A Cut Above
By Joe Pedretti
“KOVAL Distillery started in 2008, but the thought of starting a business started in 2007. My husband and I had other careers, I was a tenured professor and my husband Robert (Birnecker) was the Deputy Press Secretary for the Austrian Embassy. We were house hunting, with the money we had saved for a down payment. We were trying to figure out where we wanted to live and what we could afford. After looking at too many houses that required a little too much love, due to moldy basements and the like, we decided that maybe we didn’t want to settle down quite literally in the Washington D.C. area. Chicago is very close to my heart, I am from Chicago and my husband loves Chicago, so we started toying with the idea of leaving our careers and starting something new in the city that we loved. That idea grew and grew,” noted Dr. Sonat Birnecker Hart, President of KOVAL Distillery.
“Robert comes from three generations of distillers from Austria, so he knew how to distill. We ultimately decided to leave our careers, to move to Chicago, and to start the first distillery there since the 1800s. When we decided that, we realized a number of things needed to happen. The laws there were not what they needed to be to make it possible to run the business the way we wanted. We were not allowed to retail on site, and there was no way to have a tasting room at the distillery- one could only manufacture. So I went to Springfield (Illinois Capitol) after we looked at all the different laws across America and I started lobbying our governmental officials: my alderman, my state and my house reps. I went there twice and managed to change the laws by creating a craft distillery bill in Illinois. Once we did that, it completely changed the way business could be conducted in Illinois and made it possible to have the business model that we wanted. A place where people could come and visit us, learn about what we were doing, try the product, and of course buy the product while they were there,” noted Sonat.
“I grew up in Chicago, so I know how Chicago works a little bit- ‘the city that works, but you have to know how it works.’ We looked at the entire city and figured out where we would want to locate our distillery in different wards. I then wrote about ten alderman letters about what we wanted to do and that I was interested in their ward. I received two responses. The first response I received was quite immediate from Gene Schulter, the alderman from the 47th ward. He called me and said ‘I love what you are doing, I want you to do this in my ward, and I know a location that would be perfect for you.’ We did like the location, and that was ultimately where we decided to start our distillery. I reached out to the right person, and that helped make it happen. It was very fairy tale.”
“If we were going to leave our careers, our well-established careers, to start a distillery we wanted to make sure that we were doing things at the highest possible quality. We wanted everything to be organic. Robert’s Grandparents always used organic raw materials and we wanted to do that as well. Our products are all certified Kosher, and we tried to work with farmers that are as local as possible. All of our corn comes from an organic farmer in Illinois.”
“We also wanted to make sure that we had our own signature style, and we didn’t want to do things the way that had been traditionally done in America. We only wanted to use the ‘heart cut’ of the distillate, which is the best portion of what comes off of the still. Robert’s family distills brandy, which are fruit spirits. If you are making apricot or pear brandy you would never use the ‘tails’ which comes off of the still last. The tails don’t taste all that great. Traditionally, American distilleries will take the heart cut, which is the best and purest portion of the distillate and mix it with the tails and age it for a long time, often adding caramel coloring and then putting it on the market. This is understandable, since American companies were often making millions and millions of gallons of whiskey and selling it all over the world. It would be financially difficult for them to not use whatever is usable. Where we differ greatly is that we are able to only focus on the best portion of the distillate, which is the heart cut. This is what the brandy makers in Austria do. This is our signature style. We are able to do this because we take our tails and redistill them, so you do get heart cuts again, pure ethanol that is not muddied by the bad flavors. However, since re-distilling tails strips it of it flavor and aroma, it is not a product we could use as a whiskey. The hearts produced by re-distilling the tails are used as a base for our liqueurs, which is a perfect application of the redistilled hearts. It doesn’t matter if you have stripped away the flavor and aroma of bases for liquors, because you want the liquor to taste like the flavor they are: ginger, rose hips, or caraway. Because we have such a large portfolio of products, it gives us that level of flexibility to focus not only on the best ingredients, but also the best portions of the distillates for our products,” explained Sonat.
