The term “craft” is a popular and often misused culinary term today, but a decade ago, there were only around 50 craft distilleries in the United States. One of the first urban craft distilleries to hit this early scene was KOVAL, producer of organic whiskies, liqueurs and spirits known for its experimentation with different grains. It’s run by powerhouse husband and wife duo Robert and Sonat Birnecker, who both left academic careers to bring the distilling traditions of Robert’s Austrian family to America.
Sonat got into making spirits while she and Robert were living in Washington, D.C., house hunting and expecting their first child. A Chicago native, Sonat always thought about returning to Chicago, but they were hesitant to abandon their great careers: Sonat was a tenured professor and Robert was deputy press secretary for the Austrian Embassy. The idea to take up Robert’s family’s distilling traditions in Chicago came from Sonat’s sister—and the persistent nudging finally stuck.
“Instead of buying a house, we bought a still and moved to Chicago and into my brother’s old bedroom with our baby and began KOVAL, the first distillery in Chicago since the mid-1800s. It was indeed the road less traveled, and has certainly made all the difference,” Sonat shares.
While it was Robert’s family history with distilling that got them started with KOVAL, spirits play into key memories for Sonat, too.
“My grandmother used to order a Martini on the rocks with a twist and an olive. Sometimes I would get the olive. Watching her drink martinis imbued alcohol with a bit of a mystique for me,” Sonat recalls. She remembers getting her first taste of whiskey as a child after a day of playing in the snow. “The whiskey tasted like warmth itself.”
Sonat met her husband Robert while she was teaching. He helped her grade “some poorly written German papers regarding Kafka’s short stories,” and says he has not stopped helping her since. “We have a great mutual respect for each other’s abilities and work well as a team. Indeed we have enough faith in each other that we both were willing to give up our careers to work together. It was a good bet.”
KOVAL’s award-winning spirits frequently stem from experimentation with grains not usually associated with whiskey, including millet, oat and spelt. They’ve successfully created whiskies that bring different flavor profiles to market. “No one had ever made Bourbon out of corn and millet before KOVAL,” Sonat shares. The constant innovation has paid off—Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2017 just named their Four Grain Whiskey runner up for US Micro Whisky of the Year, for example.
She explains they set themselves apart through their process, too, by only using the “heart cut” of the distillate (the liquid product condensed from vapor during distillation). It’s a style they’ve championed that is common among brandy producers. “But we were the ones who applied it to grain and popularized it among craft distillers,” Sonat says, which creates a clean, grain-forward distillate.
As a grain to bottle distillery, Sonat and Robert control the whiskey distilling process from start to finish. They work with a co-op of Midwestern Organic farmers to obtain the grain that KOVAL mills into flour. Water is sourced from nearby Lake Michigan using a natural charcoal purification method. The “mash” is eventually distilled in KOVAL’s hybrid still: a pot still with a column, which is more energy efficient than double pot distilling with the same result. The liquid goes through the still, rising as vapor and condensing until it comes off the still, and comes out in three parts: heads, hearts, and tails.
“Heads are very bad for you (they will make you go blind and crazy) so they are removed. The hearts are the purest form of the distillate, which is what we use for our whiskey. The tails are the ‘long ends’ or ‘fusil oils’ and taste and smell like a wet dog, so we do not use them at all in that form,” Sonat explains. They redistill the tails to bring the alcohol content back up to create more “hearts,” “albeit much more rectified. This more neutral spirit serves as a fabulous base for our liqueurs.”
Educating a new generation of distillers through on-site classes is another important facet of KOVAL, as both Sonat and Robert were educators and love to share their knowledge. And, Sonat admits, “vertical business models are pretty swell.” They offer consulting related to the distilling industry, turnkey solutions for those wanting to start distilleries and teach a distilling workshop four or five times a year. Sonat says they’ve taught more than 3,000 “distiller hopefuls” since 2009.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Sonat says she’s had to change the laws in Illinois three times in order to conduct tours and tastings on-site and increase production. She’s grown the business to national and international distribution while homeschooling her two sons, and says “in general, being a completely independent family owned and operated distillery competing in the same arena as brands that make millions upon millions of gallons of product with corresponding dollars for marketing is by no means easy.”
But the hard work has paid off, and the success stretches beyond whiskey. KOVAL’s Dry Gin is recognized as 2015’s most highly awarded American gin, and KOVAL Barreled Gin took Gold in the 2016 New York World Wine and Spirits Competition. Sonat shares that while awards and good business are great, she feels especially thankful to be doing something she loves and thus considered KOVAL a success right from the start.
“We were having fun, we were challenged, and we were excited about what we were doing. It was the best kind of hard work,” she says. “If the journey is the goal, then success is measured not in cash but rather in our ability to do what we love; and for us the bonus is being able to do it with those we love.”
New to KOVAL this fall is Susan for President, a limited-edition barrelled peach brandy. Check out their website to peruse the full menu of offerings or find out how to visit for a tour and tasting here.