Koval Distillery: Black Sheep of Booze

Chicago’s first distillery since the mid-1800s

 

KOVAL-5

The word Koval means “blacksmith” in many Eastern European languages. In Yiddish, the word also refers to a “black sheep” or someone “who forges ahead”…or, someone who does things that are out of the ordinary.

I can’t think of a better description of the company founded in 2008 by the husband and wife team of Robert and Sonat Birnecker. Both came to Chicago from Washington DC and gave up successful careers to start a family owned business that paid homage to their grandfathers. One was considered a black sheep of his family for leaving Austria to become a Chicago businessman and the other was a distiller whose last name was Schmidt which is German for Smith, as in blacksmith.

That grandfather, by the way, was the person who taught Robert the art of distillation.

Kothe Still
Kothe Still

Koval Distillery is more than just a craft distiller. Much more.

What makes them special?

Let’s start with Robert Birnecker’s background. He’s a 4th generation distiller whose family still runs a distillery and winery in Austria. So, you can safely say that he combines traditional techniques with contemporary equipment.

This is a true craft distillery making grain to bottle products. The grain is certified organic and sourced from the Midwest Organic Farmers Cooperative. The water is from Lake Michigan using a natural charcoal purification method. All the enzymes and yeast are also organic. To top it off, all their products are certified Kosher by the oldest and most trusted certification body.

But wait, there’s more.

Unlike some distillers who purchase or bottle premade spirits, Koval makes its organic spirits from scratch and using only the “heart” cut of the distillate for a cleaner whiskey taste. All of the whiskies are single barrel and aged in 30 gallon charred barrels. In fact, each of the bottles identifies the barrel number from which it came. They control every step of the production process.

The Products

Koval Whiskey products
Koval Whiskey products

So far I’ve tasted three of their whiskies – Bourbon, Four Grain and Rye. Sensational. The mashbill of the Four Grain is oat, malted barley, rye and wheat and it’s smooth as silk. The Bourbon is aged under four years and tasted smoother than products I’ve had that are twice as old. Most of all, I loved the Rye whiskey.

When I interviewed Sonat Birnecker, I told her how much I liked the rye and how different it tasted from most ryes I’ve had. She called my attention to the back label, which indicated that the product contained 100% rye. Many ryes on the market are 51% (which is the minimum amount necessary to be called rye whiskey) plus other ingredients (usually corn or malted barley).

In fact, what you see and read on their ‘transparent’ label is what you get. No coloring, no added ingredients, no neutral grain spirits, no nothing but what you are paying for.

By the way, their Rye Whiskey was awarded 1st place at “Best International Whisky” at Europe’s 2013 InterWhisky Competition. Who said I didn’t have good taste?

The Master Distiller

I have not as yet met Robert Birnecker but from what I’ve heard or read, he is a distiller’s distiller.

I found this about him on the Chicago Sun Times website:

The Birneckers are the stateside and English-speaking representatives of Kothe, the German still-maker responsible for the copper behemoth eating up their warehouse space. With that job, the couple’s workshops and their craft-distilling consulting business, Sonat estimates that the pair have advised one-third of the craft distillers that have opened in the U.S. and Canada in the past five years.

Yes, that’s right, in addition to running Koval, Robert and Sonat consult and teach distillation. Robert is also a key lecturer at the Siebel Institute in Chicago. Among the distilleries he has helped set up stills are Journeyman Distillery in Michigan and Few Spirits in Illinois (see my earlier blog post on Few). These are top of the game craft distillers, I might add.

Other products

KOVAL_2014-Millet Web
Millet Whiskey

In addition to the three whiskies I mentioned earlier, Koval also makes Oat and White Rye products. Interestingly, they

Koval Gin
Koval Gin

produce a whiskey I’ve never heard of before – Millet Whiskey, described on their website as, Millet is a prized grain in Asia and Africa and popular base for spirits in Nepal, though this is the first whiskey to be made out of millet.”  Definitely on my ‘must try’ list.

There is also Koval Dry Gin, which my friends in Chicago think is the best on the planet. Here’s how Koval describes it…  Made with a unique variety of woodland spices… Juniper and wildflowers envelop the nose, while the taste is dry, yet vibrant – clean and nuanced by emerald grasses, golden citrus, and white pepper with a round, floral body.

Finally, there is a line of seven liqueurs ranging from the expected (coffee, ginger) to the exotic (orange blossom, rose hip, chrysanthemum and honey, caraway, jasmine).

Marketing

At the risk of offending my craft distiller friends and readers – most craft distillers are outstanding at production but very few seem to realize that there is a consumer at the other end of the bottle. Koval gets it.

Their labeling, or should I say award winning package design, speaks to the product and it’s craft/artisanal composition. As I mentioned, the label tells you which barrel it came from and what it’s distilled from.

The website is top notch, easy to navigate and easily lets you know where you can buy it locally or online.

