All photos by Kristine Sherred
In 2008 with the economy tanking, Robert and Sonat Birnecker took a chance and followed their bliss. Motivated to create a family business, the couple gave up academic careers to bring the distilling traditions of Robert's Austrian grandfather to America. The result? Koval, an organic distillery where spirits are made and bottled by hand. Our Town spoke with Koval’s National Distilary Ambassador Meg Bell about Koval’s unique products and techniques.
Our Town What makes Koval unique?
Meg Bell Our products are all made from scratch in the Chicago distillery. Each spirit is organic and kosher and does not contain artificial flavors or colors. Our whiskeys are especially unique since they are single grain.
OT Robert has distilled in both Austria and the US, how do the two compare both in technique and resulting product?
MB I think the best example of this is how Robert makes his whiskey. From his training in Austria and Germany, he distills smoother and takes a tight heart cut of the whiskey. Since this cut of whiskey is considered the best part of the distillate, it does not need to be aged very long. This differs from the way classic bourbons and scotch are typically made. These styles of whiskey distill lower and take a broad cut (more rustic so the distillate has more congeners and fusel oils), hence need to age their spirits longer to mellow this out. Both styles produce a great spirit, but are done in different ways resulting in dramatic flavor differences.
OT What made Koval decide to offer tours and workshops?
MB As a craft distillery and small business in Chicago, this was really important to us. Giving Chicagoans (and those visiting our great city) the opportunity to see how a distillery works up close only strengthens the business and the community.
OT How is your white whiskey different from say, Jack Daniels?
MB White whiskey is an un-aged whiskey. Since whiskey gets all its color and a lot of its flavor from being aged in oak barrels, a white whiskey tastes very different. White whiskey has flavor from the grain it is distilled from, but not the added flavor of aging in an oak cask. Jack Daniels is also white before they put it into a barrel to age.
OT In your opinion is there a particular grain that makes the best tasting whiskey?
MB That's a tough one. They all have such unique flavor profiles, but my personal favorite at the moment is oat in the heavy char barrel. I love that oat is a grain not commonly used for whiskey, and the way Robert distills it is so delicate. It has a creamy feel on the palette.
OT Lions Pride is a big favorite in Chicago. Can you talk a little about how it’s made?
MB Lion's Pride is our line of aged whiskey. We have a variety of mash bills that make up the line - each mash bill is 100% single grain. When the grain is fermented and distilled, the result is a white whiskey. We take our white whiskeys and age them in new American Oak barrels. Some of these barrels are heavily charred on the inside, and some are just lightly toasted. The amount that the inside of the barrel is burned greatly affects how the whiskey inside ages. The toasted barrels provide more tropical or citrus notes, while the heavy charred barrels provide more caramel, vanilla, and dark fruit notes. Koval distill five different grains: rye, oat, wheat, spelt and millet. Each grain is distilled separately and is available in 3 styles: un-aged or White, aged in a Dark Char barrel, or aged in a Toasted barrel.
OT According to your bio, you’ve loved whiskey from an early age. How early?
MB Well, as a young girl, I distinctly remember the brown and white moonshine in mason jars in the liquor cabinet! Making my father a bourbon and water as a kid was a really special thing. He taught me how to make it and why the water was added to accentuate the taste of the whiskey. Even though I wasn't drinking it, I got to smell it and feel like I was doing something special for my dad. In high school, I worked at the Texaco laboratory where they ran a lot of tests on crude oil. It fascinated me, and the guys in the lab always gave me extra tests to run to satisfy my curiosity. When I think back, the process is so similar to making whiskey!
OT Any whiskey misconceptions you want to address?
MB I guess the thing that always bothers me the most is when people say they can't drink whiskey because of one bad experience! There are so many styles of whiskey, and I truly believe if people experiment they will find the right one. When you take the time to actually taste and smell the spirit (instead of just shooting it), the beautiful delicacies come out. But you have to relax and let it happen. I can't count the number of times someone has tried Lion's Pride Whiskey and said it was the first whiskey they ever liked. They were just waiting for the right one.
OT In March Koval will debut a new whiskey, what can Koval fans expect?
MB This new release is in response to a limited run we did last year that sold out quick. Named after the ward of Chicago where the distillery is located, Lion's Pride 47th Ward Whiskey will be a four grain whiskey of rye, oat, wheat and malted barley. The whiskey is aged in a heavily charred new barrels and bottled single barrel at 94 proof (much higher proof than our other Lion's Pride expressions!)
OT What’s the best thing about being part of Koval?
MB We are really such a family! (Even if we are not all related.) It's exhilarating to be a part of something in the beverage community that is so innovative and new. And, getting to taste whiskey out of a freshly tapped barrel is always a plus.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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