Tucked away on a tree lined street just steps away from the Metra is Koval Distillery, the first craft distillery established in Chicago since Prohibition. Sonat and Robert Birnecker gave up strong academic careers to pay homage to the distilling techniques and traditions of Robert’s Austrian grandfather by bringing them to America. Koval Distillery is organic, kosher, family owned and operated, and was voted one of “100 Best Distilleries to Visit in the World” by Whisky Magazine. And I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to discover why!
Standing prominently in the first of two large spaces are two beautiful, smooth, unhammered copper potstills handcrafted in Germany by Kothe Kestillationstechnik. Their elongated whiskey helmets, distillation columns, and special bubblecap construction provide greater surface area for spirits to develop aromas and flavors. All spirits at Koval are distilled in small batches from 100% organic grain grown in the Midwest. Having been to a multitude of wineries, there was something magical about seeing these copper potstills, understanding the process, and inhaling the aromas of the finished product. I was appreciative of yet another technique which is centuries old!
Five white whiskeys among others are available for tasting and I chose to taste three. Rye Chicago was peppery and even floral and I was reminded that our first President, George Washington, distilled a rye whiskey at Mt. Vernon!! (I wonder how that fact would play out in this election year!?) The Midwest Wheat had bananas on the nose and palate and American Oat, my favorite, was smooth and aromatic with pear and fig notes on the finish. To add some depth to a cocktail, this may be an effective substitute. Other choices included Raksi Millet which is gluten free and Levant Spelt which honors a grain originating from the Middle East.
Lion’s Pride Organic Whiskey collection is named after Sonat and Robert’s oldest son, Lion. Aged under two years in new American oak barrels, these whiskeys include Dark Rye, Dark Oat, Dark Millet, Dark Spelt, and Dark Wheat. My hands down favorite (and I’m a wine lover, for goodness sakes, so what’s up with this?!) was the Dark Rye which was light with aromas and tastes of sugar, maple syrup, and spice. Another part of the collection, 47th Ward (named after the Ward where the distillery is located) is a four grain blend bottled single barrel…and at 94 proof ~ who is the Alderman again??!
Of course the visit wasn’t finished until the liqueurs were presented – amazing! Using a base of organic single grain white whiskey and organic fruits, herbs, and flowers these 40 proof liqueurs are fresh and aromatic. I loved the Ginger Liqueur with its unique flavor which could be mixed with gin, vodka, or tequila for a delicious cocktail. Other choices include Rose Hip, the popular Chrysanthemum Honey using organic Wisconsin honey, Jasmine which could be blended with floral cocktails, Orange Blossom, Caraway with its anise and herb notes, and Walnut. Not just for an aperitif or after dinner sip, these liqueurs can be integrated into some unique cocktail surprises.
Robert Birnecker is not only the Master Distiller but an innovator and a teacher who travels and instructs others in the craft. He was raised in the business of spirits and those of us in Chicago are fortunate to be the home of the organic and kosher Koval Distillery which distributes to eighteen states.
The name Koval is Yiddish for “blacksmith” yet can infer “black sheep” or someone who does something unusual or unexpected. Sonat’s great grandfather at 17 years emigrated from Vienna to Chicago thus earning the nickname “Koval”. Schmid, German for “Smith” is the surname of Robert’s grandfather. The couple chose Koval as the name of the distillery to honor these two important family members.
But Sonat and Robert have done something unexpected themselves – they left lucrative positions in their former jobs in a different city to follow their passion and build a thriving family business in the city they love. Koval. L’Chaim!
5121 N. Ravenswood
Chicago, IL 60640