Cincinnati Distilling Keeps Us in Good Spirits

The distillery stakes its claim to a piece of local bourbon history with its new Milford distillery.

Illustration by Carlie Burton

If spirits walk among us, the ghosts of Waldschmidt and Kugler families are probably sitting over at that sun-splashed table, peering through the massive windows that showcase the traffic on Milford’s Mill Street. They marvel at the glistening new still that emerges out of the basement through an opening in the floor and laugh at the customers’ strange attire: T-shirts and shorts, not buckskins and slouch hats. They may be scandalized that women are participants in the revelry, sipping the biting brown liquid that—200 years ago—they made right here at this homestead on the banks of the Little Miami River.

Mark Twain once said, “If I cannot drink bourbon and smoke cigars in heaven, then I shall not go.” But fear not, Cincinnati. You won’t have to wait for heaven. Bourbon and cigars, along with vodka, rum, tequila, moonshine, and gin are all waiting for you now…in Milford.

The Millcroft, one of southwest Ohio’s oldest private homes, is now Cincinnati Distilling and will be turning out barrels of its signature spirits—Cooper Island Rum, Voltage Vodka, Rebellion Agave, Red Sky gins, and branded bourbons and whiskeys. It’s a great addition to this west Clermont County suburb that sports a Norman Rockwell–like downtown, the Little Miami Brewery, a top-notch wine bar in 20 Brix, and a DORA district that runs more than a mile and a quarter.

It was just the kind of town with just the kind of history that Mark Stuhlreyer was looking for as he grew the distilling business under his parent company, March First Brands.

Stuhlreyer, a 1986 St. Xavier graduate, “All Saints kid,” and former Marine and telecommunications executive, founded March First Brewing (not so ironically) on March 1, 2016. It’s an homage to the date Ohio became a state back in 1803. The company started as a kind of side business. When Stuhlreyer sold his Dayton telecommunications firm in 2015, he bought a nondescript one-story building on East Kemper Road in Symmes Township and renovated it to serve as an incubator for start-up research and development work and a more mature school software management company. “We had room in the back, so we kicked around the idea of a small brewery, and it took off,” he recalls. “It was a fun and exciting time to be in the brewing business here in Cincinnati, so we went with it.”

He’s not excited to be interviewed, but he’s happy to talk about the Milford distillery, his business, his growing line of products, and his employees. With an athletic 6-foot-9 build, he’d be easy to spot in a crowd or on the basketball court and his frame doesn’t fit into some of the Millcroft’s 19th century spaces. He is soft-spoken but his eyes reveal focused alertness and joy as he shows me around the still-under-construction project. It’s mid-July and he’s anxious to open. But the new industrial-sized still has yet to be shipped from Nebraska.

Stuhlreyer describes himself as “not really a beer guy” but when he and his business partner decided to incorporate, he was excited about distilling and his partner was all about hard ciders. But beer was going to be the draw, so Stuhlreyer recruited a couple of experts to the team and the March First family of suds, ciders, and spirits was born. The tiny taproom in the back filled up and what started as a fun project became a full-fledged business.

Over a short period of time, Stuhlreyer moved the tenants and cubicles out and filled the space with what we all expect in a taproom: a sizeable bar, tables, chairs, a polished concrete floor, an outdoor patio, a kitchen, merch, and people. Lots of thirsty people.

Still, like all entrepreneurs, Stuhlreyer wasn’t hanging around his bar drinking for free. New products were being developed, including a line of seltzers, rum, vodka, schnapps, and some flavored bourbons. “We have about 40 different products in our distilling division,” Stuhlreyer says, “and we launched half of those or more in 2017 and 2018.” But the aggressive growth was putting a strain on the company’s production and warehousing capabilities. It was time to grow.

Growth, Stuhlreyer says, is his passion. Not beer. Not bourbon. Growth.

“The [craft beer] business was getting to the point of saturation,” Stuhlreyer says, recalling the days not that long ago when it seemed a brewery was opening somewhere in the region every month. “And we are probably still overbuilt. We’re seeing some players, some of them big ones, spinning down production.” In just the last few months, for example, Rivertown Brewery in Monroe and Rebel Mettle on Central Avenue have shuttered.

Stuhlreyer concluded that there was a consolidation opportunity and launched a merger and acquisition strategy that added to the March First Brands family: Middletown’s FigLeaf Brewing in 2019; Woodburn Brewing in 2020; and Fairborn’s Flat Rocks Spirits, owner of the Stillwrights brand, last summer.

