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Distilleries are on the rise in Chicago

But will the city soon reach its saturation point?

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Before Prohibition, Illinois was one of the biggest whiskey-producing states in the U.S. Peoria alone had 73 distilleries and paid more whiskey tax to the federal government than any other city in the country; Chicago paid the second-highest tax. Very few distilleries reopened in Illinois after Prohibition was repealed, but in 1933 Hiram Walker & Sons established the largest distillery in the world in Peoria, which closed in 1981 after the decline of the American whiskey market in the 1970s (Archer Daniels Midland took over the plant and now produces ethanol there).

Ten years ago, according to Bill Owens of the American Distilling Institute, there were only 67 distilleries in the United States. Zero of them were in Illinois. Then in 2004, North Shore Distillery opened in Lake Bluff, followed five years later by Ravenswood's Koval Distillery. Few Spirits opened its doors in Evanston in 2011, and since then the growth of local distilleries has been exponential. According to Derrick Mancini, president of the Illinois Craft Distillers Association and owner of Quincy Street Distillery in Riverside (a small suburb near Berwyn), there are now about 25 distilleries in Illinois. When Mancini got his craft distiller's license for Quincy Street less than two years ago, it was only the fifth issued in the state (the fourth was for Letherbee Distillers in Ravenswood, which launched in April 2012).

Mancini doesn't expect the growth of distilleries in Illinois to be linear, but says that he wouldn't be surprised if there are close to 50 in two years. That's both good and bad.

"While we're all working very hard, and we're relatively friendly competitors, we know at some point there'll be shakeout," he says. "There isn't really enough room on the shelf for us all to be everywhere. The question is, what's the business model for all of those [distilleries], and how many of them will survive?"

Derrick Mancini at Quincy Street Distillery - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • Derrick Mancini at Quincy Street Distillery

It's impossible to know, of course, how many of Illinois's distilleries will survive, but the answer to the business-model question for Quincy Street—and for the three new distilleries that have opened in Chicago in the last year—is to sell some of their product through an on-site tasting room and the rest to bars and/or liquor stores. It's a model that's only been possible since 2010, when Illinois created a craft distiller's license that allows small distillers to open tasting rooms and sell directly to the public (it also cut the state licensing fee in half).

CH Distillery in the West Loop and Chicago Distilling Company in Logan Square look very much like any other bar you might wander into; if you didn't happen to see the stills through the glass windows behind the bar in each establishment, you might not even realize you were in a distillery. There's one key difference, though: distilleries aren't allowed to sell any alcohol they don't make (and they're not allowed to make anything other than spirits). That means no wine, no beer, and no cocktails that involve ingredients like vermouth or triple sec.

The solution to that problem for both CH and Quincy Street distilleries has been to make everything they want to serve. Quincy Street has a lineup of several whiskeys, a couple gins, and a spirit distilled from mead, with two absinthes, a genever, and an aquavit in the works; Mancini is also making a bitter orange spirit to use as a replacement for triple sec. And while CH Distillery's focus is vodka, it also makes two gins, a couple whiskeys, a rum, and a limoncello; for use behind the bar there's orange curacao, and staff are starting to experiment with amari. Tremaine Atkinson, distiller and cofounder of CH, says he enjoys the challenge. "It's fun for us in back because Krissy [Schutte, the food and beverage director] will say she wants an amaro, and we're like, 'Cool! That means we get to make amaro.' We never really set out to make rum, for example, but we were like, 'Well, you gotta have rum in your cocktail bar.'"

CH Distillery - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • CH Distillery

At the other end of the spectrum there's Rhine Hall, located two miles west of CH Distillery on Fulton. Run by father-daughter team Charlie and Jenny Solberg, it produces nothing but apple brandy and grappa. Charlie learned how to make apple brandy when he was in Austria playing pro hockey in the 70s, and it's been a family hobby ever since. The spirit is what's called schnapps in Germany—but "I did not want any confusion with peach schnapps or peppermint schnapps," Jenny says. The brandy is technically an eau de vie, which means it's 100 percent distilled from fruit, with no sugar added.

The old-fashioned exercise bike that Charlie rigged up to chop apples is on display in the distillery, though the Solbergs have upgraded to an industrial chopper for processing the 8,000 pounds of fruit it takes to fill the three 330-gallon fermentation tanks. "Otherwise I would be the most fit person on the planet," Jenny says. Charlie has maintained his other business, manufacturing air filters and compressors, and comes out to do the distilling in the evenings and on weekends, while Jenny works full-time at the distillery. And aside from a couple part-time bartenders who help out on Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons when the tasting room is open, that's it as far as staff.

Keeping the day job isn't unusual for distillers. Mancini still works full-time as a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory, though he does employ two distillers (one full-time, one half-time), a part-time bar manager, and a part-time bookkeeper and office manager at Quincy Street. And Noelle DiPrizio, who owns Chicago Distilling Company with her husband, Jay, and his brother, Victor, still works as an interior designer; Victor is the only one in the family who's there full-time. They employ one distiller besides Victor as well as nine front-of-the-house employees—bartenders, servers, bar backs, hosts.

Chicago Distilling Company head bartender Shannon Bandur experiments behind the bar. - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • Chicago Distilling Company head bartender Shannon Bandur experiments behind the bar.

Chicago Distilling Company, the newest of the new local distilleries, is now officially ten weeks old—the same age as Noelle's younger son, who was born the day before the distillery opened on January 10. They'd planned to open earlier, Noelle says, but the licensing process took longer than expected. "Since craft distilling is so new, everything's a little bit of interpretation, depending on who you talk to. That's been the most challenging part, anything from getting the doors open to what kind of tasting room we could have."

The spirits the DiPrizios currently offer are a white whiskey and a vodka; their gin will be released soon, and they're in the process of barrel-aging rye whiskey and bourbon, though it'll be at least a year before that's ready. Noelle says they didn't realize how busy they'd be in the first month, and had trouble making enough alcohol to serve in the front of the house and still have enough left to age, but they've gotten that worked out now.

The process of learning how to distill isn't always easy either, especially since moonshining (distilling without a license) is illegal. Ten years ago, Bill Owens says, you couldn't even find books on distilling, but now there are both books and courses. Noelle's family has a history of running moonshine stills up in the north woods of Wisconsin, but they didn't base their recipes on that, she says. Instead, they read books and took weekend courses. "You learn very quickly where to make your cuts for the heads, hearts, and tails [various parts of the distillate; only the hearts are bottled]. Once the big equipment came, it was kind of just like, 'OK, let's sink or swim at this point.' Luckily, we're swimming."

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