If you’re a fan of craft distilleries then you should raise your glass to Robert and Sonat Birnecker, preferably with a healthy measure of something from their KOVAL Distillery in Chicago. KOVAL was one of the first craft distilleries in the USA, and since they were founded in 2008 – which shows you how recently the craft distillery boom began – they reckon they’ve trained about one-third of the people who now run craft distilleries in the States.
‘When we started,’ says Sonat, ‘there was only one other distillery that we knew of. That was Anchor Distilling in San Francisco, and they’d grown out of the Anchor Steam Brewery, so you could say we were the first original craft distillery in the country. We were the first to open in Chicago since the 1800s. In fact it was all so new that we had to get the law changed in Illinois. At that time you couldn’t give distillery tours, you couldn’t do tastings. You rely on being able to retail to the customers. Knowledge about distilling was hardly there, and those who did know weren’t telling.’
Before 2008 the Birneckers were living in Washington DC, both with high-powered jobs. Sonat was an Associate Professor of European Jewish History and Robert was Deputy Press Secretary at the Austrian Embassy. They were commuting two hours a day till they asked themselves: Do we really want this lifestyle?
They decided they wanted to do something together, and move to Sonat’s home city of Chicago. ‘We decided to do what we knew,’ Sonat says. ‘Robert comes from three generations of distillers in Austria, and our families really encouraged us.’
The name Koval in Yiddish means a black sheep, or someone who does something unexpected and out of the ordinary. Sonat’s great-grandfather surprised his family when he decided to emigrate from Vienna to Chicago when he was only 17, in the early 1900s. As the Birneckers’ move was similarly unexpected, they called themselves KOVAL.
‘We didn’t want to copy anybody else,’ Sonat says. ‘We wanted our own identity and we wanted a new identity for American whiskey.’ To say they achieved this is an understatement, as a look at their long list of awards shows. Not only have they picked up countless bronze, silver, gold and even platinum awards, their Rye Whiskey was named Best International Whiskey in competition in Germany in 2013. They were also chosen as one of America’s Coolest Distilleries by Travel+Leisure and one of the 100 Best Distilleries to Visit in the World by Whisky Magazine.
KOVAL introduced a White Whiskey which re-invigorated the market for a drink that had had a long US tradition – George Washington distilled white whiskey – before bourbon took over. Now everyone makes a white whiskey. KOVAL also introduced a Millet Whiskey. Millet is a grain that’s widespread in Asia and Africa, and used to produce a spirit in Nepal, but no-one had ever made a whiskey from it before.
‘We like to use alternative grains,’ says Sonat. ‘We don’t like to use the usual suspects.’
Their Four Grain Whiskey combines oat, malted barley, rye, and wheat and is a hefty 94 proof. Despite this, it’s as smooth as silk, subtlety and delicacy of taste being features of all KOVAL’s spirits.
They use their White Whiskey as a base for making a range of unusual liqueurs, including Ginger (Gold, Silver and Bronze Medals), Chrysanthemum and Honey (Silver and Bronze Medals), and Rose Hip (Platinum Medal at the 2012 SIP Awards).
As well as several whiskeys, the Birneckers make vodka and various fruit brandies. And late July sees the US launch of their 47%ABV gin, already available in Europe. It has a gentle floral aroma and the signature KOVAL clean taste, not the kind of gin that hits you over the head with a sack of juniper berries. DC’s loss was definitely distilling’s gain.
5121 North Ravenswood Ave
Chicago, IL 60640
Phone: 312 878 7988
All Photos (c) KOVAL Distillery