Drink Up: Koval Distillery Will Have you Re-Thinking Whiskeys

Koval Barrels at Koval Distillery in Chicago

Koval Barrels at Koval Distillery in Chicago

Truth be told, whiskey isn’t my drink of choice. But I grew up with a grandfather who seemed to have a whiskey in his hands every time I saw him and a former boss who would order a Maker’s Mark and a coke in a tall glass every time we entertained clients so I would enjoy a sip or two every now and again. Koval might just have changed my opinion of whiskey.

Koval Distillery is a Chicago-based boutique distillery and the first to legally produce whiskey in the city (or state of Illinois, for that matter) since the abolition of Prohibition in 1933. It’s a boutique operation founded in 2008 by husband and wife team Robert and Sonat Birnecker. Both Robert and Sonat have impressive academic and professional backgrounds and Koval’s staff bios reveal an equally impressive and well-rounded team that can only add to its knowledge base.

Kristine, Koval’s Midwest Market Manager, gave our group a sneak peek into their operation this week.

Kristine from Koval Distillery preparing to pour Megy a tasting of Koval Organic Whiskey Spelt

Kristine from Koval Distillery preparing to pour Megy a tasting of Koval Organic Whiskey Spelt

Koval’s batches are tiny, 10 gallons each in their barrels which produce about 50 bottles. They are bottled without aging and minimal barrel time. For example, Lion’s Pride, in “regular” and “dark” versions, both age less than two years and vary in color due to the types of barrels used.

Koval uses organic, single grains, and not just your typical wheat and rye, but grains like oats, millet and spelt, to make its booze. Most of its grains used to process the whiskeys are from Kansas.

In fact, keeping it as local as possible is important to the operation, from the grains to the wood for the casks. Lion’s Pride Organic Whiskey is aged in new American Oak barrels from The Barrel Mill in Minnesota. The wood for each barrel is carefully selected for the fineness of its grain and its tannin content, then examined before and after being cut by a highly skilled cooper. Koval Distillery only uses the barrels once and makes the barrels available for sale afterward. According to Kristine, barrels have gone to homes that use them as furniture pieces or garden planters or restaurants who use them as part of their restaurant décor.

Although Koval is becoming well known for its range of boutique and traditional American whiskies, it also crafts a large range of fruit based liqueurs, brandies and eaux de vie which are inspired by Robert’s grandfather, the person from whom Robert learned his craft from his native Austria.

Koval Whiskey Taste Testing

Koval Whiskey Taste Testing

From Lion’s Pride Organic Whiskey Spelt to Midwest Wheat Whiskey, we tasted six types of whiskey and each had such a distinct flavor to them. I pointed out the names of these two in particular because while each is very different in terms of smell and flavor, I thoroughly enjoyed them. Some people shy away from whiskeys because they feel they are overpowering and that’s part of the reason I hesitate from ordering one when the opportunity arises. Koval’s whiskeys have me reconsidering my hesitation and will no doubt find myself enjoying a whiskey in the summer sun sooner than later.

Koval Whiskey Taste Testing

Koval Whiskey Taste Testing

Interested in a taste test? Koval Distillery offers workshops and tours at its Chicago-based Ravenswood neighborhood space. Tours take place every Wednesday at 7pm, Saturday at 1, 3 and 5pm and on Sundays at 2pm and 4pm. For those who want a more intimate and in-depth experience, the whiskey workshop might be more your speed.

If you can’t make it to Koval’s space in Chicago, you can find their alcohol at more than 1,550 locations although they seem to be centered around specific states in the Midwest and the East and West Coasts. As of May 2013, Koval’s bottles are in 18 states and DC. A handful of online retailers make the bottles available nationwide.

All in all, Koval’s range is large enough to appeal to various palates but tight enough to be focused. If you’re a whiskey drinker, treat yourself to a Koval whiskey next time you’re at a bar or see it on the shelf. If you’re not a whiskey drinker, give it a try. You may surprise yourself. Personally, I’m looking forward to the weekend so I can open another Koval Whiskey bottle that came home with me this week.


Megy Karydes is founder of Wandering Tastes, a lifestyle and travel site that is meant to inspire adventure and exploration through traveling and food. She’s also a regular contributor to 10best.com which is part of the USA Today Travel family and TravelingMom.com as Foodie TravelingMom among other print magazines and online media outlets.

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