The Ernest Scarano Distillery is located in a 120-year-old barn outside Fremont, Ohio, a town of about 17,000 that’s home to several cutlery companies and a ketchup factory. When I visited in the fall, I noticed that the open barn door had a chain hung across it with a sign reading Bonded Area. Ernest Scarano, the owner and sole employee, told me that he needed to see my ID before I could come in. “The bonded area is for the feds,” he explained, as if the web of state and federal regulations governing liquor production were the most natural thing in the world. “The permitted area for the state of Ohio is the entire barn.” I fished out my driver’s license, and while he logged my information into a notebook, I admired the quiet emptiness of the surrounding cornfields. I felt like a bit player in a film about some rural bureaucratic dystopia.
In the early 19th century, some 14,000 distilleries across America were merrily operating, sending up little dogwood-blossom puffs of smoke in the hills and imbuing cities with the aroma of fermenting grain. Then came Prohibition. Nearly everyone shuttered in 1920, and few returned after Repeal in 1933—a generation of skilled distillers had been skipped, and the new distribution channels established by Congress favored large producers. Big Liquor elbowed its way up to the bar, and smaller distillers couldn’t find a seat.Eight decades later, micro-distilling is making a comeback: dozens of new small-scale producers fire up every year, fueled by a do-it-yourself culture, their hopes in many cases hitched to the “locovore” movement. At the end of last year, some 860 distillers held federal licenses.I’d sought out the Ernest Scarano Distillery because it was the smallest commercial distillery I’d heard of, and I was curious about the mechanics and economics of such micro production.