Take a Tour of Chicago's First Craft Distillery
Robert Birnecker and Sonat Birnecker Hart's family-run business produces about 32 different products, including limited-edition seasonal batches and truly creative aromatic liqueur blends, such as their chrysanthemum honey, and a tangy ginger spice.
Americans bought $2.2 billion worth of Bourbon in 2012, boosting revenues for high-end premium and super-premium brands by 25 and 97 percent respectively, according to a report from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Booze is big business here: each year, Illinoisans consume nearly 19 million gallons of wine and spirits. Although the behemoth brands hog the stage (and profits), and on a pop-quiz you might answer “beer” as the state's official drink, what’s missing is a gauge on the vibrant craft movement and how it’s shaken up the spirits industry. You have to look no further than the Second City to find the innovators.
“We’re probably the first legal distillery in the city of Chicago, ever,” says Master Distiller Robert Birnecker, a licensed alcohol spirits judge who comes from a hearty line of Austrian distillers. With Chicago native Sonat Birnecker Hart (who also shares Austrian roots), the duo made a break from high-profile academic gigs to launch Koval. “When we got started five years ago, the biggest issue was licensing because not many people had done it and not many people knew actually what to expect of it," says Robert. "We ended up being one of the first distilleries in this country.” But there was plenty of red tape and no precedent for an urban distillery. Sonat made trips to the state capitol to get laws changed that were on the books since the heyday of Prohibition.
Voted one of the 100 best distilleries to visit in the world by Whiskey Magazine, its line of white whiskey (somewhere between vodka and an aged whiskey where you can taste the distinctive grain), Bourbon, and signature liqueurs are distributed in about 25 states and five countries, available in retail stores (677), restaurants (832) and bars (243), and that's just Chicago. Grab a stout-shaped bottle off the shelf at Trader Joe’s or shop online for the pretty cylindrical bottles of the big four: Rye Chicago, Midwest Wheat, American Oat or the Raksi Millet. All made with organic ingredients and processed in their two facilities.
At the center of this craft distillery is a gorgeous gleaming machine that looks like something out of the 1927 film Metropolis : The Kothe, a custom-built, copper poststill made in Germany by Kothe Destillationstechnik especially for Koval’s production.
"Organic is more expensive," says Sonat, adding this makes a difference in the soul of their spirits. “We’re working with local farmers and we’re working to improve the local economy.” That includes organic farmers engaged in sustainable agriculture, “something we were committed to before we even started the business.”
Not only do they make it, they teach others. Koval has become headquarters to the DIY movement: They’ve trained new owners, helped setup over 35 craft distilleries, and host workshops and "sensory" seminars. Most of their clients don’t have a distilling background, says Robert about the wide cross section that want to get in the whiskey business, and rattles off a list of converts: a television weatherman in Iowa decided to start a distillery with his brother; there’s doctors, lawyers, chemists, filmmakers, people in the fashion industry. "My uncle is leaving medicine to start a rum distillery in Florida," says Sonat. "He used to be one of the chief doctors in Miami."
These upstarts fill a vacuum. “There is a mid-level of smaller, regional companies, but there is very little creativity there. It’s the little guys who are shaking things up and introducing new ideas,” says Chuck Cowdery, a formidable expert, critic and author of Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey. “I like [Koval’s] creativity, their sense of community, their honesty, and that’s exactly how their products are: honest, straightforward, original, focused, local.”
Apparently the Titans want a piece of this creativity and “craft,” sometimes as nothing more than a thinly veiled marketing ploy, but also taking their cue from Koval’s success penetrating the market with inventive products. “When we first started and had white whiskeys and grain spirits, no one had it,” Robert points out. “Now Jack Daniel’s has one. Jim Beam has one. And every large whiskey producer has put out a white spirit under some name. Our industry is very much in its infancy. It’s very exciting right now.”
And you can watch the whole process on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday tours. Best part: a lovely tasting room to explore aromatic liqueurs, apple brandy, beer schnapps and specialty spirits.