A craft distillery seems to be getting it right despite the odds
Few Spirits, run by Paul Hletko in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, is based on a number of inconsistencies. He built a distillery in a town where prohibition ended in 1972 (40 years late) and where there is not a single bar, to this day. Further, Evanston was the home of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, one of the driving forces behind the “noble experiment.”
Oddly enough, the co-founder and longtime leader of the WCTU was Frances Elizabeth Willard, whose initial are – F.E.W.
I asked Paul if he named the distillery and brands after her. His response was no. He named it Few as in selective, as in small, as in a few products. Whatever the reason, he makes outstanding spirits.
An interesting entrepreneur
“All my life, I’ve tried to be a creative person.”
Before I tell you about the products, let’s spend a minute on Paul Hletko, who is not your typical startup distiller.
He has an engineering degree from Michigan and is also an attorney. Prior to founding Few, Paul had a career in music with a rock and roll band, a record label and a company focused on designing and building custom guitar effects pedals. None of it worked out.
That led his creative efforts to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather who owned a brewery in Europe before World War II. But, instead of beer, he decided to become a distiller who produces true farm-to-bottle products.
While many so-called craft distillers source their alcohol from industrial distilleries, Few is all about local ingredients – all grain used in his products (corn, wheat, rye and barley) comes from within a 100 miles (often closer) from his distillery.
In whiskies, Few produces a bourbon, a rye (outstanding) and a single malt whisky. All are exceptional products.
But, get this … Few makes three different style gins including Few American Gin, essentially an American genever with 11 botanicals; Few Barrel Gin, a gin aged in new and used bourbon and rye barrels; and, Few Standard Issue Gin, a gin that harkens back to traditional British navy gin at 114-proof. (See the recipe for a Ginhattan.)
I’ve sampled them all and, folks, this is what craft distillation is all about.
Aside from production issues, independent craft distillers face three tough hurdles – marketing, distribution and financial resources. Few Spirits seems to be handling them well.
Take marketing for example. In my experience, spirits startup entrepreneurs tend to be so in love with the chemistry, alchemy, their skills and recipes that they often neglect to focus on marketing and sales. I’ve written about some exceptions (Jackie Summers and Sorel Liqueur, Alison Patel and Brenne Whisky), so add Paul Hletko to the group. From concept to packaging to promotion, PR, social media, etc. – Paul knows what he’s doing. In fact, Paul travels all over the country promoting his products at tastings and at meet and greets. I met him in NYC last week at Whiskey Park.
Distribution is another obstacle. The large mainstream wholesalers will either not want to talk to you, try to become your partner, expect you
to buy your way in or, worst of all, take you in and let your brand gather dust. So, Paul has put together a “hodge-podge” distribution network that includes Blueprint Brands, a division of Great Brewers, craft beer distributors. From what I can tell, his potpourri of wholesalers seems to be working out.
As for financial resources, well, that’s none of my business. But from the look and feel of Few Spirits and it’s approach to brand building, I’d say they’re here for the long run.
Maybe he’ll change the name from Few to Many.