Ohio State graduate Greg Lehman began a journey to open a distillery in 2007. He described the experience as a “watershed moment,” or one that changed his life.
Lehman graduated from OSU in 2001 with bachelor of science degree in business administration with a specialization in international business and operations management.
“I loved studying at the Fisher College of Business,” he said, “but unfortunately they didn’t have a distilling major.”
Lehman played outside hitter for the men’s volleyball team at OSU. After graduating, he moved to Switzerland to play professionally. He says his time abroad inspired the development of Watershed Distillery, the production facility in Columbus he now co-owns.
“In Switzerland, a lot of businesses are locally owned,” Lehman said. “Living there and seeing the culture, it was inspiring. I thought, ‘Why can’t I bring a local brewing business to Columbus?’ It seemed like a home-run idea.”
Lehman and his business partners bought a lease and set up Watershed Distillery in September 2010. The distillery is about two miles from campus at 1145 Chesapeake Ave.
Before prohibition, Lehman said Ohio was home to dozens of distilleries.
“Watershed is about revitalizing a craft that was lost in prohibition times. It used to be a popular industry right here in Ohio,” he said. “We’re a local business with big dreams and we’re doing what we can to make local distilling relevant again.”
Watershed’s first batches of vodka and gin went on sale at state liquor agencies in December 2010. In Franklin County, a 750-milliliter bottle of Watershed gin retails for $27.65 and a bottle of Watershed vodka costs $24.30.
Lehman recently decided to expand distribution to other Ohio cities.
“We just found out the state is allowing us to be in 38 liquor stores in Cleveland. We’re really excited about that,” Lehman said. “We’re working really hard to get a lot of product together for that demand.”
In Columbus, Watershed spirits can be found at local stores, restaurants and bars.
Adam Kodle, the spirits manager at Weiland’s Gourmet Market in Columbus, said Weiland’s has enjoyed carrying the product on its shelves.
“It’s a great product we carry. Our customers are all about buying local. And that’s our ethos, too,” Kodle said. “It’s a popular product. When we first started carrying it, some people even bought it in cases.”
Lehman had little to reveal about his business partner.
“It’s kept under wraps because he’s behind the scenes. He has another job in Columbus, so that identity is yet to be released,” Lehman said.
Doug Winship, a resident of Powell, Ohio, maintains a blog where he regularly reviews emerging brands of spirits. He reviewed Watershed’s gin in early January.
“Not only is gin from Watershed a very nice gin in its own right, but it also fills a need in the gin selection available to Ohioans,” Winship wrote in the review. “There are relatively few gins available in this state to begin with, and most that we do have are the big, traditional brands, in the big, traditional styles.”
But even with many positive reviews, some Columbus businesses do not carry Watershed spirits.
“To be honest, I’ve never even heard of that brand of vodka and gin,” said Matt Jackson, general manager of McFadden’s on High Street. “We try to support local businesses, we’re about that. But I’ve never heard of them.”
As Watershed Distillery grows, Lehman wants to work on engagement with the Columbus community.
The Watershed team has showed up at events like ComFest and Gallery Hop in the Short North with a chalkboard. They encourage people to publicly write their “watershed moments” on their chalkboard as they speak about their brand.
One photo of a “watershed moment” depicts a man holding a chalkboard. The board reads: “The time I traveled with the circus changed my life.”
It’s signed at the bottom of the chalkboard by the name Pete.
“We want to celebrate these moments,” Lehman said.
Watershed also offers tours of the distillery for a $5 fee and group spirits tasting for a negotiable fee.
Moving into the future, Watershed is not limiting itself to “white spirits” alone.
“In 2013, we are set to release a bourbon,” Lehman said. “The bourbon will be the first of its kind to be made in Columbus since pre-prohibition.”