With the amount of bars and taverns all over Chicago, it’s a surprise there hasn’t been a distilling boom to keep up with the amount we’re drinking—until now. Since the late 2000s, Chicago has steadily seen more craft distillers hit the scene, focusing on everything from whiskey and vodka to brandy and liqueurs. And it doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
Koval, the first distillery to open in Chicago since before Prohibition, is a labor of love between husband-and-wife team Robert and Sonat Birnecker. They both left academic jobs to pursue distilling and, after opening the all-organic Koval in 2008, have helped foster a new distilling landscape in Chicago. Koval produces a range of spirits—rye, bourbon, vodka, gin, apple brandy and more—as a single-barrel offering aged in 30-gallon charred barrels. The distiller is not afraid to experiment, which is obvious when you look at its varied products, like millet and oak whiskies; white spelt whiskey; ginger, orange blossom or caraway liqueur; and even sunchoke brandy.
Why here: Named one of the top 100 distilleries in the world to visit by Whisky magazine, Koval has won countless awards in the U.S. and abroad. It sources all of its grains from organic farms in the Midwest and filters Lake Michigan water with a natural charcoal purification system. You can take tours, cocktail classes and whiskey workshops on-site.
What to buy: Look for its bourbon, made with corn and millet, and the rose hip liqueur, which can be added to various spirits, teas and sparkling wine.
Few has become a darling of the craft distilling scene, and its reputation continues to flourish as it ages even more brown spirits, even gin—all of which get produced at its distillery down an alley in a former garage. Few takes its name from the initials of a well-known leader (Frances E. Willard) of the temperance movement, which was headquartered in Evanston where Few is now made. It offers $10 tours Thursday evenings and various times on Saturday afternoons, when you can also taste some of its spirits in its rustic tasting room.
Why here: Few is the first grain distiller ever to open within Evanston’s city limits and since opening in 2011 has spread its wings. Its spirits are available across about 20 states and 25 countries, including England, Germany, Singapore and Japan.
What to buy: Pick up the gold-medal-winning barrel-aged gin, as well as the rye whiskey, which was named the 2014 craft whiskey of the year by Whisky Advocate.
The newest player in the Chicago-area distilling scene, Whiskey Acres is also the second official farm distiller in the country. Located approximately an hour outside of the city in DeKalb, this estate distillery uses only the best grains grown on the adjoining Walter Farms, owned by father and son Jim and Jamie Walter, who, along with Nick Nagele, also own Whiskey Acres. Being able to mill corn, wheat and rye they grow on-site an hour before they need to cook a mash in a 60-year-old upcycled grain mill truly makes this a farm-to-still-to-barrel production. And since they grow the grains, they can experiment with different heirloom corn like Oaxacan green or blue hulless for very-small-batch whiskies. It doesn’t hurt that they hired former Maker’s Mark and current WhistlePig master distiller Dave Pickerell to consult when they first started up.
Why here: Whiskey Acres opened its standalone rustic tasting room in July 2015 in a former sleeping porch for farmhands that was renovated and enclosed using timber and stone from a nearby dairy farm. Weekend tours happen every hour, cost $10 and include three sample pours and a souvenir shot glass.
What to buy: Get a bottle of the un-aged corn whiskey, drop in the accompanying charred stave, and watch it age. Come mid-to-late 2016, be on the lookout for the first bourbon and rye releases, which have been barrel-aging for a couple of years.
Rhine Hall is in a class by itself as the city’s only brandy distillery, and it’s truly a family affair. Jenny Solberg Katzman and her dad, Charlie Solberg, partnered up to open this Fulton Market distillery in late 2013, and it has soared ever since. The elder Solberg played professional hockey in Austria in his youth, where he learned to distill brandy. He passed that skill on to Jenny and her four siblings and, in turn, the rest of us. Rhine Hall has nine products—apple, oak-aged apple, plum, mango, peach, pear and cherry brandies, grappa and oaked grappa—all 80 proof but smooth as hell. There’s no fiery burn you might associate with eau-de-vie, but there’s plenty of fresh fruit flavor without added sugar or residual sweetness. Many Chicago bars and restaurants incorporate Rhine Hall products into their cocktails.
Image: Michael Freimuth
Why here: Swing by the tasting room to sample the brandy straight or get it mixed into a Rhine Hall Old Fashioned with apple brandy, maple syrup and bitters, or a Jack Rose with apple brandy, housemade grenadine, lemon juice, bitters and simple syrup.
What to buy: Honestly, you can get anything and be happy, but both the peach and pear brandies have a certain wow factor.
With a name like Chicago Distilling Co., you’d think this place has been around forever, yet it only opened two years ago in early 2014. Since then, brothers Jay and Vic DiPrizio and Jay’s wife, Noelle, have gained a huge following among Chicago-area booze enthusiasts. They started with clear spirits—Ceres vodka, Finn’s gin and Shorty’s White whiskey. (Fun fact: Shorty was Noelle’s grandfather, who made moonshine in the north woods of Wisconsin.) Next came a barrel-aged version of the gin, which ages from three to six months and yields a bright, spicy gin in which peppercorn and lime shine through. Chicago Distilling has a series of single-malt-style whiskies, and its 90-proof, 19-month-aged bourbon, called Blind Tiger, arrives late March of this year.
Image: Kevin J. Miyazaki
Why here: CDC has built a fan following of some of Chicago’s top chefs. Case in point: Chef Giuseppe Tentori of GT Fish & Oyster collaborated with the DiPrizios on an amaro with 19 botanicals that macerates over a six-week period.
What to buy: Seek out the special single-malt whiskies (the Stouted offers rich chocolate coffee notes), but be sure to get your hands on either the regular or barrel-aged Finn’s gin.
Letherbee is one Chicago distillery not open to the public, but its spirits are widely available around town. Owner Brenton Engel toils away in the basement of a converted warehouse on the city’s North Side to create his critically acclaimed spirits, including gin, fernet, absinthe and besk, which is his take on malört. Engel produces seasonal treats in the form of vernal and autumnal gin, as well as barrel-aged absinthe, which was inspired by Ransom gin. He doesn’t strive to become a huge distillery and prefers to let the product sell itself, which it seems to be taking care of. In 2015, he sold 40,000 bottles in 13 states and recently started selling in Germany, England and Denmark. Not bad for an indie artisan distillery with a cult following.
Why here: Engel also teams with local bartenders to produce unique offerings, like a Pimm’s collaboration with recently opened Pub Royale. And the besk started as a partnership with Robby Haynes, who used to work at Violet Hour and now owns hot hipster hang Analogue.
What to buy: Not sure you want to invest in the full-size bottles? Letherbee also makes 200 milliliter bottles of its gin, besk and fernet, all around $13.
CH first started with vodka made exclusively from Illinois grain but has since expanded to offer gin, bourbon, limoncello, aquavit, rum, amaro and eau-de-vie. That said, if you’re into vodka, this is one of the premier spots to hit in Chicago. With spirits crafted by a team of self-proclaimed science nerds led by owner Tremaine Atkinson, CH offers a sleek, cool environment in which to hang out and sip award-winning premium spirits. (Its vodka took gold at the 2014 New York World Wine & Spirits Competition.)
Why here: Chicago’s Randolph Street is the super hot restaurant row with big-name chefs opening standing-room-only places at a furious clip around the West Loop. It only makes sense a high-end distillery followed suit.
What to buy: Definitely grab a bottle of the super clean vodka, but stock up on the Key gin (made with key limes), amaro and limited-edition 10-month-bourbon-barrel-aged rum crafted in partnership with chef Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat.