Dames Dish! Olive or Twist? Talking Business with Ann Thomas of Western Reserve Distillers

By Rebecca Ferlotti
“We really did it,” Ann Thomas, co-founder of Western Reserve Distillers (WRD), says when describing how she and her husband, Kevin Thomas, dove into the craft distillery world. Ann and Kevin read books, hit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and took an intensive four-day course in Chicago on distilling. The process began four years ago when Kevin decided he wanted to retire but “he’s not the fishing type, so we needed to find him something to do.” When Kevin brought Ann an in-depth plan for a proposed business, she said, “Well, I guess we’re opening a craft distillery.”

Western Reserve Distillers currently carries three products: WRD Handcrafted Organic Vodka, WRD Handcrafted Organic Gin, and WRD Handcrafted Spelt Vodka, with more on the way. Before opening the distillery, Ann says she never tried anything but wine, cosmos, and margaritas. Now, she’s taste-testing all kinds of drinks. She also ensures the distillery stays certified organic, holding certifications through the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This means the distillery sources local ingredients, cleans with organic cleaners, uses organic pest control, and will treat the grass organically once it grows. The only things that aren’t organic, Ann says, are the enzymes they use to make their spirits; however, the enzymes are certified to be used in organic applications.

According to Ann, WRD "tries to eliminate as much waste as possible by: recycling all the cardboard used; having bottles made from lightweight, easily recyclable glass; and using a steam boiler to reduce their electric consumption, so they can recycle water". As a result, the Thomases spend most of their days online taking care of paperwork. “But it’s worth it,” Ann says.

From the beginning, the city of Lakewood was supportive, and local bars and restaurants were among the first to carry their products. When Ann visits a place that wants to taste test WRD products, she usually starts the conversation with, “We’re organic and just right down the street!” To drive home her point, Ann typically buys people a shot of Tito’s to compare with WRD. (I took the test, and the difference is shocking: WRD spirits are notably smoother with a cleaner finish.)

Ann’s advice for women who want to get into the industry is to contact COSE first. “They’re a fabulous resource that will get you to the people who can answer your questions,” she says. Also essential: an excellent attorney and an accountant. “Surround yourself with people you trust,” Ann adds.

Ann and Kevin’s ultimate goals are “to have a good life, surround ourselves with good people, and have something to pass on to our son and then granddaughter.”

Western Reserve Distillers and its adjacent restaurant, Distill Table, opened to the public Sept. 8, 2018. Reserve a tasting tour by visiting their Facebook page . Find them at 14221 Madison Ave. in Lakewood.

Article originally published in Dames Dish! – Cleveland's Les Dames d'Escoffier monthly newsletter. Read more of newsletter here.