Ohio Distiller Spotlight: Ken and Sherri Howard of Doc Howard's Distillery
We're back with our first ever "Meet the Distiller" post! Ken and Sherri Howard were nice enough to take time out of a busy distilling day and speak to Fermenting Ohio on how they got into the biz and the great products they craft. FO already stopped into the shop to sample the wares, check out our previous post on Doc Howard's Distillery here!
Fermenting Ohio: Bring us up to date on how you started a distillery in Perry, Ohio.
Ken Howard: We’re Ken and Sherri Howard and have been married for 42 years and we've known each other since the 1st grade. I've worked in nuclear power for over 30 years. I’ve always grown my own grapes, but you can’t do that well in certain parts of the country where our jobs took us, so I switched to making beer and ended up making really lousy beer. After throwing out several gallons, I remembered a book I had read about making scotch, and the first thing you do to make scotch is to make beer and then distill it. That was the inspiration for me in 2013 when I retired, to seriously consider getting into the distilling industry. I didn’t want to stop working but I’m very interested in the science and the craft of it, and the market research seemed to indicate it would be a booming industry, so we started to work on it. Another thing that got me interested was a book about the history of whiskey. Before prohibition, there were 42 distilleries in Ohio, so there was a local one to almost everyone in the area, because there weren’t the big giant companies that there are now. After prohibition was repealed, they didn’t have laws that allowed for the little distilleries anymore, just the big stuff. Ohio just changed their law in 2012 to allow smaller craft distilleries, like myself, that make <10,000 gallons a year. We’re running it like a distillery in the early 1900s. Family run, my wife and two daughters and son in law and grandchildren help me, and we try to make everything ourselves and buy local products.
FO: What does an average day look like for you?
KH: We arrive around 9AM and do a check on everything, we usually have a few processes going, like fermentation. If fermentation is done we’ll go into filtering, like we are today. After a month or two, some of our products will be ready. The next batch due to be ready will be February 6th so we’ll go ahead and bottle at that time. In the meantime, we’ll get into some distilling, which will go right into mashing.
Sherri Howard: We’ll also be doing some corn and rye grinding this afternoon. We’re not sure what an average day will be like from now on, because we can now be accepted into state warehouses, so that will affect our production numbers a bit. It’s an enormous amount of work for not an enormous amount of product so we’ll need to gauge what the stores will be ordering from us and ramp up production from there.
FO: What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve had to face?
KH: The most challenging was gearing up from small experimental scale to full production. There isn’t a piece of equipment I own that isn’t on its third or fourth design. I actually had a lot of help from a homebrew group sponsored by The Brew Mentor who helped me with my mashing process. One member even took the effort to research the proper way to mash corn.
SH: (A fellow engineer, by the way…)
KH: They also helped me with my filter. Behind all that, I’d say the most challenging step was working through the process and understanding all the rules and regulations.
SH: You don’t know what questions to ask or where to ask them.
FO: I can only imagine the hoops you have to jump through to get up and running. What resources are there for starting distillers?
KH: I bought a lot of books about how to start a distillery and they were pretty useless. They basically said “Go and get your license, get your equipment and learn how to distill.”
SH: There’s a lot more out there for beer and winemaking because that’s been around longer, as far as the craft. There are way different regulations for us for sure, which took a lot of phone calls and research to make sure we were doing this right, and that was difficult.
KH: I didn’t realize until after I started my application that there’s an experimental permit for distillers starting up. That’s one piece of advice I’d give to anyone starting out, and this is not information available really anywhere. The permit is relatively easy to get and that way you can practice distilling at scale and not do anything illegal that could get you shut down.
FO: What’s next for you guys?
SH: We’d love to get on some tour schedules and collaborate with area breweries and bars.
KH: The next big step will be get into some competitions and start winning some awards.
FO: What makes Ohio different? Is there room for more distilleries?
KH: Well we liked the area, I worked for the Perry Power plant for three years, and both of our daughters are here as well. The national trend is more people want to buy local, and millennials are buying a lot of alcohol, so there’s definitely more room.
SH: And we might not ever get to Kentucky Bourbon Trail or Tennessee Whiskey status but Ohio has a lot to offer. We have a Great Lake, fishing, wine, beer AND spirits.
A BIG thank you to Ken and Sherri for letting take a sneak peak into their day at the distillery. Do make a drive to Perry, Ohio to try their liquors (for something different, try the corn whiskey) and take a tour!