CHICAGO’S FIRST NEW DISTILLERY IN A CENTURY IS A CELEBRATION OF URBAN RENEWAL AND CATEGORY IMPROVISATION
As a default setting, we celebrate New York City (and its surrounding area) businesses, but more broadly toast the ongoing renaissance of urban enterprise as a whole, and there is arguably no urban area in the U.S. (other than Detroit perhaps) that needs a bigger economic shot in the arm than Chicago. Recently downgraded by Moody’s Investors Service to junk bond status, poet Carl Sandburg’s metropolitan muse is badly in need of a resuscitation of its manufacturing base, and that is precisely the market hole that Koval Distillery aims to partially fill.
The first new city liquor manufacturer in more than 100 years, Koval (the word, in Yiddish, is something of a meeting ground of “black sheep” and “trailblazer”) is the brainchild of husband and wife team of Robert and Sonat Birnecker, and began when the two moved to the Windy City from Washington DC, in part to honor a storied booze making lineage. Robert is actually a fourth-generation distiller (his family still runs one in Austria) and was taught the craft by his grandfather, who inspired an almost fanatical devotion to proper sourcing. As result, Koval’s grain is certified both kosher and organic (all enzymes and yeast are too), and it only sources from the local Midwest Organic Farmers Cooperative. The business’s water, from Lake Michigan, is filtered using natural charcoal, and unlike many distillers who mix house-made product with blends from other manufacturers, all spirits in bottles from the Birneckers are made by them.
Given its tender years, Koval’s range of products is stunning, including a dry gin, vodka, straight whiskey, bourbon, and rye. The latter three are single-barrel-aged in 30-gallon charred kegs, and the last has an interesting distinction in that it is 100% rye-distilled (a great number of other makers use about 50% rye distillation formulas), a factor that contributed to it taking first place as “Best International Whiskey” at Europe’s 2013 Inter Whiskey Competition. The gin seen here is also a fascinating departure in many ways, made with a house variety of woodland spices, juniper (of course), and wild flowers. Its taste isn’t sweet, to be sure, yet is vibrant, grassy, and citrusy, with a wonderful note of pepper at the finish. Simply perfect for summer cocktails, just don’t drown its wondrous taste with too much tonic. L’chaim to urban makers!