Leveling the Field: Indiana Welcomes Its First Female Distiller
A Brief History
The mind of a true chef is constantly at work. Whether he or she is awake or asleep, flavor profiles, ingredients, pairings and techniques are constantly darting around the periphery, like goldfish in a bowl. When you ask a true chef where their inspiration for a particular creation comes from, they will often stare at you blankly—not because they don’t want to answer you, but because they can’t. They have no idea. When pressed, they will often say something along the lines of “It just came to me,” or “I couldn’t stop thinking about how to use that ingredient.”
Such is the case with Alexa Lemley.
Lemley is the creative force behind Artisan Foodworks and 240Sweet, both based in Columbus. Artisan Foodworks is a catering company specializing in large-scale outdoor events and 240Sweet produces extraordinary handcrafted artisan marshmallows in a multitude of flavors. Lemley owns both businesses with her wife of one year and partner of 10, Samantha Aulick.
One might think the demands and pressures of running two successful businesses might be enough to keep Lemley’s mind occupied. One would be mistaken. What could possibly be missing from this particular equation? Why, something to drink with all of this food, of course—vodka, gin and whiskey, to start.
Lemley is opening a distillery. And when she does, she will be the first female distiller in the state of Indiana and one of only a handful of chef-distillers in the country.
“First of all, we like booze,” she said with a sly grin. “And if we’re eating really good food, we’d like to have really good booze to go with it. And we were making extractions already, for the marshmallows and other things; mint, vanilla, pepper, rosemary, basil and lemon, to name a few. So we were already on the way. And it’s just another way to use local ingredients, which is really important to us.”
In her first batches Lemley plans to use corn and soybeans from the farmer right across the road, and she is already thinking about how various ingredients will play against each other.
“For the gin, I think about juniper, of course, but also lush Asian-inspired ingredients like kaffir lime, lemongrass, catnip and lychee,” said Lemley. “I want to make a marshmallow vodka and an Indiana corn whiskey, and something with all of those delicious yellow carrots growing in our garden.”
The garden she refers to is just a bit more than most at-home gardens. It’s nearly two acres, bursting with several tomato varieties, numerous peppers, herbs, leeks and beets.
Hanging with the Boys
Distilling is a largely male-dominated business, so Lemley and Aulick are jumping in the pool with the boys.
“It’s always been a pretty macho thing,” said Lemley. “Booze was made for men and marketed to men. We went to Colorado to learn about distilling and we were the only women there. But I think women have more sensitive palates. We want to make things that are approachable, in terms of both flavor and price, and a little more nuanced than the rest.”
“We also visited some of the local distilleries,” she added. “Hotel Tango Whiskey [in downtown Indianapolis], of course. I think people are excited about what we’re going to do.”
A Family of Food Lovers [there are small photos of saps, max and christine lemley together and 240sweets marshmallows- try to do a small fun different sized photo collage ]
Blazing culinary trails appears to run in Lemley’s family. Her great-uncle Sap Essex owned Columbus’ famous Sap’s Donuts, which made the first mass-produced yeast donut. And by a stroke of kismet, the original steel doors from the donut factory were given to them when the factory was razed, which they will use for the distillery.
Lemleys’s mother, Christine Lemley, is a French-trained La Varenne—and Le Cordon Bleu—trained chef and oenologist who had her own food and wine shows on PBS back in the ‘70s. Because the shows were filmed in her house, the family still benefits from an in-home, television-cooking-show-style kitchen, and Lemley loves to cook there. And her father owned a Columbus-based catering company called Lemley’s Catering, and she grew up cooking in that kitchen, too. To bring things full circle, Lemley’s great-grandmother was infamous for her bathtub gin in the Great Depression.
Building the Empire
If the success of their first few ventures serves as a benchmark for what to expect from the new distillery, we should anticipate great things. The marshmallow empire that is 240Sweet started out as just a creative marketing technique to attach to their catering menus. Now Lemley and Aulick, along with a staff that can reach 30 in high season, crank out around 250 different flavors of marshmallows available for purchase across the country and abroad. Marshmallow making classes are available, and last year the pair started an annual marshmallow festival called Puff Fest, drawing thousands. They have also been featured in a variety of magazines including O, Real Simple, Food & Wine and Martha Stewart Living.
The new distillery will be called 176 Spirits and the brand name of line will be Little Pot, so named because of their very small still. Lemley has a vision for how the elixirs she wants to make will be branded. “Think antique medicine bottles; vintage snake oil,” she said. But for her it’s more about what’s inside the bottle.
“Delicious is our focus, in everything we do,” said Lemley. “As a chef, it’s important to bring about a balance of flavors. For example, something should not be spicy simply for the sake of being spicy. There has to be a reason why it needs to be spicy. All of the ingredients need to work together, in all things we do. That’s the approach we will take with our booze. Our batches will be very small; they have to be, because our still is only 30 gallons. We will make what sounds good to us, and if we don’t like it, we’ll start over. It will be several years before an artisan license to sell what we make will come available. That gives us plenty of time to experiment.”
And there’s one more reason why a distillery seems like a good idea to Lemley:
“Marshmallows are incredibly labor intensive,” she said. “With booze, the still does a good part of the work. You set it up and then you wait for the good stuff to happen. I love that.”
Once their distillery is up and running, they hope to add a tasting room, which would add another reason to jump in your car and drive to Columbus.