“It’s not that there haven’t been other mergers in the industry, but I think ours have been different because we’ve decided to keep the unique brands that we’ve acquired,” Stuhlreyer explains. “We know these brands have loyal customers and we want to build on that and improve it—not whitewash it with our own brand.” That’s why you’ll see FigLeaf beers and Stillwrights premium bourbons, rums, and moonshine, for example, still gracing store shelves.

The Stillwrights acquisition, which occurred just a month after that distillery had shuttered, also netted a master distiller—James Bagford. “That was really an important find for us,” Stuhlreyer says. “He has more than a decade of knowledge and that’s a very hard thing to find in distilling.” Bagford joins Bryan Fischer, who has distilled with March First since 2019, but is now becoming more heavily involved as a production manager.

Unlike Stuhlreyer, Josh Engel is a self-described “beer nerd.” The March First Brands marketing director is as effervescent as a frothy mug or a bubbling seltzer. The 33-year-old has cultivated an impressive beard that hangs six inches below his chin and he notes, early on, that he’s not a traditional marketer. “If you want me to write a report using all the acronyms and marketing buzzwords like blah-blah-blah,” he says, “that’s not me.”

Engel landed a job with March First thanks, in part, to a beer blog he wrote in the early days of the craft beer explosion. He has an associate’s degree from Miami in information technology with a visual media design concentration and parlayed that into a semi-successful (“it didn’t pay the bills,” he says) motorsports photography gig before going to work for a logistics company. When he had a chance to work for Jungle Jim’s to kick-start a video program, shoot photos, and work on the brand’s social media, “I took a leap of faith and a pay cut,” he laughs.

In his spare time, he wrote a beer blog and went from being merely a consumer to a social media influencer. “At the time, when you walked into a brewery it was kind of a new thing and it had magic,” he remembers. “So I started this blog and I couldn’t believe I was just this random guy with a blog and I got to go back into the production area, meet the brewer, and try a beer off the tank. All because I had a dumb blog?” He still laughs at his luck and probably his chutzpah.

When the marketing position with March First opened, he said, Stuhlreyer hired him on the spot after what he recalls as “just a long conversation about beer.” Stuhlreyer remembers the conversation too, and says he knew right away Engel was the right fit.

Like Stuhlreyer, Engel said he didn’t know the distilling business as well and wasn’t a bourbon drinker. “I come from a family of Catholics so it’s beer,” he says. “But I did my research, talked to a lot of people, and watched a lot of YouTube videos to broaden my horizons.” He credits the elevated craft cocktails showcased at Woodburn as being particularly helpful. So, yeah, his due diligence included consumption.

Engel calls distilling “mystical,” noting the barriers to market entry are higher. There are more stringent production regulations, state stores that limit retail opportunities, and fewer distilling experts than brewers. It also takes more patience—your glass of bourbon won’t reach its potential for at least two years.

But, he says, he’s seeing a stronger market developing in younger drinkers. They’re drinking a little less beer and more spirits, even in the suburban Kemper Road taproom, although they sell more bourbon and Coke than innovative cocktails. “You get a lot of people who like the crazy stuff, especially the younger crowd,” he says. “But we also have our traditionalists who say, just give me the plain stuff. Bourbon is supposed to be just bourbon.”

The “crazy stuff” at Cincinnati Distillery includes specialty products like Fire Brigade Cinnamon Whiskey, Honey Whiskey, or La Terza Coffee Barrel Bourbon. Fire Brigade is whiskey that’s finished by dipping cheesecloth-wrapped cinnamon sticks into the fully fermented product. The honey whiskey blend mixes in nectar from a bee colony near Oxford, and La Terza is a barrel exchange collaborative with the Lockland coffee shop of the same name. More “new stuff” will be introduced soon now that the Milford distillery is open.

For every winner, Stuhlreyer says, there are 10 losers. He laments how much beer he’s thrown away in the last five years. “We’re Forrest Gumping our way through this,” Stuhlreyer says. “It’s not like we put a lot of thought or research into new product development or buy into focus groups. We’re making what we hope is good stuff and seeing if people flock to it. Variety is fun and each product line needs to stand on its own. There’s no huge market for peppermint schnapps, but every year we’re making more of it. I don’t know who’s drinking it, but somebody is.”