They understand consumers and how to break out of the clutter with excellent PR and very highly praised distillery tours. They even have a barrel program in which you select the barrels and it’s customized to a store, bar, restaurant or even an individual. (Unfortunately, you have to buy the 25 to 30 cases that comprise the barrel. I’m saving up for it. Maybe a Kickstarter campaign?)

They are also available internationally in Europe and Japan.

*           *           *

Koval Distillery is a company in the finest tradition of the spirits industry. A company where they care about what they produce and how they produce it… where tradition and heritage are embraced and built upon… where state-of-the-art is not marketing hype. Above all, this is a company that’s here for the long run and building for the future.

There aren’t many like them these days.

Koval Liqueurs
Koval Liqueurs
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FEW Spirits: Contradictions Result in Excellence

A craft distillery seems to be getting it right despite the odds

FEWSpirits_logo_bwFew 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

Paul Hletko of Few Spirits
Paul Hletko of Few Spirits

“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.

The products

FEW Rye Whiskey
FEW Rye Whiskey

In whiskies, Few produces a bourbon, a rye (outstanding) and a single malt whisky. All are exceptional products.

Recipe: Few Barrel Gin, Vermouth, Bitters
The Ginhattan recipe: Few Barrel Gin, Vermouth, Bitters

 

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.

The Challenges

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

Paul Hletko and Ian Goddard of Blueprint Spirits at Whiskey Park
Paul Hletko and Ian Goddard of Blueprint Spirits at Whiskey Park

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.

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Altaneve Prosecco

A distinctive product deals with marketing challenges

Sparkling Wine in the US has grown twice as fast as the overall wine category over the past five years. Within sparkling wine, the non-champagne segment accounts for over 90% of sales (See earlier post on Booze Business) with prosecco leading the charge.

In fact, in a recent article in Shanken News Daily:

“The Prosecco DOC Consortium recorded a 34% increase in exports to the U.S. market in the first half of 2014, with volume reaching 1.27 million cases.” 

In effect, prosecco has challenged champagne for the top of the sparkling wine domain. In so doing, prosecco has changed the occasions for drinking sparkling wine. While champagne is for celebrations and special occasions, prosecco is for everyday and any time. Further, at $12 to $15 per bottle, prosecco has an advantage for everyday use.

But, just as there are $12 bottles of wine as wells as $20, $30 even $40 still wines, can an upmarket prosecco capture a significant share of that market?

Enter David Noto with Altaneve Prosecco

David Noto
David Noto

It’s quite an interesting story. David’s family has been making wine for 10 generations in Italy and he grew up with a passion for prosecco, particularly the high quality end. So he changed his career from engineering and finance technology and brought this product to market a few years ago.

According to David, “The US market is not deeply familiar with the broad range of prosecco, so we felt it was time to introduce the best.”

In addition, the brand has an interesting story to tell. Altaneve means high snow in Italian and is a reference to the snow capped peaks of the Dolomite Mountains that can be seen from the vineyards in Valdobbiadene where the prosecco is produced. The production facility is the second oldest in the town where the production of prosecco dates back to 200 BC.

In short, Altaneve has it all, provenance, terroir, heritage and high quality. Taste? I’m a huge prosecco fan and, while I’m far from a connoisseur, I think it’s the best tasting prosecco I’ve ever had. It’s versatile (any occasion with or without food), and unlike other

Presecco production area
Presecco production area

prosecco I’ve had, it’s consistent from bottle to bottle.

Altaneve sells for roughly $29.99 a bottle and therein is the problem.

The marketing challenge

I suppose it’s because the prosecco category in the US market is still in its infancy. Or, maybe the current image for the category is that it is generally low in price. As a result, David faces an uphill battle getting the message across that high end prosecco is worth the price. After all, all wine categories segment by price, why not this one?

I can understand the consumer reluctance to trade up. The category is still evolving and they came to it originally for an inexpensive alternative to champagne, so why pay for top shelf. That perception will change gradually over time but for producers like David Noto, accelerating a change in perception will take marketing muscle and lots of money. Altaneve is a startup brand.

The hesitation by the trade (especially bars and restaurants) is baffling to me. The mark up and profitability from Altaneve would make the brand more than worthwhile. Yet, the reluctance to change, to accept a segmentation of the prosecco category, not to mention lack of knowledge, all make it an uphill battle. To me, it defies logic.

Bottle_5I guess the bright side is twofold. First, slowly but surely, better retailers like Sherry Lehmann and important chains like Capital Grille are stocking Altaneve. Then there is David Noto himself. If you’re a follower of this blog, you know I often write about startups and the entrepreneurs behind them. Add David Noto to the list of passionate, smart and committed.

As to the Altaneve product itself, try it and let me know what you think. Unfortunately, it currently is only available in NY, NJ and CT, but also online. I’m betting you’re going to love it.

While you’re at it, check out what Wine Spectator had to say about Altaneve, as well as other info from their Facebook page.

Altaneve products
Altaneve products
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