good.”
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