Chicago didn’t need Prohibition to earn its reputation as a boozy town, but it certainly helped.
Nonetheless, one thing Prohibition—America’s greatest failed experiment in social engineering—accomplished was shuttering the distilling industry in Chicago, just as it did in most of the country’s urban centers. The revival of the industry had to wait several decades, as did the rise of craft spirits. Still, when it did get going, Chicago found itself at the forefront with two of the nation’s key early craft distillers: FEW Spirits and KOVAL.
Both are best known for their lines of whiskeys, but that isn’t all they make. In a story that’s common to American craft distilling, the pair of distilleries made other spirits while building up their inventory of aging whiskey. In the case of KOVAL, those other spirits draw on the background of co-founder Robert Birnecker, whose family has a history of distilling in Austria.
FEW takes particular pride in its Chicago roots, with its label imagery drawing from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Back in 2012, the distillery was among the first to move from its regular gin, Breakfast Gin, and press the idea of barrel-aged gin in the marketplace, marking it as a leading innovator in the craft scene. Aged in a mix of new oak, ex-bourbon, and ex-rye barrels, FEW’s Barrel-Aged Gin offers a means to taking traditional whiskey cocktails and using gin instead.
Founder Paul Hletko, who is former president of the American Craft Spirits Association and still an active leader in the national craft spirits scene, takes some satisfaction in what has happened with his industry in Chicago since he fired up his still. “Chicago has continued to develop into a great craft spirits scene. We have some of the best distillers in the world here. It is a great city, with easy access to water, and easy access to grain and fruit. Our food scene is second to none!”
Like FEW, KOVAL has a gin, a cranberry-infused gin, and a barreled gin, but drawing on Birnecker’s Austrian experience, it also makes brandy and a line of liqueurs. The main four at present are Coffee, Ginger, Chrysanthemum & Honey, and Rose Hip. The Chrysanthemum & Honey is step up from honey bourbon liqueurs in hot toddy cocktails, and the Rose Hip is a perfect candidate to play around in mixed drinks.
Commenting on the scene that has grown up around them in Chicago, KOVAL co-founder Sonat Birnecker says, “When we started, we were the only distillery in Chicago. As soon as we changed the law to allow for consumer tours, tastings, and retail on-site, we saw the landscape change to welcome a wide variety of distilling operations—many production as well as bar distilleries. While we focused on a distribution model for the past 11 years, we plan to make full use of the law we helped get passed by finally adding a bar to our distillery in 2020.”