Cincinnatians would have to cross an ocean and endure multiple layovers to behold the crippled remains of an authentic Viking mead hall, where epic heroes like Beowulf spent their Friday nights getting hammered and exchanging tales from the Warfield.
These halls, which were once roaring with brutish cries of celebration as honeywine flowed like waterfalls from the barrels, now look like ramshackle barns that anyone who has ever driven from Cincinnati to Columbus on I-71 would certainly recognize as nothing out of the norm.
But those who can't justify traveling more than 4,000 miles to see something that resembles a massive, dilapidated shack can still indulge in the mead hall experience at Woodstone Creek, Cincinnati’s own neighborhood-friendly meadery.
Located only a few blocks from Xavier University’s campus on the corner of Dana and Newton avenues, Woodstone Creek is the only winery and distillery in Cincinnati that produces a variety of mead, which is commonly referred to as honeywine due to the use of honey in the fermentation process. It’s also known as “the drink of heroes” in some classical literature.
The plain, brick exterior of the building is a humble front for an independently owned business that has produced handfuls of award-winning wines, meads and spirits, including the Woodstone Creek Vodka named “Best of Show” by a panel of CityBeat tasters in 2007 and a single-malt whiskey that earned a rave review in Jim Murray’s 2009 Whiskey Bible. Lacking neon signs and flashing lights, Woodstone Creek might be difficult to notice for those driving by, but like all hidden treasures, the rewards of finding it are well worth the hunt.
For $10, guests can choose five samples from an extensive list of meads, including Taliesin, Ginger Honey, Raspberry Honey White, Honey Mist, Mead (dry honeywine), Traditional Honeywine (sweeter, more “expected” honeywine), Legacy and Crown Amber, several of which have been awarded in various area competitions.
In addition to the meads, a broad selection of wines are offered, including Rialto Red, a red wine with a hint of raspberries, and Eden, a dessert wine made from apples handpicked by Don and Linda Outterson, the owners and sole operators of Woodstone Creek. Additional samples are $1 each and bottles are available for those who settle on a particular favorite — or two.
Linda says that the primary ingredients in each kind of mead are honey, water, yeast and hops. The specialties, such as Raspberry Honey Wine, contain additional ingredients like herbs or fruit, which were commonly used by the mead-making German tribes of Northern Europe during the Middle Ages. Although the ingredients of Woodstone Creek’s mead remain true to traditional recipes, Linda admits that improvements have been made to their products due to modern advancements and regulations.
“We use cultured yeast, not wild yeast that may have been used during the Middle Ages,” she says. “The water is better now and the honey has higher purity standards. We also have a wider variety of hops available. Production standards have changed over time. More regulation.”
The Outtersons’ mead-making endeavors began after Don moved to Cincinnati from New York to work as a consulting brewmaster for Wallaby Bob’s Brewpub at Forest Fair Mall. After the owners fell into financial difficulty and were forced to close the pub, Don sought to build his own brewery and started collecting used stainless steel dairy tanks in the woods behind their house to construct a production facility. He then moved the equipment from their property to a barn in Lebanon in 1999 and, finally, he and Linda decided to set up a winery instead of a brewery at their current location a few years later.
Now, with 20 wines and four or five spirits being consistently produced, business is on the rise. But good business isn’t the only thing Woodstone Creek is doing for Don and Linda.
“Don and I work other jobs to pay our own bills,” Linda says. “The winery for me and the distillery for Don keep us sane.”
The casual, fun and social atmosphere also lends to the “therapeutic” element of running Woodstone Creek, as she puts it. “These days, we have a core group of regulars. Each Saturday is a gathering of friends and new customers get drawn in … It’s a good time and we always look forward to Saturday.”
On the flip side, there are some difficulties to running a small winery and distillery.
“The primary disadvantage is the disproportionate costs of doing business,” Linda says. “It’s tough to buy packaging and raw materials because our suppliers have minimums. Also, our unit costs are too high to compete with larger wineries that sell in the grocery stores. The spirits are drastically higher because of the additional taxes imposed by Ohio liquor control.”
As Grendel is to Beowulf, Ohio’s liquor laws are to Don and Linda — a treacherous pain in the ass to deal with. However, in June of 2008, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland signed a bill changing the way spirits have been sold in Ohio since 1933, allowing Woodstone Creek to sell its spirits directly to the public from the microdistillery. Only state-licensed liquor agencies have been able to sell full-proof spirits since the end of Prohibition.
Now, Don and Linda hope to earn themselves the legal right to host spirit tastings in their microdistillery and currently have a petition against the laws keeping them from doing so that can be signed at the Woodstone Creek headquarters or their Web site.
Linda asks each Woodstone Creek patron to pass the word on as they stumble out the front door, feeling good, drunk and heroic, like Vikings of old.
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