CLEVELAND - A new Cleveland distillery is touting itself as the new bottle on the block. Cleveland Whiskey, a small operation within sight of the city's downtown, is making bourbon, using a high-tech process which its distillers claim puts the aging process on a quicker track.
"Bourbon has been made the same way for hundreds and hundreds of years and we're trying to do something new and exciting," said Andy Markelonis, the distillery manager of Cleveland Bourbon. He made his comments while he was busy checking the huge vats where bourbon was being squeezed through pieces of oak to give the liquor its distinctive taste and color.
Nearby, watching everything, was Tom Lix, founder and chief executive officer of the fledgling distillery, which has been making bourbon for the last ten months.
"We squeeze the oak inside the tank," said Lix, explaining the process of skirting the need for years of aging for bourbon to attain its taste. "That forces the alcohol deep into the pores of the oak, pushes it out very aggressively," he added.
He said within a few days, Cleveland Bourbon is ready for bottling and distribution. Lix contends his bourbon rivals the taste of the traditional bourbons which have been produced in the American South for dozens of generations. It is the bourbon drinking public, which is growing, that Lix wants to woo to his bourbon.
Bourbon is the only product made by Cleveland Whiskey, which operates out of an old building near the intersection of East 25th Street and Payne Avenue. Lix is an unusual man who has been in the advertising business and has worked as an instructor at Lake Erie College, near Cleveland, where he taught entrepreneurship to his students.
So impressive he was, several of his former students joined his new operation. "For an internship, I did woodchipping for Cleveland Whiskey and I actually got credit for it in class," said Ethan Snyder while he glued labels on the bottles.
The man, in his 20s, said he told his grandmother he was going into the liquor business. "She just laughs," he said. "She never would have believed her grandson would be making whiskey," he added.
Snyder is one of six former students who works for Lix. Cleveland Whiskey employs 12 in its small operation. In ten months, Lix said it has sold 50,000 bottles, most of them in Ohio. There are plans to reach beyond the state. He said there is a new worldwide interest in bourbon. He said people in Asia and India are increasingly turning to bourbon as a drink of choice.
Bourbon is made of several grains. Among them is corn. For the liquor to meet the standards of bourbon, corn must comprise at least 51 percent of the ingredients. Walking among the barrels of bourbon which are waiting to be emptied, Lix flashes a broad smile as he recalls his earlier years in the U.S. Navy.
He said it was then he became friends with a fellow sailor who made illegal liquor by beginning with fermented fruit juice. "He had tapped into the seawater system for coolant and he tapped into the steam system for a heating system and he was making hooch on the ship," laughed Lix. "He took me under his wing and taught me everything I needed to know about making liquor," he added.
However, Cleveland Whiskey takes an approach that is a little higher-tech. Lix does not divulge much about his process, but does say he uses pressure to squeeze the oak through the bourbon. In the operation, the constant sounds of the process can be heard.
Lix is from Boston. He came to Cleveland several years and found the city ripe for his kind of operation. He said the city's history showed him his startup operation would be profitable. He is so much in love with the city, he put its name on every bottle. "Cleveland Bourbon" is in large letters on each bottle holding the 100-proof liquor. For everyone who takes a drink, the word "Cleveland" will stare him in the face.
Lix said the traditional bourbon makers in Kentucky and Tennessee are not pleased about his process, but Lix contends Cleveland Bourbon measures in taste tastes with other bourbons. He believes his success will hinge on the quick turnaround for Cleveland Bourbon because of the speed of the aging process — a few days instead of several years.
As for its taste, he believes it goes down smooth. When asked if he does his own taste tests to insure it meets his standards, Lix grinned and took a shot of his bourbon. "You know there is a lot of quality control in this business and somebody's got to do it," he said.