By Amy Eddings
“Whiskey For Sale,” read the sign at the side of the road.
I did a double-take. Produce stands are in abundance along state Route 6, a rural four-lane highway that links Fremont to Bowling Green. But whiskey?
I nudged my husband, who was driving.
“Turn around,” I said.
Whiskey, sold out of a big yellow barn on Route 6? This was worth a stop.
Ernest Scarano Distillery rewarded our curiosity with superior whiskey, a whistle-clean shop decorated with vintage farm implements, license plates and signs — Scarano also sells antiques — and time well-spent discussing the nuances of distilling whiskey with Scarano himself.
Scarano, 63, comes across as stern and serious, but he’s got a playful streak. The label of his signature rye whiskey gives it away. “Old Homicide,” it reads. “It’s to die for.”
It’s an homage to The Three Stooges.
“In 1941, the Stooges made a short called ‘Out West,’” Scarano said. “And Mo was mixing up a drink for Blackie, the villian, and he pulls a bottle from the bar and it said, ‘Old Homicide: bottled Monday.’”
Scarano is one of 57 licensed distillers in Ohio. He’s what you’d call a micro-distiller, making only 100 gallons a year. He became interested in making whiskey after drinking some made by “an old gent” in Missouri.
“He gave me a sample and I just thought it was the best thing I ever had,” he said. “I wondered if I could make a good-enough bottle of whiskey, and that’s why I started.”
Not everyone who tastes a great whiskey would think, “Hey, I’ve got to make this myself!” But Scarano appears to be a man who relishes such intellectual challenges. He has a master’s degree in theology. A recent visit found him sitting behind the wooden counter, reading glasses at the edge of his nose, reading G.K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas.
He was patient and thorough as he explained — or attempted to — the convoluted logic behind federal and state taxes on distilled spirits. He talked with relish about the science of distillation, and how just four degees Fahrenheit can make the difference between drawing off methanol, “which will kill ya,” and ethanol, which “will give you a good time.”
He also likes adventure. He moved to Elmore from Michigan after he got off Interstate 80 at the Elmore exit by mistake on Memorial Day weekend in 2003.
“They had 200 little kids on tricycles coming down Main Street, waving flags,” he said. “There were four or five old dudes sitting in the middle of the Portage River in lawn chairs, fly fishing. I just fell in love with the place.”
He bought an old building on Main Street and opened an antiques store, Mantiques.
“It’s filled with guy stuff,” Scarano said.
He divides his time between the store in Elmore and the still in Fremont.
“I’m either selling antiques, or I’m making whiskey,” he said.
Here’s how he does it. In a large, white plastic bin, he blends together water, rye, barley and yeast. He lets it ferment for 14 days, during which time the grains’ starches turn into sugars that the yeast eat and convert into alcohol. Scarano strains the mash, puts the wash in his copper still, named the “Pittsburgh Stiller,” after his hometown, and heats the liquid to 174 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s when the desirable alcohol, ethanol, “flashes,” turning from a liquid into a gas. It rises up through the still to its narrow top, which captures the vapor as it cools and condenses. Once again a liquid, the alcohol slides down a tube into a carboy, then into a barrel, where it sits quietly for four to six years. Then, it gets poured into a bottle, then into a glass, neat or over ice, from whence it slides over your tongue and tingles down your throat.
Scarano pays attention to every ingredient. He uses a type of barley that is very effective at turning starches into fermentable sugars. He “pays a fortune” for a specialized yeast strain from Sweden. His barrels are made of charred white oak, a federal requirement for whiskey, but Scarano’s come from white oak grown in the cold of Saskatchewan, Canada.
“The cell size (of the wood) is very small, you don’t lose a lot in evaporation and it means there’s hardly any sap in there,” he said. “If you buy [white oak] from a warm climate, you’re chasing this flavor you can’t identify but it’s turpentine. Any time you distill sap, that’s what you’re gonna get.”
The barrels run him $300 each. He orders 25 of them each season.
Scarano showed me the back label on a bottle of “Old Homicide.” It read, “No expense of time or money has been spared in creating this.”
“That’s the whole idea,” he said. “Once you get your procedure down and you spend all this money on a still, it just seems silly to buy cheap barrels and crappy yeast.”
He pried off the bottle’s corked top. It was time for a tasting. Alcohol and I are not on friendly terms, so Scarano poured my husband a finger of 6-year-old “Old Homicide.”
“Wow!” he sighed, after taking a sip. “That is the best whiskey I’ve ever tasted!”
It’s been nearly 10 years from that moment that Scarano sipped a Missouri gent’s homemade whiskey, and he has come full circle.
“You crack this bottle 100 years from now, it will still be drinkable, it will still knock people on their fannies,” Scarano said. “And people will say, ‘Man, this guy must’ve known what he was doing.’”
Ernest Scarano Distillery
4487 Hayes Ave. (state Route 6), Fremont
8 a.m. to noon Saturdays, or by appointment