Vodka from the West Loop: Talking with CH Distillery's Tremaine Atkinson | Bleader

Vodka from the West Loop: Talking with CH Distillery's Tremaine Atkinson

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Tremaine Atkinson with a still at CH Distillery.

It takes a certain temperament to find happiness in a field where things often age for years. Tremaine Atkinson apparently has the temperament for distilling—his first try at a brewing business was in his twenties, and another quarter century (or two batches of 12-year scotch) passed before he cofounded (with his friend Mark Lucas) CH Distillery, just a couple blocks west of the Loop on Randolph.

Others have been making spirits in Chicago for a few years now, but CH Distillery, which opened to the public in August, was the first to follow a tasting-room model, which includes a place to enjoy cocktails on the premises—but also necessitates making every kind of alcohol you plan to serve. (Others followed quickly in its wake.) Through the window behind the bar, equipment gleams in polished chrome which might suggest it's not actually being used for anything that might get it dirty. But, in fact, one-ton batches of grain regularly pass through it on their way to becoming vodka, CH's signature spirit, and other things from bourbon to London dry gin to rum.

That grain, incidentally, comes from Illinois—Kane County, which isn't far outside the city—and CH Distillery has a commitment to making things as local as they can, though that won't stop them from pursuing a good idea, like their key-lime-flavored gin. They have nine spirits available right now at the bar and in many local outlets, the newest of which—amaro—I'll talk more about tomorrow. I met Atkinson at the bar a few hours before Friday night service.

Tremaine Atkinson: This is a dream of mine that went back a lot of years. When I was about 25 I started home brewing. I lived in San Francisco and got really into it with my buddies and my brother. I got into it to the point that I had my own yeast lab—I was a really geeky home brewer.

Like a lot of 20-year-olds I was like, well, maybe I can make a business out of this! My buddies and I raised five thousand bucks between the three of us, and the idea was that we were going to make five-gallon kegs and deliver them. That was our business model. We had no idea what we doing, so within about six months we blew through the five thousand, mostly on "research," and decided, OK, we'd better focus on our day jobs.

I kept brewing, though, and kind of always lived with this dream of doing a brewery or something. I spent 25 years in financial services, had a good career, enjoyed it, just basically saved everything I made—and about two years ago I said to myself, it's time to do this.

Meanwhile I'd been following what was happening in craft distilling, and I'd always been a huge vodka fan—I just love the clean, simple vodka on the rocks, it's always been my go-to drink. And I was always fascinated by the fact that you can't make vodka at home—it's a very technical distillation. So I said, brewing sounds cool but distilling sounds even more fun, so just with my business hat on, I said, maybe it seems a better time to become a craft distiller than a brewer.

What also seemed immediately interesting to me was this idea of doing a bar. I've been on a lot of distillery tours, and it was always fascinating but also frustrating because you get to the end and there's this little tiny warm pour. I thought, let's have a cocktail or a full pour or something, that would be a good idea. And I was shocked that that nobody was doing that in the city of Chicago.

So I called up my old buddy Mark Lucas, who was one of the ones around when we tried starting the brewery. I knew he was looking for something different. And his response was, "Can I say yes immediately?" And I said no, you have to think about it for a day!

Distillery with a street level view.

Michael Gebert: It's kind of surprising to see something that consists of big tanks and industrial equipment in an office building so close to the Loop. How did you wind up here?

It was the last piece of space in the building, which helped, and we got it probably a little before this area blew up. If all we were running was a wholesale business from here, yeah, it wouldn't make any sense. But having this retail storefront really helps.

The West Loop was kind of an easy choice for me, I knew I wanted to do something higher-end, this just seemed like the right neighborhood for doing something new and innovative. The proximity to the Loop is great, and the proximity to restaurant row seemed like a natural.

I was really lucky to find this space because it's got this nice combination of good retail location, high ceilings, and the right amount of space. The West Loop is close to having the right zoning, but not quite. And the landlords, Sterling Bay, were incredibly helpful in helping us get the zoning changed so we could actually do this.

The big difference between home brewing beer and spirits, of course, is that the Feds will come after you for one of them. How did you learn the craft under those circumstances?

Well, a big part of it, since we're making our products from scratch, all the way from grain, is that the first part of the process is brewing. Because you've got to ferment something to get some alcohol to distill.

So I already knew the brewing side pretty well. I supplemented that with a class at the Siebel Institute, which was really helpful. I read a ton of books, but basically you can't really do it until you open up your own place and roll up your sleeves and go. We basically learned on our own equipment. I also hired a consultant, a real technical guy who'd worked for some of the big brands, a biochemist. So he kind of helped us, pointed us in the right direction on a lot of stuff.

We're making a lot of products, but with vodka being the core, that was the first thing we figured out. It's a little bit like winemaking in that, if you're going to make a vodka that has a little bit of character to it, that character is already sort of there in the raw material, and you just have to work your way to it. With vodka what you're really doing is removing flavor compounds, and removing alcohols out of what came out of the fermenter. In the end we just used our palates to guide us to a place where we thought we were making what we wanted.

Bourbon being bottled.

Why did you decide to focus on vodka, which, officially, is supposed to be completely neutral, though obviously there are differences between vodkas?

First and foremost, I love it. So I wanted to make something that I was passionate about drinking. You can see I have kind of a modernist aesthetic in the design of this place, and I love simple things that are beautifully done.

I'm not a big fan of vodkas that don't have a lot of character, that are just ethanol and water. I don't think that's very interesting. But when there's a little bit of essence, I just love it. That's why I chose vodka, probably not the greatest business decision, but you know, it's gotta be fun too.

Do you have to sell people on it in the bar?

A little bit, but what's cool about this place is—I could probably describe myself as a vodka purist or a vodka snob, but there's none of that here when you come in. We don't care how you drink the vodka, we just want you to experience the beauty of the equipment, the fact that it's made with local grains, and that we're having a good time doing that.

We do get a lot of people who are really interested in vodka, and they get a cool experience because they can talk to us about how it was made and how we get the character and all of that. But most people just drink it in a Moscow Mule. So maybe the subtlety is gone, but it sort of sells itself.

So you've mentioned using local ingredients. Like what?

The vodka and the gin are both made from Illinois wheat and rye. And it's grown in Kane County, you can't get much closer than that. We found a farmer who sources grains locally, we just went to him and said, give us a sample. We started messing around with it and it was absolutely beautiful grain.

The type of wheat that grows in Illinois is a soft red winter wheat. It's a seed that's got to sit under the ground, dormant, through the winter to grow in the spring. And soft means it has a low protein content which, conversely, means that it has a high starch content. Which is great for distilling because we want starches. That kind of shaped the whole liquor program here, the choice of those ingredients.

A bag of Illinois grain tacked on a column.

Is that how you picked that, because it had certain characteristics like so much starch? I'm wondering how you can taste raw grain and say, hmm, that's going to make good vodka!

You can't really—you can imagine it. The other choice, of course, is that Illinois produces a lot of corn. I'm not a big fan of corn for vodka. Corn has a pretty harsh fermentation, and I think you have to distill it out so clean that you lose some of the character. So just from having drunk a lot of wheat and rye vodkas, I think I was more inclined to those two ingredients.

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