These local artisan distillers are all about that Chicago spirit. —INGRAIN, Summer 2018
STORY / Mike Smith
From the wild foothills of the South to the mountainsides of the west, American distillers have traditionally settled in areas where land is plentiful and time passes slowly.
Recently, a new generation of artisan distillers is heading to the heart of fast-paced cities like Chicago, where a distillery revival reminiscent of the city’s moonshining glory days more than a century ago is in full swing. Sure, space for a 500-gallon copper still is at a premium near Logan Square today. But these urban pioneers are forging ahead, pushing the boundaries of what American made, and decidedly nontraditional, spirits can be. These Chicago-area distilleries offer memorable summer elixirs reflective of the city.
5121 North Ravenswood Avenue
Chicago’s first distillery to open since Prohibition, Koval crafts a range of spirits but is celebrated for its single-barrel whiskeys. In Yiddish, the word koval refers to the “black sheep” of the family, an innovator who prefers the road less traveled, as husband-and-wife founders (and reformed academics) Drs. Robert and Sonat Birnecker like to describe it. Since 2008, Robert, an Austria native and third-generation distiller, has been experimenting with spirits like a single-barrel whiskey with a mash bill (the mix of grains that is heated in the distilling and brewing process) that’s similar to a popular beer. An expansion is under way at the southeast Ravenswood distillery; be on the lookout for a new tasting room.
TASTE The organic, single-barrel bourbon distilled from millet has a unique flavor profile that stands out against traditional American bourbons. If you can get your hands on several bottles, set up a flight tasting with each of the single-barrel whiskeys.
Tours are $10 (reservations required) and include a tasting.
2010 West Fulton Street
In 2012, father-daughter duo Charlie and Jenny Solberg turned a hard-core hobby (the family even built a bike-powered apple chopper to crush their neighbor’s fruit) into a full-fledged distillery. Named after the Austrian ice rink where Charlie once played professional hockey, Rhine Hall makes hand-crafted European-style brandy, or eau-de-vie, purely from fruit (no neutral spirits are added during the distillation process). The result is a balanced sweetness and complex, layered fruit flavor. Recent experimental releases include a Bierschnaps distilled from our very own Bourbon County Brand Stout; the distillery is a few doors down from Goose Island’s Fulton Street brewery and taproom.
TASTE Don’t miss the distillery’s apple-based brandies made from eight varietals of fruit sourced from Great Lakes–area farms. The Oak Aged Apple Brandy, aged in oak barrels for up to 12 months, is fantastic straight up or in a Manhattan or Sazerac.
Tours are $10 (reservations recommended); spirits and cocktails are available for purchase in the tasting room.
200 West Diversey Avenue
A short jaunt west of Logan Square is a distillery with a story to match its top-notch gins and digestifs like barrel-aged absinthe and its Swedish wormwood cousin, Bësk. The moonshine that Brenton Engel was making in his basement and sneaking into gigs (the amateur distiller was sidelining as the bassist in a Chicago rock band) became such a cult hit with local chefs and bartenders that he teamed up with several to open a legit distillery. The seasonally inspired gins, released twice a year, sell out fast. The 2018 Vernal (early summer release) features strawberries, vanilla, and locally grown eucalyptus.
TASTE The Original Label Gin, a blend of eleven botanicals, is spectacular, but every spirit is memorable. Look for the seasonal gins and a bottle of Charred Oak Absinthe Brun at local retailers.
No tours or tasting room; find the spirits at area restaurants, bars, and retail stores.
Want more info on distillers and spirits? Check out our Spirits & Wine section.