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Feature Fri May 08 2009
Some people may have booze flowing through their veins, but for husband and wife team Robert Birnecker and Sonat Birnecker Hart, it's also figuratively true--in opening Koval Distillery this year, the pair became third-generation distillers.
Distilling runs deep in Robert's family. A native of the Salzkammergut region in Austria, Robert was drawn to keeping the distilling craft alive, though he and Sonat chose to do so in her native city of Chicago, which has never had a distillery before. In fact, they found that part of the difficulty of opening a distillery here was trying to navigate the paperwork process and figure out all of the proper licensing. It took the Birneckers about a year of planning before they could open their doors.
Koval's uniqueness doesn't stop there. The still they use, imported from Ulrich Kothe in Eislingen, Germany, is also the only one of its kind in the U.S. "It's got a beautiful, harmonic design," explained Sonat. "It's smooth copper and has no soldering that might compromise the still and come in contact with the distillate. The more copper it has, the more surface area for the distillate to get flavor from."
Distillation involves separating alcohol from grains, fruits, wines, or beers. The first step is creating a fermented mash. To do this you boil water, take the water to the mash tank and slowly add the water to grain. "It's kind of like making bread," said Sonat, "but more liquidy. Then yeast is added and it bubbles. It smells like making bread." The mash is put into barrel to ferment. Grains can ferment in a few days, which fruit can take up to two or three weeks.
After fermentation, the mash is boiled for the actual distillation process. During the boil, the elements in the mash separate, and the alcohol can be removed from it. Once the product is distilled, Sonat said they're lucky if they to use 8% of the remainder, once the mash, heads (first drips), and tails (last part), as well as any fruit or vegetables are removed. They're careful to best hearts of the alcohol for their products. "You get a lot of mash and very little alcohol," explained Sonat. To make the finished product, they cut the pure alcohol with water. Then they bottle and label it by hand.
The Birneckers use raw organic ingredients whenever they can, and because they're into the Slow Food movement, they also try to source locally as much as possible. "It's hard in the winter," said Sonat, "but we use all Midwest grain." This philosophy makes the process very expensive. "Others [distillers] can buy finished alcohol product and add flavors. We make everything completely from scratch," said Sonat. "We're trying to maintain high quality." Because they are a small distiller, they also can't command price breaks on their ingredients like other companies can.
After Koval found a space in Ravenswood, they had their space certified kosher. Then they met their neighbors, the newly opened Metropolitan Brewery. The two companies share a forklift, and the Birneckers even got the idea to distill some of Metropolitan's beer, turning it into a beer brandy called Bierbrand. This product is the only one in their portfolio that's not kosher or organic.
Other products in their line include vodka, "but everyone has a vodka," said Sonat. "All of our grains come from the Midwest, and it's sad that the flavors can't speak for themselves because you have to strip them of flavor and aroma to make vodka." Their other regular grain spirits include a rye and a wheat spirit. These are both clear because they don't do any aging (whisky gets its brown color from being aged in barrels).
Although their grain spirits are interesting, their fruit-based liqueurs really set them apart from the competition. Along with a pear brandy, they've got a rose hip liqueur that takes like flowers and a fiery ginger liqueur, both of which could make some very interesting cocktails.
While they'll always maintain this standard line of spirits, the Birneckers hope to offer seasonal products in the future. They hope to use Austrian recipes picked up from their families that use herbs and fruits that Americans don't normally use in spirits. They also want to use local fruits, such as the pawpaw to see what kinds of liqueurs they can develop. Another liqueur they're also thinking about trying is an Asian pear and walnut liqueur made with green walnuts. They are planning more experiments with different grains, including spelt and perhaps even oats.
"Grain spirits have been overlooked since Prohibition," said Sonat. "We hope to reintroduce them."
Because of Illinois' third-party distribution laws that dictate an alcohol producer cannot sell directly to a consumer, Koval will not be able to have a tasting room with product for sale. You'll have to look to your favorite liquor store and bar for that privilege. Their products are currently at certain Binny's outlets, some are also at Drinks Over Dearborn (where you can special order what they don't have in stock), and they're trickling into other locations as well.