Roughly 55 million people visit Chicago each year, but only a few lucky souls get enjoy a tour at the KOVAL Distillery, simply by staying at The Blackstone Hotel and choosing their Tapping the Barrel package.
Guests who book the experience receive free transportation to the nearby distillery, followed by a private tour and tasting. They even get to take home a special recipe for an exclusive cocktail that’s only available to them.
“It was an instant connection,” KOVAL Outreach Coordinator Emily Williams says. “The Tapping the Barrel tour is something different than your traditional ‘touristy’ experience.”
One should not expect a dry, jargon-filled tour because KOVAL, one of the nation’s largest independent spirit manufacturers, routinely hosts a variety of events that cater to an exceptionally diverse crowd. The tour is both entertaining and enlightening with plenty of laughs and a chance to taste, smell and even touch the products and ingredients—you’d be surprised how relaxing it feels to let grain run through your fingers. Along with the fun, KOVAL takes educating the crowd seriously, and that means being prepared to handle an increasing number of imbibing aficionados.
“Oh let me tell you, the tough questions have been coming out!,” Williams says. “It’s been amazing to see how enthused people are about the process. I’ll hear questions like, ‘What level char do you guys use in your barrels?’ So, I better know my stuff.”
After a long talk with Williams and Abby Boler, the KOVAL PR and communications coordinator, it seems unlikely that they get stumped often. And their enthusiasm is palpable, maybe because dedication to knowledge and a love of people comes from the top. Sonat Birnecker Hart, president of KOVAL, founded the distillery in 2008 with her husband (and fellow academic) Robert. Sonat has a master’s degree from Oxford and a Ph.D. from the University of London. But, after a decade of lecturing in the United States and Germany, she decided to give up her tenure to work with her husband, spend more time with her child and open Chicago’s first distillery since the 1850s. “It’s been so cool to see how drawn people are to both the story of the business,” Boler says. “People are fascinated by it.”
And that’s why KOVAL, which serves the United States and more than 55 export markets, cherishes good business partnerships. “For [KOVAL], rather than spend a lot of money just blasting out our product, we are really figuring out who we can align with,” Boler says. “Who shares our values? Who shares our mission in educating the public in the art of distilling and also paying attention to the quality of the ingredients?.”
The Blackstone is one of those businesses, and as it turns out, the feeling is mutual. KOVAL distilled something special for hotel as a tribute to their ongoing support. “KOVAL Distillery’s commitment to the craft of spirit making and rich history made them a natural partner to create a proprietary spirit for The Blackstone,” says The Blackstone general manager Pierre-Louis Giacotto. “The hotel’s hand-selected batch of KOVAL Distillery bourbon is available to guests as an in-room amenity. Tapping the Barrel is an expansion of this partnership and offers guests an inside look at KOVAL’s creative process, as well as a taste of The 2008, an exclusive cocktail developed by the hotel and distillery only available to guests who book this package.”
It seems fitting that KOVAL and The Blackstone, a city landmark, would work together. Though the hotel first opened in 1910 and gained a reputation for hosting presidents, celebrities and even Al Capone, its $139 million renovation in 2008 (the same year KOVAL opened) helped turn the hotel into both a monument to Chicago’s history and its current culture, as it’s home to more than 1,000 art pieces and celebrates the city’s cocktail scene.
The Blackstone lobby is home to Timothy’s Hutch, a small, custom-made hutch that serves as a cocktail bar where visitors can enjoy drinks, live music and listen to stories from The Blackstone’s culture curator, Megan Mitman, about the hotel’s most famous guests. “Day or night, Timothy’s Hutch is a piece that truly defines the social, historical and playful nature of The Blackstone,” Giacotto says. KOVAL has been a part of that Hutch, including a takeover, which is part of The Blackstone’s initiative to showcase skilled artisans from a range of fields.”
KOVAL Distillery offers an array of spirits, but their bourbon is truly special. Their organic, single barrel bourbon is made with the necessary 51 percent corn. But instead of relying on rye or wheat for the rest of the mashbill, KOVAL Bourbon is comprised of millet, a gluten-free, ancient grain that is commonplace within the spirits industry in places like Nepal. After aging in American oak, the bourbon offers sweet, familiar notes, along with more robust flavors of American whiskey. Another current favorite is its Cranberry Gin Liqueur, which combines KOVAL Gin’s signature 13 botanicals with the bounty of the region’s cranberry farms. It’s a spectacular combination that tastes like a beautifully-mixed cocktail.
These spirits and more are all available for discovering when choosing The Blackstone’s Tapping the Barrel program, where guests get to enjoy a stay downtown, a trip to Chicago’s neighborhoods, music, history, culture, art and a few drinks. Go ahead and treat yourself to all of the above—it is a vacation, after all.