Distill his heart

Retired Fremont man rolls the dice on labor of love: whiskey project

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    Leonard Wells, Helena, samples Whiskey Dick before purchasing a bottle from Darrin Critchet at Ernest Scarano Distillery in Fremont.

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  • Darrin Critchet, left, registered agent and investor, with permit owner Ernest Scarano at Ernest Scarano Distillery in Fremont.
    Darrin Critchet, left, registered agent and investor, with permit owner Ernest Scarano at Ernest Scarano Distillery in Fremont.

    FREMONT — Inside a barn near the Sandusky County seat may be the smallest legal whiskey distillery in America.

    Actually, it's just part of a barn. A small part.

    The Ernest Scarano Distillery makes just 100 gallons of rye whiskey a year. For owner Ernest Scarano, 60, it is a labor of love, a project to challenge him and hold his interest during his retirement.

    "It was never one of my goals to produce as much as I could. My goal is to produce the best-tasting whiskey I can, sparing no expense of time or money," he said.

    The whiskey sounds expensive, and it is. A bottle of his Old Homicide rye goes for $95 — and that's just for a 375ml bottle, half the size of a standard liquor bottle. And here's the kicker: Neither Mr. Scarano nor anyone else knows exactly how it tastes.

    Bonded whiskey, by law, must be aged in casks for at least four years. Mr. Scarano began making his rye three years ago. The casks are sealed with tamper-proof tape and will not be opened until April 1 of next year, to be sold two months later.

    "It's a real roll of the dice," he said. However, others are willing to take the gamble with him: About 75 bottles have already been presold, he said.

    PHOTO GALLERY: Ernest Scarano Distillery, Fremont, Ohio

    Mr. Scarano's interest in distilling rye was piqued when he was traveling through Missouri several years ago. There he met a man who made his own whiskey (it is legal to make up to 100 gallons of whiskey per year if it is for personal use and is not sold). Mr. Scarano liked the flavor so much he persuaded the man to give him the recipe. That's the recipe Mr. Scarano uses, with a minor change — more six-row barley — for his Old Homicide rye.

    Leonard Wells, Helena, samples Whiskey Dick before purchasing a bottle from Darrin Critchet at Ernest Scarano Distillery in Fremont.
    Leonard Wells, Helena, samples Whiskey Dick before purchasing a bottle from Darrin Critchet at Ernest Scarano Distillery in Fremont.

    "It's a nice sipping whiskey. It has vanilla tones to it and butterscotch. There is a walnutty flavor to it," he said, an assessment based on the batch he had in Missouri.

    The Ernesto Scarano Distillery is one of just seven distilleries in Ohio. Mr. Scarano and his business partner, Darrin Critchet, are proud that most of their materials come from the state, with a few exceptions. The yeast comes from Sweden. And the casks in which the rye is aged are made from charred American White Oak grown in Minnesota, near the Canadian border.

    Northern oak has small cell walls and very little sap, he explained. Oak grown in warmer climes, such as Kentucky, have larger cell walls and more sap.

    That's the kind of thought and detail that goes into a $95 bottle of rye. If you're looking for something less costly and more immediate, the distillery currently sells 8-ounce bottles of lightly aged whiskey called Whiskey Dick. The name comes from the old slang term for a detective, he explained, more or less keeping a straight face.

    That explanation is "good enough for the federal government," he said. The government regulates the names and labels of alcoholic beverages. Whiskey Dick has a picture of a hard-boiled, fedora-wearing detective on the label, his secretary slinking behind him.

    To create their product, Mr. Scarano and Mr. Critchet first make a mash of rye, barley, yeast, and a lot of water. This sits for seven days while the grains ferment. They filter out the grain and pour the liquid into a 60-gallon custom-made copper still. They heat the still with a gas flame, paying close attention to the liquid's temperature. At 168°, the methanol boils out. That they discard; it is toxic and can cause blindness, among other ills.

    Ethanol, the alcohol you drink, boils off at about 173°, although the actual temperature can be affected both by altitude and even the barometric pressure; a stormy day can make a difference. They capture the steam from this ethanol, allow it to cool and condense back into liquid form in a tube, and drain it into jugs. This is the liquor they put into the sealed oak casks. It is 160 proof — 80 percent alcohol. And that is how it goes into the bottles, too. 

    Most ryes are between 80-90 proof. The unusually high concentration of alcohol in Old Homicide is what will give it much of its flavor, Mr. Scarano said.

    After they are done with the good stuff, they still have liquid left over with a fair amount of alcohol in it. So they boil and distill it again in a 10-gallon still, this time resulting in a spirit that is about 130 proof. That's what they use for Whiskey Dick. They put the distilled alcohol in a big pot with chunks of sugar maple charcoal that they buy in Canada. The charcoal flavors the whiskey in much the same way that a charred white oak cask does, but they age it for just a few months.

    "It's moonshine that's combed its hair and put on a clean shirt," he said.

    Whiskey Dick is available at the distillery for $25 for a flask-sized 8-ounce bottle. That sounds like a lot of money for such a small amount, but Mr. Scarano is quick to point out that half of all the money they charge goes straight to the government. And because Ohio is an alcohol control state, the price they charge is mutually determined by the distillery and the state.

    "Ohio, Pennsylvania, and some of the other control states learned everything they know about whiskey from Prohibition," he said with evident distaste.

    Other regulations he finds to be equally surreal. In order to move the whiskey from his storage room to his retail desk, a few paces away, he must first call or email the state liquor board to tell them he wants to do so. They then issue an invoice for the full retail price, $25 for each bottle of Whiskey Dick that he wants to move. He sends the state the full amount, either electronically or, less frequently, by sending a check.

    At that point, he is allowed to move the bottles. The state then refunds his account 50 percent of the cost, or $12.50 per bottle.

    It is a lot of hassle and a lot of headaches. But at least when all is said and done, he will be able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labor, right?

    Not so much.

    "I don't drink whiskey at all," he said. "I drink red wine. I only drink enough [whiskey] to know when we've done it right."

    Clarification: While it is legally possible to distill alcohol for personal consumption, doing so is subject to federal regulations and the payment of an excise tax.

    Contact Daniel Neman at: dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.