Photo Credit: Koval
I admit that I’m easily confused. Still, I have a pretty good working knowledge of alcohol, so I wasn’t expecting to be confounded by Chicago’s new “boutique” distillery called Koval. I had heard they were crafting whiskeys, brandy and vodka in the exact same building Metropolitan’s been brewing in, so it was a no-brainer to write something on them as part of my Chicago brewery series. But when I began investigating their spirits, I soon found myself in that familiar confused state, holding up a slim clear bottle of Koval’s Chicago Rye and scratching my head. Whiskey is brown, I told myself, aged to perfection in wood barrels and wallowing in smoky, peaty goodness. How the hell is this clear bottle 100% rye whiskey? It was when I tasted this special grain alcohol that my confusion morphed into frantic curiosity. Koval’s spirits were officially like nothing I’d ever had before and it was being crafted in my hometown! Let the obsession begin.
Koval is owned and operated by Sonat and Rob Birnecker. Sonat is a Chicago native and Francis Parker School graduate who spent a decade traveling and teaching in Europe. Rob is from Austria and was raised in an acclaimed distilling family before working for the Austrian Embassy. It was only with the arrival of their baby boy that the two decided to settle into the family business and bring a tradition as old as dirt to our privileged city. Their story is no doubt a fascinating one, almost as fascinating as the spirits they’re producing.
I clarified my confusion at Koval’s intimate and casual distillery tour where their gorgeous steam punk still is displayed in shining copper and steel. Rob does all the distilling personally, creating organic and kosher spirits from carefully chosen grains like Midwestern wheat, millet, spelt, oats and other obscurely familiar words usually read on a Sara Lee label. Because they do not age their spirits in barrels they must rely on the pure taste of the grain and alcohol itself without all the flavor-masking that our Kentucky friends impart with their barrels and casks. But don’t be fooled, there’s plenty of taste in these honest spirits and each one leaves a distinctive essence that can be only described as earthy. It’s like nothing else you’ll likely find in your liquor store at the moment, and while spirits like this are very common in Austria and parts of Europe, it’s a dead art in the U.S. (murdered by prohibition) that’s slowly finding revival through small craft distilleries like Koval. If this sounds exclusive or expensive fear not, Koval is found in liquor stores all over the city, their spirits ranging from $35 -$40 a piece and their liqueur’s costing $20-$25.
Yes, I said liqueur, that nasty overly sweet substance they dump in your fancy cocktail to disguise the well vodka. I naturally scoffed at Koval’s line of liqueur at the tour’s tasting, quite confident my palate was above that candy crap. Confusion clouded my brain once more when I tasted their subtle Rose Hip liqueur and the surprising bite of their Ginger liqueur. The explanation is that they mash their organic fruits, infusing them with their alcohol instead of just squirting artificial flavors into the alcohol after the fact. I can see the Chicago mixologists now, tirelessly composing signature Koval drinks like mad scientists (check the newest hip cocktail menu near you, chances are it’s already there).
Part of the responsibility that comes with loving your city is purchasing the locally made items that make it so distinct. Koval might as well get its own chapter in this philosophy. Nestled in the retail and residential corridor of Ravenswood, they are creating a Chicago craft product side by side with Metropolitan that relies on Chicagoan’s refined predilection for support. These people are laboring to return a rich foreign tradition to our town and have done so with sustainable responsibility and care that surely comes through in their product. Plus it’s damn tasty. Buy it, tour the site, tell your friends, let them share in the confusion. Confusion never tasted so good.
5121 N Ravenswood
Tours are available for $10. Visit koval-distillery.com for tour dates.