Few Spirits Distillery - Distillery Crew

No good distillery visit would be complete without “The Story”. When you are a craft spirits maker that’s only been around for five years sometimes you have to look far back into the family history to figure out that story. Other times you have to look back into a cities history to find that story. A visit to FEW Spirits Distillery in Evanston, Illinois delivers on both fronts. And then there’s that third modern day story about making great distilled craft spirits but, we’ll get to that.

Paul Hletko, Founder of FEW Spirits Distillery and current President of the American Craft Spirits Association has craft spirits running through his veins. Paul’s grandfather had a long history in the beer business. Before World War II his family owned a large brewery in what is now the Czech Republic. After Hitler invaded, they didn’t own the brewery anymore. His grandfather spent the rest of this life trying to get the brewery back and never did. Paul wanted to build on that “maker” legacy but he also wanted to build something new. Rather than going the beer route, Paul chose to go the distilled spirits route and the craft spirits industry is better for his choice.

FEW Spirits Distillery - Founder Paul Hletko

FEW Spirits Distillery – Founder Paul Hletko

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Home of the Temperance Movement

Once Paul decided to get into the distillery business, he wanted to do it in his hometown of Evanston, Illinois, a town just 12 miles north of Chicago. When you hear Chicago and distilled spirits mentioned together you can’t help but think of the world’s most famous bootlegger, Al Capone. But when it comes to alcohol, Evanston is kind of the polar opposite and is often referred to as the home of the Temperance Movement. It’s not quite the place where it all started but, it’s pretty close.

Temperance

1: moderation in action, thought, or feeling :  restraint
2a:  habitual moderation in the indulgence of the appetites or passions
2b :  moderation in or abstinence from the use of alcoholic beverages

Frances Willard - Co-Founder of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union - WCTU in 1874

Frances Elizabeth Willard – Though her initials are F.E.W. that’s not the source of the distillery name.

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded in Ohio in 1873. The movement was formed to curtail excessive alcohol consumption, promote complete abstinence (teetotalism) and to use its political influence to press the government to enact alcohol laws to regulate the availability of alcohol or even its complete prohibition. Local Evanston resident Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard helped to found the WCTU and was elected its first corresponding secretary and first president of the Chicago chapter. Willard became the national president of WCTU in 1879, and remained president until her death in 1898. Upon her death she bequeathed her Evanston home to the WCTU. The Frances Willard House was opened as a museum in 1900. Her former home soon became the official headquarters for the WCTU and remains so today. Who knew the organization known for the Temperance Movement still existed?

Why do we tell you all this? Because since the city’s founding in the mid 1800s its been a dry town.

A 114 Year Old Dry Spell

When the 18th Amendment, commonly known as Prohibition took effect on January 17, 1920 very little changed in Evanston. You see, the city which is home to Northwestern University had been dry since the schools founding in the mid 1800s. According to the schools charter, written by the founders and granted by the State of Illinois General Assembly in 1855, it was established that the City of Evanston was to be dry.

“No spirituous, vinous, or fermented liquors shall be sold under license, or otherwise, within four miles of the location of said University, except for medicinal, mechanical, or sacramental purposes, under a penalty of twenty-five dollars for each offense.”

Jump ahead to December 5, 1933 when the 21st Amendment put an end to the nation’s 13 year dry spell and once again, very little changed. The city chose to remain dry. It way dry before the 18th Amendment and would remain dry after the 21st Amendment.

About the only dry spell in Illinois that’s lasted longer than the Chicago Cub’s 108 year old World Series dry spell was Evanston’s 114 year old ban on alcohol starting in 1855. It wasn’t until 1972 when city leaders finally succumbed to economic pressure and the will of the people and voted to allow the sale of alcohol in Evanston.

Fast forward to 2011 and after a year of working to get the law changed to open a distillery, Paul finally succeeded and opened FEW Spirits Distillery. And, in true bootlegger style, he opened the distillery in an alley. You have to search a bit to find it. Believe me I know, I drove past it three times.

A Day on the Trail at FEW Spirits Distillery

FEW Spirits Distillery - Distillery Crew

FEW Spirits Distillery Crew – (L to R) Skyler Retzlaff – Bottler/Rackhouse Attendant, Nick Crow – Assistant Distiller, Sam Bielawski – Head Distiller, Steven Kaplan – Director of Distilling and Operations, Riley Henderson – Assistant Distiller, Katherine Loftus – Event & Sales Manager.

