Chicago’s First Distillery Breaks All Rules

Koval Distillery

Chicago hadn’t been home to a distillery for over a century before KOVAL opened in 2008. But when KOVAL debuted, they didn’t just focused on making great spirits. They also decided to make their spirits organic, Kosher and all by hand.

We talked to Becky Schultz, Communications Coordinator at KOVAL Distillery about their groundbreaking distillery and why they’re taking risks when it comes to flavor and texture.

QUESTION:
You’re Chicago’s first distillery since the mid-1800s. Can you tell us a bit about what that means for you (and why did it take so long for a distillery to open there!)?

BS: There are a few reasons Chicago wasn’t home to a distillery. The first was for legal reasons, which is why Sonat Birnecker Hart (KOVAL President and Co-Founder) had to lobby in Springfield in order to retail our products on site and allow for samples of our products to be given during tours. The second was, most simply because the craft distilling industry wasn’t as prominent as it is today. When we started, there were around 60 small-batch distilleries around the US. Now, there are close to 800.

We wouldn’t want to produce spirits anywhere but Chicago. A city that was built on industry, we’re proud to be part of its new modernization. While the city is starting to welcome more technology companies and innovative practices, we’re introducing modern practices inspired by generations of distilling knowledge. It’s an amazing place to be.

QUESTION: Can you talk a bit about the name Koval and why you chose it for your company?

KS: KOVAL translates to “blacksmith” in some Eastern European languages, but it also means “black sheep,” or someone who forges ahead, in Yiddish. Sonat’s great-grandfather earned the nickname Koval when he left Vienna for Chicago as a teenager to start a business—ironically not far from where our distillery is located today. Robert’s great-grandfather’s last name was “Schmid,” German for “Smith,” so KOVAL was chosen both as a way of honoring both sides of the family.

Because Robert and Sonat left their careers to move to Chicago and work together to create something from scratch, the name KOVAL speaks to their story as well.

QUESTION:
Why did you decide to work with local farmers for the grain? Was it a conscious decision about keeping things local or something else?

KS: KOVAL aims to create the cleanest, freshest products on the market, and that starts with using the best grains available. Luckily, the Midwest is home to a wonderful co-op of organic farms, and we’re proud to work with them.

QUESTION: What other choices have you made that impact the way you buy ingredients/produce your spirits?

KS: Every choice we make in the distilling process (from grain to bottle) is intentional. One of unique choices we’ve made is only to use the “heart cut” (the purest cut) of the distillate in our products. It allows for a smoother, cleaner product without the “bite” you might taste when parts of the tales cut are mixed in.

QUESTION: All your whiskeys are single barrel. Can you tell our readers what that means and why you chose this method?

KS: Every bottle of KOVAL has a barrel number on the back label, indicating which individual barrel that whiskey was aged in. We don’t reuse any of our barrels, and each bottle is filled with the contents of only one barrel (nothing is blended). This method not only allows for consistency with flavor and color, but it also allows the consumer to track down not just the barrel it was aged in, but the original shipment of grain that was used to create it as well.

QUESTION: Can you tell us a bit about your millet whiskey? Why millet and what makes this whiskey so special and different?

KS:
Millet is an ancient grain and is often used to make spirits in Nepal. However, KOVAL is the first distillery to use it to make a whiskey. Because its a lighter cereal grain, it allows for notes of nut and vanilla with a bright finish. Millet is also mashed with corn in our Bourbon.

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Diana Bocco is a writer and author who writes for Yahoo!, the Discovery Channel website, Marie Claire, Poplar Mechanics, and more. You can find more about her work on her website dianabocco.com.

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