I’m woefully late in getting to the bottom of what’s been happening not just with RJ Distillery in general, but with their space over in Norwood (Is it a former space?). They didn’t make or haven’t made a big deal about the changes that have happened to Smoq & Water, but since there has undoubtedly been something going on – I figured I’d dive in and try to get to the bottom of it for you.

Let’s face it… sometimes, the only way to figure something out is to put on your drinking shoes and head over to see for yourself… and that’s exactly what I did. Before we get there, though – let’s make sure that we’re all on the same page.

Catching Up – What’s Smoq & Water?

Back in early 2019, Shumrick and Leys Distillery in Norwood was purchased by Bob Slattery (Bob… not Bobby… that needs to be noted). The brand went under a full refresh and was renamed the Robert James Distillery, keeping the head distiller Terry Shumrick onboard to keep making the good stuff.

The Distillery opened up its flagship taproom/tasting room/movie theater concept in Eastgate called RJ Cinema in the summer of 2019 and followed it up by renovating and reopening its closed tasting room at the distillery in Norwood in early 2020. This renovated tasting room brought in a Kitchen Partner, Smoq & Water Barbecue who had been running a catering business before that – and that, my friends, is where the concept was born

Pandemic, Reopenings

The distillery reopened the tasting room, branded as Smoq & Water in February of 2020… and if my math is right, that was a month before March.

You guys remember March of 2020, right? That’s when the world shut down. RJ Distillery was obviously no exception to that, either. They had to shut their doors along with the other bars and restaurants across the state of Ohio.

The bar and tasting room reopened its doors in May of 2020, along with the rest of the industry, but things never really felt the same after that to me. I think that it’s easy to blame a lot of the shortcomings of the restaurant/tasting room on this simple fact – post-covid (or more accurately, mid-covid) it was hard, if not impossible to build a new concept, which Smoq & Water as a restaurant/tasting room really was.

A Slow Change

As the industry started to find its feet, and return to some bit of normalcy – Smoq & Water was obviously forced to do the same. Over time, changes obviously happened – food started to become less and less of a focus over the next year, and slowly the RJ line of spirits slowly started to take a backseat to other, bigger brands.

Somehow, by the time December of 2020 rolled around – there had been a slow change from a Distillery tasting room, to a restaurant and tasting room, to a full-on bar. It wasn’t a change that you could notice all at once, it was slow, but the changes that the space went through were certainly noticeable (and have become impossible to ignore at this point).

Time To Make A Visit

I hadn’t stopped into Smoq & Water since before the pandemic… and while I was certainly overdue, this trip was for a much bigger reason – I had to figure out what they were up to. Not to spoil anything… but I left even more confused than I was before I walked in the door.

The space feels just about the same as it always has. It’s a warehouse, with a bar along one wall and a dedicated group of locals all hanging out and having a drink together.

The big difference is that all the RJ Spirits (which as far as I know are still produced in the space next door) are no longer present behind the bar. You can get Jameson, Titos, and Bacardi, (big liquor brands) but gone is the special touch that locally produced spirits provide.

I asked the bartender and sort of got a shrug – she followed it up with an idea that “another distillery” might be opening up sometime soon… which leads me to believe that RJ Distillery has moved on completely.

It Doesn’t Mean That Smoq & Water is Bad

I don’t know that over the years, the average “regular” at Smoq & Water was super-dedicated to the idea of the distillery. I can 100% tell you that the folks that were bellied up to the bar the night that I recently stopped in certainly didn’t.

That’s ok – it’s not what the bar is about anymore.

When you hang out at Smoq & Water Bar, you get the immediate feeling that you’re hanging out in someone’s hidden spot. This isn’t a bar that someone will stumble upon by happenstance, you go there to go there. I’ve heard folks refer to it as a speakeasy type of space, not because you have to sneak through a bookcase to get in, but because it’s a bit of a secret that it even exists.

Be ready if you stop in to be in a room full of people who all know each other – it’s definitely a bar for regulars… and that’s 100% the personality of what it’s all about.

I can’t speak for the long-term success of a space like this – I can’t guarantee that this is a smart way to run a bar. I sort of like it, though. Once you know what you’re walking into, you can enjoy it in the same way that you do a dive bar or a quiet rural bar away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

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