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.

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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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