Bourbon and whiskey remain the biggest spirits sellers, but the Astra line of flavored seltzers is the fastest growing product line. In fact, so many flats of March First’s seltzers fill the rickhouse, located about a 10-minute walk from the taproom, that the bourbon barrels have been pushed into a corner. They’ll have more space in the Milford basement.

The biggest hard seltzer seller is Red Cream Soda, meant to evoke sweet childhood memories by putting a little liquid cotton candy in your mouth. The product was the brainchild of Jeff Stine, the chief financial officer. That the company’s “bean counter” even had a voice in the development of a product line is illustrative of an “everyone in” culture that Stuhlreyer believes is critical to innovating.

“It was his idea and we probably changed the recipe five times, but it was his idea,” Stuhlreyer laughs. “And he never lets us forget it.”

Like the craft beer industry, Stuhlreyer and Engel think of competition not so much in terms of Covington’s New Riff, downtown’s Northside, or Fairfax’s Karrikin Spirits. The distilling community here is relatively small, both in terms of numbers and in how it stacks up against the Big Bourbon Boys. Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey, Four Roses—that’s the competition.

Sure, the local distilleries compete against one another for shelf space, but that battle is waged by the distributors. As Engel puts it, “the liquid speaks for itself and, in the end, it’s up to the customer.” There have been occasions where one local distillery will help another if a piece of equipment fails and, as in the brewing industry, they sometimes get together socially and drink each other’s products.

Could it be that several generations of Waldschmidts and Kuglers followed us up into the attic and down into the basement as we walked through their old home and stable? Catherine’s father, Revolutionary War soldier Christian Waldschmidt, was a titan of the New Germany community (now Camp Dennison), owning several enterprises including a blacksmith shop, general store, paper mill, and the region’s only distillery. Catherine and her husband Mathias Kugler inherited the businesses in 1814 when Christian died of the flu and, 14 years later, fire destroyed most of the businesses. While Catherine and Mathias stayed in their home (now a museum on Glendale-Milford Road) and ran the undamaged paper mill, their son John and his wife, Matilda, purchased and finished the 19th century Pearson home in the hamlet of Milford and relocated the distillery there. The Kuglers and Waldschmidts went on to buy or start many other businesses from tanneries to farms to meatpacking. The Kugler home thrived and was the center of frontier society. It was in the family’s hands until 1939.

In the years between then and now, it has served mostly as a series of restaurants, a doctor’s office, a church, and a private residence. Stuhlreyer himself worked as a busboy there in 1985. It’s been empty for years and was slated for demolition by a developer who wanted to put in townhomes. The citizens of Milford revolted and the developer pulled out. Soon after, Cincinnati Distilling unveiled its plans, which included preservation of the old house and horse stable. The community has embraced them.

“We’re so excited to have this unique business come to town,” says Andrea Brady, executive director of the Milford Miami Township Chamber of Commerce. “Distilling is going to give Milford a higher profile that will attract attention to our community and encourage even more growth.”

Excavation of the old homestead was a history lesson and, along with the pandemic, put the project behind schedule. Excavators unearthed two 7,000-gallon cisterns circa mid-1800s, four stone-stacked water wells, and a 2,000-pound millstone that was being used as a footing for the horse stable. Other artifacts discovered during the renovation will be placed in a second-floor museum. The new building also features an art gallery, event space, a candy shop and bakery called Old Milford Sugarworks, and two restaurants—one in-house, the other the third Cincinnati-area venue for the upscale burger eatery Nation Kitchen and Bar. A large rooftop bar includes a cigar humidor and views of the Little Miami River.

Cincinnati Distilling is flying high now, but soon it will hit Rock Bottom—the old Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery, that is. The 12,000-square-foot space on the north end of Fountain Square is currently being renovated and Stuhlreyer hopes to have it open by—you guessed it—March 1 of next year. The Fountain Square entrance will have the March First brewery look and feel, while the Sixth Street entrance will be, as Stuhlreyer puts it, “a mini version of [Milford].” It will bring the brand and the bourbon that bears the city’s name to downtown’s most iconic space.

Stuhlreyer admits he’s no bourbon connoisseur, but he is a bourbon businessman; while he acknowledges his taste buds aren’t that discerning, he’s sure he has a good product in the market. He’ll just sip his occasional Cooper Island rum and dream of selling more and more of that sweet brown liquid that brings joy as it bites.

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