Bringing you the best stories from Columbus business owners, cbuzz is presented by the Columbus Chamber in collaboration with the Columbus Dispatch and CD1025. Our host, local comedian Dan Swartwout, talks with entrepreneurs every other week in Columbus’ first business-focused podcast.
With origins in Switzerland professional volleyball, toilet sales, and the pork market, Watershed Distillery is one of Columbus’ most interesting businesses. Started by Greg Lehman and Dave Rigo, Watershed began operations in 2010, and has been on a steep incline of growth ever since.
“We make booze for a living,” Rigo joked as the two business partners began discussing where Watershed originated from.
As two guys who brew vodka, gin, bourbon and its newest product, nocino, all day long at their Columbus distillery, neither Rigo nor Lehman grew up in families that were big drinkers.
Interestingly enough, Lehman’s own great grandmother was a major figure during the Prohibition movement in Ohio.
“My great grandmother was part of the dry movement,” Lehman said. “She worked at the printing presses in Westerville that printed stuff for the dry movement.”
“So I think she would be turning in her grave if she knew we were distilling product here in Central Ohio. [laughs]”
And distill they do.
Two guys with a big entrepreneurial background, Lehman and Rigo, who met one another through their wives, came together in 2008 in aspirations of starting a business.
“We decided to flip houses in 2008 right as the market was crashing,” Rigo said sarcastically. “So perfect timing. But we did flip one house in Upper Arlington and made a little bit of money, and took some of that money and traveled around the country and visited several distilleries to figure out this next project.”
Intrigued with the business side of the distilling industry, Lehman and Rigo would start from scratch with Watershed. As neither business partner had a background in distilling, Lehman and Rigo would have to teach themselves the tricks of the trade in order to grow a local product.
“We were two guys with an idea and were definitely inspired by what was going on in the brewing industry and the local movement,” Lehman said.
It was a local movement in a remote part of the world that inspired Lehman in the most unlikely way.
Playing professional volleyball overseas right out of college, Lehman, who attended Ashland University, was exposed to a fierce support of local business in Switzerland. Lehman noted that seeing that type of local support for small business has had a major influence on Watershed.
Coming back to the states, Lehman spent some time in the pork market before banding together with Rigo, who was involved in sales in the toilet industry for nearly 10 years.
Working for themselves and their own product has always been a dream of both Rigo and Lehman, and Watershed has been a chance for both of them to love the work that they do.
“It’s just a different thing working for yourself and doing something that we really love,” Rigo said. “We started from the business side and started to fall in love with the distilling process.”
As one of two distilleries in Columbus, Watershed has seen great growth over the past five years in an industry that is exploding.
Raising the money that they needed from investors in just two months, much shorter than what they had expected, Rigo and Lehman found a way to attract customers from the community.
With the help of promotion from local restaurants and media, Watershed launched its initial marketing ploy of giving free tours to people in the community, a decision that has paid off tenfold.
Giving more than 10,000 people tours since the distillery’s launch five years ago, Watershed Distillery has built tremendous brand awareness and word of mouth support.
While Watershed’s primary products are vodka, gin, and bourbon, its newest product, nocino has been drawing rave reviews. One of two companies in the country that make nocino, Watershed has seen a great reception from the community since the product’s launch.
Growing its staff to eight full-time employees, Watershed Distillery continues to expand under the ambitious leadership of Lehman and Rigo.
As two guys that enjoy their jobs of ‘making booze for a living,’ Lehman and Rigo have Watershed Distillery in a tremendous position to grow and expand, and Columbus is fortunate to have them right here in the heart of the city.
July 23, 2015
Dan Swartwout, cbuzz Host; Greg Lehman & Dave Rigo, Founders of Watershed Distillery
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