At Chicago’s Hotel EMC2, director of food and beverage Rebecca Royster is confronted with a constant procession of out-of-town guests with the same desire. “They want me to serve something they haven’t seen before,” she says. “And preferably, they’d like an artisanal product that’s made in Chicago and says something about the place.” Fortunately, Royster has a lot to show them. Many of the cocktails on EMC2’s beverage list are made with local brands like CH, Koval, and Journeyman. Her Piquant Martini ($14) features CH gin, Montanaro vermouth (from Italy), caper leaf, and a touch of extra virgin olive oil.
Such a menu would have been impossible just fifteen years ago, when there wasn’t a single distillery in the state of Illinois. Today there are around 30, mostly clustered in and around Chicago, and plenty more are in the planning stages. Once known for its loyalty to storied brands like Jim Beam and Smirnoff, the Windy City has embraced new names with a passion. Millennials crowd distillery tasting rooms on weekends and fill the aisles at the biggest retail chains, including the 38-store Binny’s Beverage Depot, which has made a point of stocking virtually every spirit produced in the state. “The quality of these local products is excellent, and our customers recognize that,” says Kari Mongold, general manager of the five-store Otter Creek Wine & Spirits in suburban Chicago, which stocks names like North Shore, Chicago Distilling, and Blaum Bros. Distilling.
Like many craft distillers nationwide, Chicago’s producers are still working to find distribution and an audience beyond their home marketplace. Some are selling to just a handful of states, while others depend on their own bars for a large chunk of their revenue. Nearly all would like to emulate the superstar of the Chicago pack, Koval Distillery, which opened on the city’s north side a decade ago with the nontraditional belief that people wanted their spirits produced not from corn, but from organic grains such as oats and millet.
Founded in 2008, Koval was Chicago’s first distillery since before Prohibition. It has flourished, distributing in 47 states and much of the rest of the world, including Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia, and South Africa. “We’re working on South America this year,” says president and co-founder Sonat Birnecker Hart, who was a professor of Jewish cultural history before she and her husband Robert Birnecker, also a former academic, jumped into the business.
Birnecker Hart credits some of her firm’s success to timing. “We were on the scene early,” she says. “And we didn’t bother with a restaurant or bar. From the outset, we were focused on selling around the world, as both my husband and I have international backgrounds.”
The couple also decided to pursue their own niches, and for Koval—which means “black sheep” in Yiddish—that has centered on alternative grains. The company’s oat whiskey and millet whiskey, each retailing at $45 a 750-ml., both contain 100% of those grains in their mashbills, and Koval Bourbon uses millet as a secondary grain. “Nobody else does 100% millet, and we were the only ones with a Bourbon mashbill with millet,” Birnecker Hart says. The company continues to experiment, with plans to introduce a whiskey distilled from nearby brewer Goose Island’s Matilda Belgian pale ale soon.
A year ago, Illinois reframed its definition of craft distilling to allow 100,000 gallons of annual production, up from 35,000 gallons previously. Koval may soon test that limit: It produced 70,000 gallons in 2017 and is growing at a 15% clip. It’s now set to expand its plant from the current 11,000 square feet to nearly 50,000 square feet, to be filled with new stills and fermenters, as well as a second bottling line.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is tiny Copper Fiddle Distillery in the northern Chicago suburb of Lake Zurich. Copper Fiddle was founded in 2012 by former golf pro Fred Robinson and his business partner and neighbor José Hernandez, an architect. They set up in an old warehouse with a single 13-gallon still and less than $200,000 in capital. The distillery operates on a small scale, and sold 600 cases last year, all of it in Illinois. To hype the business, Copper Fiddle hires bands to perform in the tasting room on weekends, entertaining as many as 80 visitors at a time.
Robinson is trying to forge a distinctive path for Copper Fiddle. His lineup currently features three gins, two rums, a Bourbon whiskey, and no vodka. “It makes us unique,” says Robinson. “When we were getting started, I noticed the vodka aisle at our local Binny’s was about half a mile long. The gin section you could throw your arms around.” The company’s Fyren Gin ($45 a 750-ml.) features classic gin botanicals but also includes a roasted serrano pepper that’s inserted directly into each bottle.
