Bottling Chicago’s spirit

By Amanda Murphy

When Sonat Birnecker Hart and her husband Robert decided to move to Chicago, they also decided to leave their careers behind in Washington, D.C. Birnecker Hart, a professor, and her husband, a press secretary for the Austrian Embassy, knew that they wanted a slower-paced life where they could walk to work and spend more time with their children. They knew they needed to start some sort of family business, but they couldn’t quite figure out what it would be. They didn’t discover their new calling until Sonat’s sister suggested the two follow in the footsteps of Robert’s family. So they took a leap of faith, moved to the Midwest and in 2008 opened Koval, 5121 N. Ravenswood Ave., the first distillery in the city limits of Chicago in almost a century.

With its increasingly stellar reputation as a culinary capital of the world, Chicago’s local distilleries follow in the footsteps of the restaurants and microbreweries that put the city on the map. Having popped up all over the Chicagoland area in the last five years, the distilleries are feeding its drinkers with handcrafted liquors unique to the second city. But more than providing city residents and visitors with spirits, distilleries provide a sense of community and another craft to take pride in.

“I think it’s great for Chicago to cultivate local, artisanal products of all varieties,” Birnecker Hart said. “When that happens and people do a great job, it’s something everyone can be proud of. With the wonderful craft beer and amazing chocolate we have in the city, it’s time for it to also have some great hard liquor, and we’re happy to provide that.”

But locally distilled liquor isn’t new to Chicago. Famous gangsters like Al Capone supplied the city with the much-appreciated illegal substance during the Prohibition era. And before that, there were a number of local distilleries. But after they closed to abide by Prohibition laws in the ’20s, the tradition slowly withered away along with the thrill of illegally drinking.

That was part of the excitement for Evanston’s Few Spirits master distiller, Paul Hletko, when he opened up shop in the suburb just north of the city. The town had long been known as a dry community, banning the sale of liquor until 1972. Even then, according to Hletko, there was only one restaurant that served alcohol, and it allowed only one beer to be purchased along with a full meal. Few Spirits made history when it opened its doors, selling the suburb’s first legal hard alcohol in close to one hundred years.

Hletko, who has been brewing beer at home for more than 20 years, said his drive to open his own distillery came from his grandfather. Before World War II, Hletko’s family owned a major brewery in the Czech Republic until the Nazi occupation. After the war ended and his grandfather reunited with his family who survived the Holocaust, he spent the rest of his life trying to get back the brewery that was taken from him. Trying to fulfill his grandfather’s legacy, Hletko decided the best way to honor him was by moving forward without looking back.

To learn the craft of distilling, which is more demanding and time-consuming than brewing beer, Hletko took classes at the Koval Distillery where he learned the secrets of making high-quality spirits. Now, six months into the trade, Few Spirits has already won numerous awards and recognition for its American Gin and White Whiskey and is carried in more than 70 bars, restaurants and liquor stores across the state.

“I think a lot of what we’re doing is bring ing back the feeling of hand-crafted spirits,” Hletko said. “We’re in the Chicagoland area, and we’re very proud of the city and where we are in the industry.”

A major reason the number of small distilleries in the country has grown from approximately 60 five years ago to more than 300 today was the reversal of out-of-date state and city laws. Birnecker Hart said when Koval first began, the distillery was able to make the spirits and provide tours to anyone who wanted to see it but was unable to sell its alcohol or give tourists samples on the premises.

“We had to go about a year-and-a-half without being able to sell or try it on location,” Birnecker Hart said. “[Customers] could come to our distillery and tour and then walk to a bar that served our stuff three blocks away. It was not the most convenient business operation,” she laughed.

So during that year-and-a-half wait, Birnecker Hart and her husband worked to change Illinois’ laws to allow distilleries around the state to be able to abide by the same rules as breweries and wineries. She said the rise in awareness of archaic laws around the country and their reversals has allowed for distilleries to more easily open their doors and operate. As a positive result, it has also allowed cities across the country to enjoy the delights of locally crafted spirits. The distillery not only creates its own liquor and offers classes to those who want to learn but also consults those who want to try their own hand at the business and travel across the country, helping them set up their operations.

“If you look at the trend nationally, five years ago there were very few craft distilleries in the U.S.,” Birnecker Hart said. “Since then, I think the number has tripled and will increase even more as time comes because we have people calling us all the time, asking for advice because they want to start a distillery.”

And it’s not only local distilleries and crafts they’re supporting,.Koval and Few also support local farms and native plants.

“It’s great to have something here that’s distinctly ours and belongs to us, and it’s made here from things that were grown here,” said Sonja Kassebaum, co-founder of North Shore Distillery in Lake Bluff, Ill, which also thinks local. “That’s one of those things that a distilled spirit gives. The possibilities are endless, so you can use local ingredients and do something that really represents the area and reflects the sophistication and diversity of the city.”

In addition to using grains from farms in Northern Indiana and Southeastern Wisconsin, Hletko tries to use as many locally sourced ingredients as possible, including hops that he grows in his backyard. Koval Distillery does the same and also makes it a point to support native plants. In January or February 2012, the business will unveil two limited release seasonal spirits using the Pawpaw and Sunchoke plants. Both flora are native to Illinois and will offer a unique, very Midwestern experience to the drinkers of the Pawpaw liqueur and Sunchoke Brandy.

Robert Hayncs, bar manager at the Violet Hour, 1520 N. Damen Ave., a bar known for serving some of Chicago’s finest and most creative cocktails, said he looks forward to seeing the effects of what the reputation of award-winning distilleries and highly rated cocktail bars does for the city’s growing culinary reputation. The best part of gaining recognition in the spirits world is having tourists come to the widely known bars, breweries or distilleries and taste the best of what Chicago and the Midwest have to offer. Giving credit to New York for paving the way for cocktail creators, he said Chicago offers something unique because of the adventurous steps bartenders and distilleries are taking.

“I think cocktails as a whole are becoming more popular around the country,” Hayncs said. “But I think in Chicago, there are a lot of people taking really different approaches to spirits. And I think now, a lot of people look toward our city for that.”

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