Last January, Metropolitan Brewing’s Doug Hurst was getting ready to dump about 28 barrels’ worth of improperly fermented Dynamo Copper Lager down the drain. “The carbonation level was too low and it was a little too thin in the body,” says Hurst, who runs the fledgling Ravenswood brewery with his wife, Tracy.
They mentioned their predicament to Sonat Birnecker Hart and Robert Birnecker, the husband-and-wife team who run their “liquor doppelganger” next door, the Koval microdistillery. “We said, ‘Wait, why don’t we do some sort of collaboration?” says Sonat. “For us it’s great if there’s no carbonation.”
They fed a small amount of the beer into their towering copper still. The resulting clear spirit “tastes like an eau de vie of hops,” Sonat says. Doug Hurst agrees, adding that his beer’s malty aroma also carries through into the finished spirit. Koval bought the remainder of the Hursts’ Dynamo, distilled and bottled it, and in a few weeks the limited-edition run—which like all their products is certified both organic and kosher—should be on liquor store shelves under the name Koval Bierbrand.
In Austria, where Robert was born, and in central Europe in general, beer-based spirits aren’t unusual, and age-old distilling traditions that use all sorts of grains and fruits have never been interrupted by such an inconvenience as Prohibition. By contrast, much of the United States’ early and varied distilling culture was lost as a result of the Great Experiment, and until recently small craft distillers like Koval, North Shore, and Death’s Door have been scarce.
Birnecker’s grandfather is a farmer in northern Austria who grows his own grains and fruits and distills them into a number of liqueurs and brandies, or Schnaps (not to be confused with the syrupy liqueurs known as schnapps in America). His pear-apple beer, Most, has won several regional competitions. “I spent a lot of time on the farm just working with them,” Birnecker says. “That’s where I was exposed to all of this.”
Just under a year and a half ago, Robert, 27, and Sonat, 35, were living in Maryland. She was a professor of Jewish studies at Baltimore Hebrew University and he was the press secretary at the Austrian embassy in D.C. Visiting Sonat’s parents in Evanston around the New Year, they shared a bottle of Birnecker’s grandfather’s brandy with the family. The couple had been pondering a change in both their careers and their location. “People have always asked us about where to get the brandy that we brought over from Austria, and I said ‘Well, you’d have to go to Austria and get it yourself.’ We were sitting there drinking that brandy thinking, you know . . . interesting.”
Having noted the resurgence in American microdistilling and the success of small producers like the Hudson Valley’s Tuthilltown Spirits, they began to think about producing their own European-style brandies and grain spirits in Chicago, where they’d have the support of Sonat’s family. They started by researching stills, but Birnecker says he couldn’t get the detailed information he wanted from the handful of European still manufacturers represented in the U.S.
“They just weren’t distillers themselves and weren’t used to being asked certain questions that you’d ask when you have some starting knowledge,” says Robert. They got in touch directly with the overseas manufacturers, eventually zeroing in on Kothe Distilling Technologies, a German company Birnecker’s grandfather had come across at a trade show. All were impressed by the features of a Kothe still—like seamless, smooth, unhammered copper pieces that prevent distillate from contacting other metals, which can lead to impurities in the final product. They hit it off so well with Kothe’s Klaus Hagmann, an authority on making mashes, that they eventually signed on to become the sole U.S. representative for the manufacturer. (In the next week Koval will host two seminars on distilling.)
While hashing out the details with Kothe, they kept their jobs on the east coast, flying in for long weekends to lay the groundwork for the city’s only craft distillery. They wrote several aldermen in search of a space where zoning wouldn’t be a problem and in June got a call from Gene Schulter of the 47th Ward, who steered them to the Ravenswood building. In October the still arrived, but it took months to get everything up and running. Sonat’s 79-year-old father helped Robert assemble the still, and in November and December Robert’s grandfather came for three weeks to help formulate recipes and give pointers on fruit selection, yeast, and maintaining consistency.
In January the couple and their five-month-old son, Lion, moved into Sonat’s parents’ house. Not everything went smoothly at first. Their initial attempt to distill pear brandy was foiled when a shipment of pears froze en route, arresting the ripening process. Enlisting family members and friends, they stemmed and mashed the pears anyway and distilled them in a trial run. The result—which they’re not releasing—tastes and smells like unripe pears, says Sonat. They won’t try again until they can get some fruit from closer to home in season.
They experimented endlessly with their ginger liqueur: Sonat’s mother peeled nearly 60 pounds of the root, and her brother and sister tasted countless attempts. But when they finally hit on the perfect formulation, Robert dropped the glass balloon that held the first batch and it shattered, spilling nearly 50 liters of the stuff all over the floor.
Many small distillers begin their production with grain-neutral spirits purchased from some other distiller. But Robert and Sonat make their own, creating a mash by adding yeast and organic grain to distilled water or combining crushed organic fruit and yeast, then letting it ferment in large plastic tanks before adding it to the still. In March, Koval’s first line of spirits landed on the shelves at Binny’s and other area stores, including a rose-hip liqueur and a rye-based vodka. Why rye? Robert refers to an old Russian expression: “Potatoes are for the peasants. Rye is for the czar.”
The vodka is made by twice distilling and filtering their own more interesting and flavorful Rye Chicago grain spirit, which has a faintly sweet, bready nose. Like their Midwest Wheat variety, which gives off a surprising banana note, it could conceivably be barrel aged to make whiskey. In fact, Sonat calls these particular spirits “a bridge between vodka and whiskey,” adding, “I think they’re going to start becoming very popular as people realize that most vodkas are very similar and that grain spirits provide a whole new spectrum of possibility.” In that spirit, last week Koval received a shipment of organic millet, spelt, and oats from Kansas, out of which they plan to create individual clear spirits that highlight the grains’ distinct flavors and aromas. “A grain spirit is essentially an unaged whiskey,” Sonat says. “So it has flavor. It has aroma. And every grain has a different flavor and a different aroma.