Though Koval may have been the first distillery in the Windy City since Prohibition, the true godfather of Chicago-area distilling is North Shore Distillery, which opened in 2004 outside the city limits in the northern suburb of Lake Bluff. Founded by former chemical engineer Derek Kassebaum and his wife Sonja, an attorney, North Shore was the first craft distiller in Illinois, introduced at a time when there were just 60 craft players nationwide. The couple developed their business by holding tastings at supermarkets and bars every weekend, and today they distribute to half a dozen states.
“We’re happy being a regional player,” says Derek. “We never set out to be really big—that wasn’t the lifestyle we wanted.” Among North Shore’s esoteric offerings are Sirène Absinthe Verte ($60 a 750-ml.), the second absinthe made in the U.S. after it was legalized a decade ago, and Ethel’s Eye of Newt Cordial (Ethel is the name of the Kassebaum’s still), made with mustard seed, turmeric, garlic, and damiana leaf ($36). “We don’t do me-too products here,” Kassebaum emphasizes. “Our limited releases are sometimes off the wall, but being a small company we don’t have to answer to anybody else.”
F.E.W. Spirits, one of the craft market’s national stars, is located in Evanston, just north of Chicago. “Chicago has been a great supporter of craft spirits like ours,” says Paul Hletko, F.E.W.’s president and master distiller. “In Delilah’s on Chicago’s North Side you have one of the great whiskey bars in the world. Scofflaw in Chicago is one of the very best gin bars anywhere. And the Binny’s chain employs one of the best spirits buyers you’ll find, Brett Pontoni, who’s been a staunch supporter of all the craft distillers in the area. There was a time when Brett had zero reason to care about F.E.W., but he has always cared and thus been instrumental in our growth.”
F.E.W.’s spirits range from traditional expressions with a twist to the more unusual. For instance, F.E.W. makes a Breakfast Gin ($35 a 750-ml.) with juniper, lemon peel, and Earl Grey tea. F.E.W.’s 46.5% abv Single Malt whiskey ($70) is made with malted barley that’s smoked with cherry wood rather than peat. “The cherry wood smoking ensures it won’t end up tasting like Scotch,” Hletko explains. “Single malt whiskey started as a novelty among American distillers, but it’s building in popularity now. It’s a coming trend.” F.E.W.’s Rye ($55) has a relatively traditional mashbill—70% rye, 20% corn, and 10% malted barley—but is made using a wine yeast imported from the Loire Valley that gives the product an unusual floral and fruity taste. Overall, the company sold 15,000 cases to 40 states last year, up from just 2,000 cases in 2014, with nearly 25% of sales coming from its home state. F.E.W. has plans for further growth and joined the craft spirits portfolio of Miami-based Samson & Surrey in 2016.
Distilling isn’t limited to the city and suburbs of Chicago. The city sits astride the nation’s breadbasket, and local distilleries have made a practice of sourcing their grains as close to home as possible. In that regard, nobody beats Whiskey Acres Distilling Co. in DeKalb. Launched in 2014, the distillery sits about an hour outside of Chicago, on the 2,000-acre family farm of co-founders and father-son duo Jim and Jamie Walter. The distillery gets all of its grains from the farm, where it grows more than a dozen varieties of corn.
Some 99% of all American Bourbon is made from yellow dent corn, but Whiskey Acres cultivates rare heirloom varieties such as the dark red Bloody Butcher and Glass Gem (often used for popcorn), and the Mexican varietal Green Oaxacan. Though each of them produces fewer bushels per acre than the classic yellow dent, they carry higher starch content and more weight, making for great Bourbon. These varieties are released as single batches, while the main Whiskey Acres Bourbon ($45 a 750-ml.) is made with several rare hybrids of yellow dent corn. The company ages its whiskey in a combination of 10-, 25-, and 53-gallon barrels. Later this year, the distillery will release a 5½ grain Bourbon, made from a blend of yellow dent corn, Oaxacan green corn, wheat, malted barley, rye, and oats.
The slogan at Whiskey Acres, where the tasting room overlooks the crops, is “seed to spirit.” COO and vice president Nick Nagele fervently believes that different varieties end up producing different-tasting spirits, and predicts that consumers eventually will become connoisseurs of grains in the same way they appreciate the differences in grape varieties. While visitors to the farm are beginning to catch on to this approach, Nagele and the Walters hope to find a wider audience. “We’re selling only in Illinois,” Nagele explains. “We have to build up our stocks and our portfolio so that when we’re ready to expand to other states, which could come later this year, we will have a reliable supply available.”
