Trending: Local Craft Spirits

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Four-grain whiskey, millet bourbon, rose hip liqueur, apple brandy. Chicago is on the threshold of a craft spirit revolution, with several craft distilleries popping up in the past few years. Like the local food movement and beer industry, craft spirits appeal to those who appreciate quality, creativity and regional sourcing. Here’s our guide to some area distilleries leading the way in this new golden age of Chicago craft spirits.

KOVAL Distillery
5121 North Ravenswood Avenue | www.koval-distillery.com

The grande dame of craft distilleries in Chicago, Koval was founded in 2008 by husband/wife team Robert and Sonat Birnecker, who both have PhDs (Sonat: German Cultural History; Robert: Economic Policy). Their goal was to recreate the distilling tradition his family employed in his native Austria: using alternative grains distilled in the cleanest way for a taste that is different from the large national distilleries.

They chose the name Koval – which means ‘blacksmith’ in many Eastern European languages and ‘black sheep’ in Yiddish – to honor their grandfathers. Dr. Birnecker’s grandfather earned the nickname ‘Koval’ by emigrating to Chicago from Vienna in the early 1900s to start a business. Mr. Birnecker’s grandfather was named Schmid – another name for ‘Smith’ – so the distillery is an homage to both men.

To achieve their goal of owning a distillery, the Birneckers lobbied politicians in Springfield to change the Prohibition-era laws against small-batch retailing, paving the way for the craft spirits Renaissance currently under way in Chicago. The variety of spirits Koval offers, from whiskeys and bourbon to specialty liqueurs, have won a legion of fans; their rye whiskey was recently named ‘Best International Whiskey’ by Der Whiskey Botschafter & Whisky Guide Deutschland 2013. This year, the plan is to expand their line to include gin, but Ms. Birnecker says that whiskey remains their flagship product. “Whiskey is sexy,” she says, summing up the craft spirits movement in a nutshell.

FEW Spirits
918 Chicago Avenue, Evanston | www.fewspirits.com

Paul Hletko comes from a family with a prestigious brewing tradition; his grandfather founded a major brewery in the Czech Republic before sadly losing it to the Nazis during the Occupation. Mr. Hletko says his grandfather’s death was a major inspiration when he founded FEW Spirits in Evanston in 2009.

The distillery is located off an alley in a former chop shop less than a mile from the spot where Frances Elizabeth Willard famously founded the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which made Evanston dry – free of alcohol – for over a century. Mr. Hletko maintains the fact that the distillery shares its name with Frances Elizabeth Willard’s initials is mere coincidence.

The small-batch distillery has gained a reputation for excellence. Their American Rye Whiskey was named ‘World’s Best’ in the Spring 2014 issue of Whiskey Advocate and their rye, bourbon and American gin are available as far away as Japan. Reflecting on the rise in popularity of craft distilleries, Mr. Hletko thinks the variety of tastes available is the secret to their success: “It’s rare that you want to drink the same whiskey every night.”

Rhine Hall Distillery
2010 West Fulton Street | www.rhinehall.com

Rhine Hall, opened last November, is the brainchild of father-daughter team Charlie and Jenny Solberg. Unlike many other small-batch distilleries in Chicago, Rhine Hall focuses on one type of product: apple brandy. It’s made in a style that Charlie Solberg learned while playing professional hockey in Austria, and the whole Solberg family embraced it when they spent a year living in Germany. “[My dad] got to know the locals when he was in Austria,” explains Ms. Solberg. When he wasn’t playing hockey he’d spend time with them, and the area in which they lived was the most abundant apple-growing region in Austria. His friends used excess apples to make brandy in small farm stills, which are legal in Europe.

Ms. Solberg credits these European influences with producing a top-quality apple brandy that many Americans may be unfamiliar with: “The goal of our tasting room is to help introduce people to different cocktails you can make with apple liquors.”
They also offer grappa, oaked apple brandy and oaked grappa, all made from apples sourced in southwestern Michigan. “People like knowing they’re drinking something from fresh fruit, not from preserved apple juice,” she says.

Chicago Distilling Company
2359 North Milwaukee Avenue | www.chicagodistilling.com

One of the newest arrivals on the craft spirits scene, Chicago Distilling Company opened in January. Noelle DiPrizio and her husband pay homage to her family’s moonshine distillery tradition in northern Wisconsin, sourcing all of their grains locally. They’re passionate about educating the public on craft distilling; their 1,700-square-foot facility features a spacious tasting room and event space, and the distilling area is visible to the public.

So far, they’re focusing on three high-quality products: Shorty’s White Whiskey (named for Ms. DiPrizio’s grandfather), Ceres vodka and Finn’s gin. She advises whiskey neophytes start by trying a Camilla Spritz – made with Shorty’s White Whiskey, fresh lemon and lime juice and grapefruit-infused club soda – in their tasting room, adding, “We focus on fresh ingredients and quality mixes.” n

Also worth checking out: CH Distillery in the West Loop (www.chdistillery.com), Quincy Street Distillery in Riverside (www.quincystreetdistillery.com) and Letherbee Distillers in Chicago (www.letherbee.com).

Anne Morrissy

About Anne Morrissy

Anne Morrissy is a Chicago-based writer, editor and blogger. She is the social media manager for The Apostal Group at Coldwell Banker, and her work has appeared in At the Lake, She. and Complete Woman magazines, among others. She serves on the Associate Board of Open Books, a non-profit literacy organization serving disadvantaged kids in the Chicago Public Schools and lives in Chicago and Williams Bay, Wisconsin.