Koval Distillery: Chicago's First (and Still Only) Distillery Since Prohibition

June 03 2011 - 4:05 PM

006Above the radar and in business since 2008, I almost thought there may be nothing to cover by paying a visit. On the contrary, there was so much this little Ravenswood-based distillery had to offer that a one-hour visit could not do this place justice.

Meg Bell, the Brand Ambassador gave me the grand tour of the facility, and started by explaining that distilling traditions were lost as a result of Prohibition, before which there were over 2000 distillers.  After Prohibition, that number dwindled to twenty.  For many years, Americans relied on few sources of imported spirits, depending on Scotch, some Cognac, and lots of inferior domestic whiskey, such as Schenley and Old Hickory.

Founded by Austrian native Robert Birnecker, this place pumps out twenty-six different kinds of spirits. When I was there they were in the process of releasing an apple brandy that was “double-aged”, having spent six months in light and charred oak barrels. It was a nice spirit with a clean taste, somewhat lighter than the French Calvados apple brandy.

Meg explained to me the entire distillation process, which starts with the acquisition of the grains, which predominantly originate from a mill in Kansas that processes grains from organic farms. The grains are mashed and then soaking them in water, starting the breakdown of starches into sugars, creating wort. Unlike many distillers, the grains are not malted, providing a truer representation of the grain, which is combined with organic enzymes to crack the sugars open during the mashing process. This is followed by the fermentation, whereby sugar is converted into alcohol by adding yeast.

The last stage, distillation, is the point at which the mixture goes first through a pot still, followed by three distillations in a column still, bringing it to the point where it is over 190 proof. As the liquid comes out, there are three products: heads, hearts, and tails, with the heads as the beginning and tails as the end. The heads are undrinkable and are often thrown out.   Hearts are the core and are used in spirits, but many distillers mix the tails and hearts, partially because they barrel age the spirits much longer, leaving time to mellow the nuances of the tails.  In Koval’s case the tails are distilled another four times, making it distilled a total of eight times, and often used in the production of liquer.

Their white whiskeys are considered their flagship product, and they offer organic whiskeys from different grains.  We started with the Rye Chicago, a soft spirit that had a hint of vanilla. The Midwest Oat whiskey was a tad sweeter, though perhaps my favorite was the millet, a popular grain in Nepal and South Africa,with a bit of a sharper taste. Last, there was the spelt, a Persain grain with a somewhat milder aroma and taste. 009

We then moved on to the Lion’s Pride, a group of spirits aged in thirty-gallon oak barrels. Each set of grains (rye, oat, wheat, millet, and spelt) had both a regular and dark Lion’s Pride. The regular is toasted barrel, but the dark is a charred barrel, the difference being that the inside of a barrel has been burned longer in a charred barrel. Due to this being a distillery, I had to be selective about my samplings, so I didn’t get through the whole lineup.

The dark rye had notes of vanilla, toast, and carmel (from the barrel aging), as well as pineapple, guava, and passion fruit.   I found the dark wheat sharper, with more acid and citrus notes.  It was grainier and a bit dryer. The oat was sweeter, mellower, with hints of roses and herbaciousness.

I finished up by taking a sip of the jasmine spirits. Due to the vast product selection (they had on hand rose hip, jasmine, crysantemum, ginger, coffee, and orange blossom) I wasn’t able to get through the entire selection.

Koval is currently distributed in twelve states with plans to expand. As the product offerings continue to evolve and change it will be interesting to see what lies in store.

–Brian Ziegler