Some craft distillers have lofty goals for the future. Chicago’s CH Distillery, for example, sold about 12,000 cases last year and opened a new production plant in the city’s Pilsen neighborhood with the capacity to produce 100,000 cases a year. The distillery, now distributing to 13 states, wants to be fully national within a year, selling such offbeat products as its Aquavit ($27 a 750-ml.), Amaro ($30), and a coffee liqueur ($30) that’s made in partnership with a local roaster.
Charlie Solberg and his daughter Jenny Solberg Katzman opened Rhine Hall Distillery in Chicago’s Kinzie Industrial Corridor in 2013. Once a professional hockey player, Charlie fell in love with fruit eau-de-vie while playing in Austria in the 1970s, and eventually learned how to distill it. Today, Rhine Hall looks to spread Charlie’s enthusiasm for white fruit spirits to an American audience. The distillery makes apple brandy ($52 a 750-ml.), grappa ($56), and a wide array of other fruit brandies. “When we first started, a lot of people told us we couldn’t survive without making whiskey, gin, and vodka,” Jenny says. “I told them that plenty of other people are already making whiskey, gin, and vodka. We think our niche is a big advantage for us.” Indeed, Rhine Hall’s biggest seller is a mango brandy ($56).
At Fox River Distilling in the western suburb of Geneva, co-owner Mike Orlando, a former restaurant equipment salesman, boosts his business by offering tastings, tours, and special events, including birthday parties and corporate meetings. Along with his fellow owner and wife, Amy, he sells Herrington’s Gin ($33 a 750-ml.) and Bennett Mill Bourbon ($43) exclusively in Illinois, though he’s begun interviewing distributor candidates in other states. His great frustration is that suppliers—of everything from labels to bottles to caps—don’t take his fledgling business seriously, and routinely miss delivery dates.
Other Chicago-area distilleries are steadily expanding. Chicago Distilling Co., in the city’s Logan Square neighborhood, produced 10,000 gallons last year and is currently selling in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Arizona, with plans to expand into Florida, New York, and three more states later this year. The distillery’s Finn’s Gin ($30 a 750-ml.) is its best seller, though the company has started to can its own line of ready-made cocktails (about $15 a 4-pack of 200-ml. cans) that’s grabbing the attention of such retailers as ABC Fine Wine & Spirits in Florida. “Wholesalers in other states don’t necessarily want another vodka and gin,” says co-owner Noelle DiPrizio. “But the cans help open doors for us.”
A physicist by training, Derrick Mancini, the owner of Quincy Street Distillery in the south suburb of Riverside, nearly decided to go to Michigan before he opened up shop in 2012. A state license for distillers in Michigan is $100, whereas in Illinois it’s $2,000. Some municipalities charge a further $2,000 or more for a local license. “Illinois is not the worst place to do business, but it’s not the best either,” Mancini says. He does note, however, that the Chicago metropolitan area has a population estimated at 9.5 million, which gives distillers a great mass of target consumers.
The loosely organized Illinois Craft Distillers Association is lobbying the state legislature for new rules and laws. Since zoning ordinances in most places restrict distilleries to industrial districts, the group wants its members to be able to open satellite tasting rooms closer to retail centers. Craft brewers in Illinois are allowed to operate up to three separate pubs. The group is also asking that its tasting rooms be able to serve beer, wine, and other companies’ spirits, not just products made on site. That would enable distillers producing gin and vodka, for instance, to stock imported vermouths to make Martinis.
So far, the group is not asking for the right to self-distribution, something that small distilleries with limited manpower aren’t ready to tackle in most cases. The advances made by local craft distillers impress Austin Frieman, director of sales for the Legacy Spirits division of Heritage Wine Cellars—the northern Illinois distributor of Whiskey Acres, Koval, and Rhine Hall, among other craft distillers—yet he also understands their distribution dilemmas. “There has been a lot of consolidation in the distributor marketplace,” he says. “It’s tough for some of these guys to get a seat at the table of a big distributor for whom they may represent one-tenth of 1% of their sales.”
Kevin Fahey, the head mixologist at the Staytion Market & Bar in the Renaissance Hotel in Chicago, believes that local craft distillery volume is beside the point. He likes the reputation for the distinctive products Chicago’s distillers are forging. He sells Koval’s Oat whiskey ($15 a 2-ounce pour) more and more to his particularly adventurous guests. “Chicago’s craft distillers are making things outside the box,” he says. “I love to see that.”