Like a lot of small businesses that use up every square inch of space for the business, FEW Spirits is no exception, the place is packed. The space is used up from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. In fact when they added their third still, a 24′ stainless steel column still they had to cut a hole through the roof to accommodate the still. They’re actually out of space and have a second location about a mile away that’s used for aging barrels and bottling.

Steven Kaplan, Director of Distilling and Operations gave us a tour of the distillery. Steven says the distillery uses about 20,000 lbs. of grain per week. Their grains including corn, wheat, rye and barely are all grown within about a 100 mile radius of the distillery. The grains, stacked two to three pallets high, arrive pre-milled and ready for cooking in the Allied Beverage Tanks 30BBL mash tun. After cooking, the cooked grains spend four days in one of five Sprinkman fermentation tanks ranging in size from 30 to 60 BBL. From there, the mash will move on to the 24′ Vendome Copper & Brass column still then to the either the 1,500 or 150 Liter Kothe still for a second round of distillation. The 1,500 Liter still is used to finish whiskey while the 150 Litre still is dedicated to finishing gin.

After distillation is complete, the spirits are sent off to their other location for aging and bottling.





FEW Spirits Distillery Product Lineup
FEW Spirits Distillery - Gin, Bourbon and Whiskey Bottles large

FEW Spirits offers a variety of gin, bourbon and whiskies. Their unique label designs are inspired by local Chicago events most of which come from the 1893 World’s Fair. The fair was supposed to happen in 1892 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492 but because of construction delays the fair opened one year later in 1893. (Apparently, construction delays have been going on for hundreds of years.)

1893 World's Fair - The Court of Honor and Grand Basin

1893 World’s Fair – The Court of Honor and Grand Basin featuring the Statue of the Republic.

The label designs range from the world’s first ever Ferris wheel that could carry up to 2,160 people to the “Statue of the Republic” which was one of the tallest statues in the U.S. at the time, second only to the Statue of Liberty. Don’t look for any of these masterpieces today, like most things built for a World’s Fair, they are all gone except for one. The one piece of architecture that was built to last is now Chicago’s famed Museum of Science and Industry, a museum that welcomes more than 1.5 million visitors a year. What a great connection to the local region.

Here is FEW Spirits craft spirits line up but they also offer some seasonal and special blends throughout the year.

Gins

  • FEW Spirits Distillery - American GinFew American Gin – World’s Fair Ferris Wheel
    • Mash Bill is 70% corn, 20% wheat and 10% barley
    • 80 proof
    • Botanicals include citrus, juniper, vanilla, grains of paradise, hops grown in the alley and more
  • Few Breakfast Gin – Tea Cup
    • Mash Bill is 70% corn, 20% wheat and 10% barley
    • 84 proof
    • Botanicals include juniper, earl grey tea and lemon peel
  • Few Bourbon Barrel Gin – World’s Fair Mid-Way
    • Made from the tales of the whiskey runs
    • 93 proof
    • Botanicals include coriander forward, Juniper, Fennel, grains of paradise and lemon
    • Barrel aged in used bourbon, rye and new oak barrels
    • Aged until ready

Bourbon / Whiskey

  • Few Rye Whiskey – Electric Powered Water Fountain
    • Mash Bill is 20% Corn, 70% rye and 10% Malted Barley
    • 93 proof
    • Barrel aged in a new American White Oak barrel with a #3 char
    • Aged until ready
  • Few Bourbon Whiskey – Statue of the Republic
    • Mash bill is 70% Corn, 20% rye and 10% Malted Barley
    • 93 proof
    • Barrel aged in a new American White Oak barrel with a #3 char
    • Aged until ready
  • Few Single Malt Whiskey – First Elevated Public Transit Car
    • Mash bill is 100% malted barley, 25% smoked with cherrywood
    • 93 proof
    • Barreled in used bourbon and rye barrels
    • Aged until ready
  • Few 23rd Anniversary Delilah’s American Whiskey
    • Mix of many types of whiskeys
    • 93 proof
    • Barreled in a mixture of new and used barrels
    • Aged until ready

A Walk Through FEW Spirits Distillery

Here’s a photo walk through the distillery. Click on any image to enlarge.

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