Ray Pearson, Whiskey Tours Curator
“Exotic” describes many aspects of Koval Distillery, Chicago’s first craft distillery since Prohibition. Consider the striking German-engineered potstill, custom made by Kothe Destillationstechnik, with its elongated whiskey helmet, or some of the unique grains the distillery uses, like millet and spelt; or a few names of their liqueurs, like Chrysanthemum Honey, Jasmine, and Rose Hip. The Koval name itself has a colorful background: in the Ukraine, a koval is a blacksmith, and the word also refers to a “black sheep”, or someone who does something out of the ordinary. Here’s where our modern-day kovals enter the picture. The distillery was started as a family business in 2008 by Robert and Sonat Birnecker – he originally from Austria, and she, a native Chicagoan – both leaving the comforts of academia to bring the distilling heritage of Robert’s Austrian grandfather to America.
All grains used at the distillery are sourced from organic Midwestern farms and Koval spirits are certified organic by the Midwestern Organic Services Association and kosher by the Orthodox Union. Water comes from Lake Michigan, using natural charcoal purification methods.
Robert, a Master Distiller, and Mark Desimone, Head Distiller, work closely together in comparing one cask’s contents with another. The whiskies are single-barrel distillations, so each release is unique, and never to be repeated. Sonat and Distillery Ambassador Meg Bell often offer their input, as well. Combine artisanal distillation with the rye and wheat whiskies being offered in three different maturation profiles (dark char cask, light char cask, and unaged), and you have a truly craft product – one of the Birnecker’s fundamental goals. Sonat explains, “Hand crafting everything from the grain to the bottle affords a lot of freedom and flexibility to do things in a unique way. We enjoy being able to offer a line of spirits that is full of surprises.”
Koval Distillery offers brandies, liqueurs, Eaux de Vie, vodka, and white whiskies. In 2010, they introduced Lion’s Pride Organic Whisky, aged in both dark char and light char versions, and available in rye, wheat, oat, millet, and spelt. These truly exotic whiskies, hand-crafted whiskies are unlike anything on the market, without influence from their distant Scotch or bourbon cousins. Each whisky’s mash bill is 100% single grain, and each variant is aged less than two years in new American oak barrels. Lion’s Pride uses no coloring agents, nor do they chill filter the final product. It is bottled at 40% ABV (alcohol by volume).
Again, in deference to Robert’s European heritage, Koval Distillery also makes Bierbrand, a beer-like spirit native to Germany and Austria, but nearly unknown to U.S. consumers. The base lager beer, (“wort”, in whiskey terms), is made with Vienna and Munich malts next door at Metropolitan Brewery, and distilled at Koval. “Exotic” knows no bounds!