Koval Tour: A Nice Night for a White Whiskey

By Patty Wetli | Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Koval's Lion's Pride is the first legally distilled whiskey in Chicago since Prohibition. Photo by Patty Wetli.

There’s a revolution brewing on Ravenswood. Well, not so much brewing as distilling.

Much like the recent explosion in the craft beer market, boutique distilleries are popping up across the U.S. Koval (5121 N. Ravenswood), founded in 2008 by Robert Birnecker and his wife Sonat, was the first to set up a still in Chicago, putting an Old World spin on this New World trend.

Leading a tour of the distillery on a rare mild April evening, brand ambassador Meg Bell explains that Koval was modeled along the European tradition of distilling, which is notable for producing a wider array of spirits using grains and fruits not typically found in American-made alcohols. Turns out, Robert Birnecker originally hails from Austria and is the grandson of distillers famous for their pear beer.

The difference in styles is immediately apparent when tasting Koval’s distinctive whiskeys and liqueurs. But let’s not rush ahead of Bell, who first offers visitors an overview of the distilling process, the equipment for which occupies a space not much larger than your average condo.

Everything starts as a grain, whether one of Koval’s white whiskeys, aged whiskeys or liqueurs. Here’s where Koval instantly sets itself apart by eschewing corn, the staple of most American whiskeys. “It’s been done,” Bell says of corn.

Koval's still features unique construction that allows spirits to develop greater aroma and flavor. Photo by Patty Wetli.

Instead, the distillery produces 100 percent “mash bills” — the grains that comprise the mash — from what Bell calls the three “forgotten” grains of rye, oat and wheat, along with millet and spelt, which have never before been distilled in the U.S. While passing around small containers of each grain, Bell notes that by using a single grain for each mash, as opposed to mixing two or more together, Koval ensures that the truest essence of each grain gets into the bottle. “We’re trying to let the grain do all the shining,” she says.

To make a mash, the grain is ground into a fine powder, mixed with water and organic enzymes, and then heated in a large vat. Though the vat was empty during the tour, Bell offered up this visual analogy: “It looks like oatmeal porridge.”

Once the gruel-like concoction starts bubbling, it’s pumped into fermentation tanks where it sits for four to five days while the yeast works its magic. At this point, according to Bell, the mash is closer to beer than whiskey.

Next stop is Koval’s still, specially built in Germany to accommodate whiskeys and liqueurs. Within the still, the mash goes from liquid to vapor back to liquid again, until it eventually winds up in the condenser and drips out into waiting containers.

Voila, that’s how you make whiskey.

Actually, that’s how you make poison. Bell warns against sampling the first drippings from the still, called “heads,” which aren’t fit to drink. Koval’s distillers, who include Robert Birnecker, Mark Desimone and Danny Maguire, collect small jars full of heads and dispose of them, gauging by the smell when the spirit is safe to drink. Heads, says Bell, emit an aroma similar to nail polish remover.

“Hearts” and “tails” follow heads. This is the stuff Jim Beam and Jack Daniels load into barrels and age for three or four years before shipping to stores around the world.

As you might have come to expect, Koval takes a different approach.

"Heads," which are dangerous to drink, drip from the condenser. Photo by Patty Wetli.

When the Birneckers started Koval, they couldn’t afford to sit on their whiskey and write IOUs to the bank and suppliers. A small family business can’t survive waiting for whiskey to age.

The solution: white whiskey. White whiskey, akin to vodka and gin, is bottled straight off the still, lacking the caramel coloring that aged whiskeys draw from their oak barrels, yet retaining more flavor from the grain. Koval’s varieties are tinged with notes of pepper, butterscotch and anise and have a definite that’ll-put-hair-on-your-chest bite. Some bars, Bell says, even use the distiller’s white millet whiskey, which happens to be gluten-free, as a substitute for tequila.

The white whiskeys also serve as the base for Koval’s line of liqueurs. Bell treated members of the tour to samples of coffee, orange blossom, ginger and chrysanthemum honey, the last of which would spice up your next brunch as an excellent, albeit adults-only, alternative to pancake syrup. A new apple brandy is set to debut this summer, after aging in whiskey barrels that previously held the company’s Lion’s Pride.

Lion’s Pride, Koval’s aged whiskey, contains only the “hearts” of the distillate. (Fun fact: Lion’s Pride is named after the Birneckers’ son Lion. His younger brother is Rye. Here’s hoping they draw the line at Spelt.) Lighter versions are aged in American oak barrels and dark versions are aged in barrels that have been heavily charred. In keeping with Koval’s organic designation, the variation in coloring comes solely from the barrels, as opposed to the caramel dye other distillers often add to their whiskey.

By using only the hearts, Koval weeds out the bitter, acidic flavors of the tails. The result is an incredibly smooth and mellow whiskey, like no other this taster has ever sampled. This is whiskey made to sip and savor.

Though gradually building a national name for itself — its spirits are now available as far away as New York and California — Koval concentrates most of its distribution in the Midwest. “Chicago’s been great getting us into bars,” Bell says.

Meg Bell serves up Koval samples during a recent tour. Photo by Patty Wetli.

But if you want to sample Koval’s entire line of spirits, including seasonal liqueurs, you’ll have to head to Ravenswood. The natural end point of the tour is a recently opened tasting room off the main distillery area—formerly Lion’s play room — the one location where Koval vows to maintain a complete supply of its offerings. “Laws were changed to get this tasting room,” says Bell, not exactly exaggerating.

Though still working in small batches, Koval’s production is up to 4,000 to 5,000 cases a year, whiskeys and liqueurs combined, with volunteers often recruited to assist with bottling, labeling and even peeling fruit for the liqueurs. (In addition to employees referenced above, office manager Jason Liechty rounds out Koval’s tiny staff.) That’s enough business to justify expansion into a sister facility across the street.

“Actually, it’s more like a big brother,” Bell says. “It’s three times the size.”

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