Chicago's Own Koval Distillery

April 22 2013 - 1:00 PM

What does it mean to be a black sheep? To refuse to conform? To peddle inebrients? To drop academic careers and begin a new life making spirits in a city without a single other distillery?

For Robert Birnecker and Sonat Birnecker Hart it means all of the above. Their Koval Distillery in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago may ostensibly take its title from the Yiddish surname Smith, but the pair find more than a little joy in its alternate translation as black sheep. While the distillery indeed sticks out from the flock, there is little chance any family would shun these careful crafters. As Koval rolls out a rebranded line of whiskeys, brandies and liquors this month and settles into their second, expanded distilling facility, the company shows no sign of slowing any time soon.

We Wanted a Different Lifestyle

Koval BarrelsEstablished in 2008, Koval Distillery is the story of a restless couple in search of a more rewarding life.

Living near Washington, DC, both commuted an hour to work each day – Sonat a professor and Robert a deputy press secretary at the Austrian embassy – with their social lives spread even thinner over a tri-state field. When Sonat became pregnant, the two decided a change was necessary. “It was Maryland for work, Delaware for dinner,” she says, lamenting the hectic business of their careers. “We wanted a different lifestyle… something with more walking.”

To some, settling down means moving to a quiet house in the ‘burbs and learning to conform, but to the Birnecker’s, a growing family instead meant the chance to make their own rules. For inspiration, the two turned to Robert’s Austrian heritage. Back home, his grandfather worked a still making eau de vie and brandy in the European tradition and they realized that this could be their path to greater freedom.

“Family businesses where everyone worked with their hands and worked to make things, went by the wayside when we moved to a cubicle lifestyle,” Sonat says. By opening a distillery of their own, the couple knew they could eschew paper pushing in favor of honest handiwork and trade daycare drop-offs for Bring your Child to Work Day everyday.

The City that Works

Koval 47th WardKoval is the first distillery to open in Chicago since prohibition and likely since before then as well; the Birnecker’s have only been able to find reference to a single producer near the start of the twentieth century and that run ended rather abruptly due to tax delinquency. Chicago instead holds a history as a distributor town and – with Al Capone as the face of it – an at times less than legitimate one.

So, when the couple turned to the city with their plan, Sonat says it was “not distrust, but a sense of, ‘No one has done this before. What do we do with you guys?’” The distillery laws on the books at the time dated from the 1930’s, but the city and state tread slowly and carefully to help get the business off the ground. Then alderman of the 47th ward, Gene Schulter, was especially helpful. “Chicago,” Sonat beams, “really is the city that works.”

When their doors opened, Koval and nearby North Shore Distilling were two of only a handful of microdistillers around the country. Unlike the wine and beer industries, craft spirits had no lobby and the bureaucracy was tilted out of their favor. Got a winery and want to give tastings? No problem. Adding a taproom to your brewery that sells growlers for customers to take home? Sure thing. Quarter ounce sample pours of your new liqueur? Illegal.

It took time and more patience, but the two Illinois upstarts gradually pushed through legislation to even the playing field. In 2010, Governor Quinn signed into law rules allowing onsite tastings and limited retail sales, and Chicago’s city council followed suit shortly thereafter. Koval’s own tasting room and store opened in 2011, and in 2013 the distillery began selling bottles at the Logan Square farmer’s market.

Craft can be Different

Koval Still“The big guys know what the customer wants” Sonat says, “and there’s nothing wrong with that.” But being a craft distiller allows Koval “a new way” to approach the market. “Craft can be different,” she continues. “Different in business model. Different in product. Craft is a way to be creative.”

And creative they are. Koval began distilling five single grain spirits when almost everyone else was distilling mixed mashes, and they avoided the industry standard corn in favor of oddballs like spelt and oat. The distillery operates under strict 100% organic and kosher guidelines and their whiskeys are made using only the flavorful middle cut – or heart – of the distillation to yield the cleanest and most delicate spirit.

The result is nuanced unaged whiskey showing none of the harshness characteristic of their Kentucky-born cousins. Distilled to reflect the pure soul of each grain, these white whiskeys are each windows into uncommon flavors. “We can offer something different,” Sonat says, “And tasty too!”

Koval LiqueursIn addition to the unaged whiskeys, Koval also makes a vodka, a rotating range of fruit brandies and unusually-flavored liqueurs like chrysanthemum-honey, jasmine, rose hip and caraway among others.

Flavor not Filter

A typical American whiskey comes off the still hot and spicy and contains oilier, dirtier varieties of alcohol that need to be mellowed by time in barrels. Straight bourbons and ryes are aged at least four years and even many brands’ entry level whiskeys have seen six to eight years in wood.

Koval’s whiskeys, though, are different. Since they are made to be drinkable straight from the still, the subtle flavors are at risk of being overwhelmed if they are aged too long. Using new oak barrels, Koval produces a number of slightly aged products, each about one to two years old. The philosophy is “flavor not filter:” a short aging allows the spirit to pull pleasant flavors and color from the wood without having the gentler notes from the distillation sucked out.

Koval’s experimentation with different barrel char levels as well as mixed grain mashes designed specifically for aging, though, has yielded nearly two dozen whiskeys and it recently became clear that they needed to reign things in. “Chicago will always have access to the bulk of everything,” Sonat says, easing minds of loyal locals, but the company has chosen to focus its wider distribution on six core whiskeys.

Koval Rebrand

The white rye will be Koval’s feature unaged whiskey, and this will be accompanied by aged versions of the single grain oat, millet and rye. Koval also is now focusing on two overproof (47% abv) mixed mash whiskeys: a brand new bourbon (made from corn and millet), and the Four-Grain (formerly called “47th Ward” and featuring rye, oat, wheat, and malted barley).

Koval’s Influence

Though only about five years old, Koval is one of the eldest on the block and their influence can be felt on many of the area’s other, newer producers. Besides paving the way and making the city and state’s laws more friendly, Koval’s distilling workshops have directly helped bring to life several other budding craft brands including Evanston’s FEW Spirits, Michigan’s Journeyman Distilling and Iowa’s Mississippi River Distilling Company.

Koval spirits are available now in 20 states, and select products will soon be entering Canada, Germany and even Austria where they will compete head-to-head with Robert’s family’s own line still in production there. Having proven their mettle here and across the country as a premier craft producer, Koval’s spirits are ready to come full circle and return to their roots.

Anxious to try some of Koval’s spirits? They offer regular tours with samples and they’ll be doing a number of tastings around town for Whisky Week. And if you can’t be bothered to go out to drink, then stay home and mix up a Wry Pamplemousse featuring Koval’s white rye.

Images courtesy the Koval Facebook Page.