If you try to trace a logical connection between a youth spent in central Ohio, a brief run as a professional volleyball player in Europe, a job selling medication for pigs, and starting a distillery producing award-winning gins, bourbons, and other spirits, you’re going to come up short (or you might have the weirdest game of 6 degrees of separation ever).
Nevertheless, that is the unique arc of Greg Lehman, co-founder and head of Ohio’s Watershed Distillery, a spirits producer that appeared out of nowhere in 2010 and has established itself as one of America’s premier craft distilleries in the near-decade since.
Okay, to be fair, Watershed didn’t come out of nowhere; it came out of hard work, determination, trial and error, and all that stuff. But as far as the booze world was concerned, Greg might as well have appeared out of thin air.
As noted, Greg Lehman grew up in Ohio and then went to Ohio State, where along with his studies, he played volleyball. And he played it well enough that he was offered a contract to play professionally in Switzerland. After a few years, he moved back to the States and took a job in the commercial pig industry despite the fact that, in his words, he “knew nothing about pigs.” More specifically, he worked selling medications for pigs, and, to his pleasant surprise, he “did very well in that role.”
Working in the hog medication field “proved to me I could jump into an industry I knew nothing about and be successful,” Greg said. Success aside, he didn’t exactly fall in love with his career, so Greg Lehman and a business partner began bouncing new ideas off of one another. “We looked at a ton of different business ideas, all sorts of different industries. We finally came up with the idea to distill because it was a fun, exciting industry. So we started researching, then decided to go for it.”
Greg Lehman expected it would take a year to raise enough capital to launch the distillery. He and his partner raised the cash in just three months. “So we said ‘guess we’re doing this’ and quit our jobs and launched.”
Greg initially wanted to focus on two spirits: bourbon and gin. As decent bourbon requires at least four years to mature in barrels, he would have to wait a while to see how the initial run worked. But “with gin, it can be start to finish in just two weeks,” Greg said. That rad turnaround allowed for constant ingredient experimentation and ratio tinkering.
The first batches? “We had friends try the gin, and they were like ‘this is just awful,'” Greg admitted. So they kept at it, trying fresher botanicals in various balances. Soon, the gin recipe was mastered, and Watershed Distillery began producing the same Four Peel Gin offered today, their flagship gin that won a double gold Best in Class award at the 2018 San Francisco Spirits Competition.
And when the bourbon came out of the barrel, it was another success. The aged blend of corn, rye, wheat, spelt, and barley create a flavor profile that is at once bold and round, with a mellowness aided by the charred oak barrels in which the booze rests for years before bottling.
But if gin and bourbon (and vodka, by the way, made from corn and apples) launched the ship, it’s the specialty blends that fill the sails today. Consider their Nocino, an inky black liqueur made using Ohio Black walnuts soaked for months in Watershed‘s vodka before the addition of orange peel, vanilla, sugar, cinnamon, and cloves.
Or try their Old Fashioned, which is, as the name suggests, a pre-mixed cocktail. Just pour this blend of bourbon, premium bitters, raw sugar, and Ohio cherry juice over ice and enjoy. And in a unique pairing of the two things they do best, Watershed offers Bourbon Barrel Gin, their Four Peel Gin aged for a year in used bourbon barrels.
These original and even daring concoctions explain much of the growth of Watershed Distillery, whose bottles are now sold in seven states and are available (to many areas) via online shipping. But the true success story here is a commitment to excellence in all of their spirits. “There is so much in there, in every bottle,” Greg Lehman said. “The ingredients, sure, but really it’s the years of work, trial and error, failing. We just stayed with it until we were winning blind taste tests.”
(And then they started winning awards, too.)