“When we built our infrastructure for the distillery we had a slight advantage in that we are both fluent in German. A lot of the equipment for smaller scale distilleries comes from Germany. My husband spoke with all of the distilleries that were the equivalent of artisan/craft distilleries in Austria and Germany that he knew through his family’s connections, and found out all of the equipment that they were using. From there, he determined the best options for us.”
“Our ability to mobilize and organize quickly gained a lot of attention. A number of newspapers began to write about us. After that, we got a flood of phone calls from people interested in starting their own distilleries. That is why we also decided to start our own consulting company in tandem with starting KOVAL, called Kothe Distilling Technologies. We teach workshops, we represent many manufacturers of distilling equipment for craft distilleries, and we also promote using organic materials. We have taught a lot of people how to use our technique and create their own unique style, so now a lot of distilleries, especially craft distilleries, have started to promote the use of only the heart cut, which is something that Robert and I pioneered. Through our workshops we have now educated about 3500 people from all over the world. We have also helped set up 160 distilleries in the US and Canada over the last eight years.”
“Another way that we distinguished our distillery was by using unique alternative grains. Most distilleries in America, prior to the craft revolution, used a lot of the usual grains- rye, wheat, malted barley and corn. All wonderful grains with their own flavor, but we also wanted something slightly different, so we wanted to use other grains like millet, oats, and spelt to highlight how different grains can also add really unique flavor profiles that people never had an opportunity to try, maybe even one that could become an American favorite. Our bourbon, for example, is corn and millet- the only one on the market that uses such a unique mash bill. It’s also one of our best sellers worldwide,” said Sonat.
“We currently have 23 full time employees and about that many more working part-time. Some of our full time people are working abroad, two in Europe, one in Japan, and a part-time person in Australia. They primarily work in sales and marketing. Liquor is sexy to be honest, so there are a lot of people who want to work in the distilling industry, particularly since it is a rapidly growing industry. Individuals with a lot of training have no problem finding jobs because there simply are not a lot of people with experience doing this kind of job. There are a lot of people in the brewing world, because home brewing is allowed in the US, but home distilling is not, so there are not many opportunities to learn how to distill unless you work for a distillery. We have interested people all the time, but it has been up to us to train everybody. In fact, most of the distilleries in the Midwest have benefited from our employees because they have moved on to work for other distilleries, even our former interns have become full-time distillers or master distillers for other distilleries. With some knowledge in this industry you can go a long way. We take training very seriously, and we have a German model where you are learning on the job from a master distiller. All of our staff, even the office staff take our classes so they all understand what we do.”
“Robert and I are very ambitious individuals, although we focus on the day to day, we’re goal oriented- the journey is the goal. Although it started with just Robert and I and our son in a Pack ‘n’ Play, it all grew organically. We’re completely family owned and operated. A lot of the other craft distilleries that started around the same time we did have sold to much larger companies. We’ve said no to acquisition. We don’t have any investors. We have done all this very carefully ourselves. It started locally, then regionally, then nationally, and now internationally. We are now probably one of the most widely distributed American craft distilleries. We’re available throughout Europe, Japan, we’re in South Korea, we’re in Taiwan, we’re in Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, and almost all of Canada. We have plans to enter China and Thailand in 2018,” noted Sonat.
“We are not just marketing our products. We believe in creating the highest quality spirits we can, and we do that by design in every way, whether that is the equipment that we use, our method for distilling using only the heart cut, and our use of only the best organic grains we can find. That is our agenda. One can talk about marketing, but it’s really about having extremely high quality, and luckily, that appeals to people.”
To learn more about KOVAL Distillery, visit: http://www.koval-distillery.com/
To learn more about Kothe Distilling Technologies, visit: http://www.kothe-distilling.com/