It’s not too often a 10 year old business is considered a ‘pioneer’ but when it comes to the craft spirits world a decade old distillery is downright old. Founded in 2008, Koval Distillery was Chicago’s first legal distillery since the mid-1800s. To put this in perspective, when they started their first distillation run, there was only one other distillery in Illinois and less than half of the states across the entire country had even one distillery.

Koval Distillery was co-founded by husband and wife duo Dr. Robert Birnecker and Dr. Sonat Birnecker Hart. The two gave up their careers in Washington, D.C., Robert a former Deputy Press Secretary for the Austrian Embassy and Sonat a tenured professor of European Jewish History and moved to her hometown of Chicago to take the plunge and start a new business. Keep in mind; this was 2008 when entrepreneurship was plunging and small businesses were failing at an alarming rate.

Fast forward one decade and things are looking good for the distillery. According to the duo, Koval, in Yiddish refers to a “black sheep” or someone who forges ahead or does something new or out of the ordinary. This distillery is certainly out of the ordinary in the spirits they make and the way they operate their business. Take a look at their creative video statement on equality and equal pay.

In the Spirit of Equality – We’ll Drink to That

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Koval is the name on the door but inside this distillery with three Ravenswood, IL locations are multiple businesses. First and foremost they are a distillery producing a variety of Grain-to-Bottle organic spirits including whiskey, gin, vodka, liqueurs and specialty spirits. They have their original distillation operation and retail shop at one end of Ravenswood Avenue and then about a mile away is their much larger distillery operation. A third location is home to aging barrels. In addition to the distillery they are in fact still teachers, offering craft spirits consulting and workshops. Hart says they’ve helped to set up nearly 170 distilleries across the country (if you’re counting, that’s nearly 10% of all craft distilleries in the U.S.) They also consult around the world where Robert is currently on a trip to Africa helping to launch a rum distillery. On top of that they are also the U.S. representative for German made Kothe Distilling equipment. No surprise, you will see Kothe equipment used throughout their distillation operations in the photo gallery below.

Plans for Expansion – Koval Distillery 3.0

The distillery started in Ravenswood, a Chicago residential neighborhood with many businesses that run along a railroad track. Over the years, the area has become home to multiple breweries and their distillery. With so many craft spirits makers, the area along the tracks is now commonly referred to as, “Malt Row.” The Ravenswood neighborhood sits just less than 10 miles from downtown Chicago and also happens to be home to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In 2011 they outgrew their initial 4,000 square foot location and added a second location to keep up with product demand. They currently occupy 11,000 square feet of the second building for distillery operations. With the need for additional space, they started looking for their next location. After looking around the city for several years and ongoing negotiations with their existing property owner, in early 2017 they purchased the distillery operations building they are currently in. Over the next few weeks, the other businesses in the building will be moving out and Koval will be taking over the entire 45,000 square foot space and expansion number three will be under way.

Koval currently produces about 70,000 proof gallons but could expand up to 100,000 proof gallons which is the maximum currently allowed for a craft distillery under IL state law. Distilled spirits definitions are a funny thing, IL considers a ‘craft distillery’ 100,000 proof gallons but the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) defines craft spirits in three categories. From a size point of view, ACSA defines craft spirits makers as,

  • Small Craft Distiller – 1 – 10,000 
  • Medium-Size Craft Distiller – 10,001 t0 100,000
  • Large Craft Distiller – 100,001 to 750,000

These definitions, like many post-Prohibition tangled laws continue to evolve as these small businesses look for new opportunities to serve their customers and the communities they live in.

Grain to Glass Organic and Kosher Distillery

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It’s not unusual to hear a distillery use the term Grain-to-Glass these days but Koval was hip before it was cool. All of their grains are sourced within a two hour radius of the distillery. Not only do they promise grain to glass but their spirits are also all Certified Organic by Midwestern Organic Services Association (MOSA) and Certified Kosher through the Orthodox Union (OU) all the way down to the materials used to make the barrels. As required by law, they use new charred Oak barrels for their bourbon. When scouting out barrels they discovered the liquid used to seal most barrels was a petroleum based paraffin wax. After looking for an alternative they ended up partnering with The Barrel Mill to come up with a solution – organic beeswax.

We reached out to The Barrel Mill’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing Richard Hobbs to get the details. Hobbs said, “Several years ago Sonat called and asked if we could use something other than paraffin wax (which we had been using) to help seal the barrel heads. She was asking because their organic certifier was not happy with paraffin. The solution we came up with was bees wax. After using the bees wax we decided to use it for all of our barrels because even though it is more expensive, it is more pliable, and does not flake. Now, years later we have several organic clients, and the certifiers are happy with this alternative.”

Every Bottle is a Single Barrel

A couple other things of note is the size of their barrels and bottling. Even 10 years in, the company uses 30 gallon barrels for aging spirits. Bucking the norm of large distilleries of using 53 gallon barrels, Koval believes in the smaller barrel since there is a higher wood to liquid ratio which allows their spirits to mature at a faster rate. As we’ve discussed before, there is a difference between age and maturity. In the end, it’s all about the taste.

And the other thing that is a bit unique is every bottle of Koval spirits is single barrel, they don’t mix, blend or mingle barrels. Using single barrels helps with their goal of traceability from the farm to distillery to barrel to bottle. For many of the larger, historic Prohibition era distillers, mingling spirits from multiple barrels is pretty standard for a consistent flavor profile and the single barrels are the “special barrels.” For Koval, every bottle comes from a special single barrel.

A Koval Distillery Tour

Koval provides a handy little black and white drawing that outlines their entire distillation process. It starts with milling the grains once they arrive in totes from the farm. They have two Voran hammer mills they use depending on which grains they are milling. From there the grains move to their 5,000 Liter Kothe mashtun for cooking then on to one of a dozen 5,800 Liter closed fermentation tanks. Once cooked the warm mash moves on to the 5,000 Liter pot still then on through a pair of 24 foot tall by 700mm diameter columns before the final heads, hearts and tails cuts. Once they renovate their additional space, they will be adding a new 5,000 Liter pot still and pair of column stills. After distillation the spirits like bourbon or rye that require aging move to barreling then warehousing for maturation. Any unaged spirits are soon ready for bottling.

Koval produces a wide range of craft spirits including bourbon, rye, four grain, millet, oat and white rye whiskies; an aged and unaged gin; a vodka; caraway, coffee, ginger, rose hip and chrysanthemum and honey liqueurs; a pair of brandies and many seasonal spirits. Their spirits are distributed in 47 states (sorry Alaska, Arizona and New Mexico) and 50 export markets around the world.

Last year, Dr. Robert Birnecker and Dr. Sonat Birnecker Hart were named the 2017 Illinois Small Business Persons of the Year. The company employs about 50 full and part-time people and expects to add new employees as the operation expands into the new 45,000 square foot space. Sonat says they are currently working on plans to celebrate their 10 year anniversary later this year. Be on the lookout for a special release spirit as they celebrate their first decade.

Koval Distillery Photo Tour

Click any image to enlarge.

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