It’s common knowledge that Chicago is one of the best drinking cities in the country. (GQ proves it here if you haven’t quite caught on.) We have world class bars ranging from classy cocktail spots to drown-your-sorrows dive bars, plus those catering to specific spirits (whiskey bars, beer bars, even a Champagne bar).
Chicago’s liquor-loving culture isn’t surprising considering the role the city played in Prohibition. After all, this is where the era’s most notorious criminal, Al Capone, gained gangster fame. Apparently the ready-to-imbibe mentality stuck around well after Prohibition was repealed more than 80 years ago.
Along with Al Capone (who was eventually captured by the FBI), once Prohibition ended all of the distilleries disappeared from Chicago’s streets. More specifically, the distilleries that closed during Prohibition never opened back up after it was repealed. It wasn’t until 2008 — yes, less than a decade ago! — that a distillery opened within the city’s limits. (Even the beer brewing scene didn’t pick up until the early 90s.)
In 2008 Koval Distillery opened its doors, becoming Chicago’s first distillery since Prohibition. Originally started with the intention of making brandy, Koval quickly turned to whiskey. And considering that their spirits have won numerous awards around the world, it was a pretty smart decision.
Eventually (and I mean in a very short period of time) Koval expanded their product line to include several types of whiskeys, gin, vodka and liqueurs.
Koval prides itself in being kosher, organic and local, with what they call “grain-to-bottle” distilling. Local farmers grow the grain that is milled and mashed on-site, where it’s also distilled, bottled, aged and packaged. Every bottle can be traced back to its barrel and every barrel’s ingredients can even be traced back to the farmers who grew it. Even the water is from Lake Michigan.
Being the whiskey lover that I am, I was most excited to taste their line of whiskeys when I toured the Koval Distillery. Located in Ravenswood, the distillery offers several tours a week, plus cocktail classes and whiskey workshops. They make six types of whiskey: bourbon, four grain, millet, oat, rye and rye white whiskey.
I have a soft spot for bourbon and while I liked Koval’s, my favorite whiskey was actually the Four Grain — a blend of malted barley, oat, wheat and rye. Our tour guide described it perfectly: “it drinks like a scotch, it’s smooth like brandy, sweet like cognac and spicy like rye.” I loved the complexity and the stand-alone flavor.
But what really blew me away — and I apologize to the whiskey gods — is the gin. I’m a newcomer to the gin fan club and don’t pretend to know much about it, but Koval’s Dry Gin was so floral and aromatic that I wanted to drink it straight. And while that’s my go-to way for whiskey, I’ve never felt that way about gin before.
Koval changed Chicago’s distilling scene not just by becoming the city’s first distillery since the mid 1800s, but by actually helping other distilleries open in the area and around the country (by offering workshops and training), even lobbying to change an Illinois law preventing distilleries from giving tours and samples. Now Chicago is full of distilleries and Koval creators Sonat and Robert Birnecker have helped more than 70 distilleries open throughout the U.S. and Canada.
With the Birneckers’ help, and with Koval growing in popularity, in a few years Chicago will be famous for being one of the best spirit-making cities in the country, in addition to one of the best places to consume it.
Go to Koval Distillery for :: a tour of the distillery and to taste the entire line of Koval products. Notes :: Tours are $10/person and offered several times a week. Sign up beforehand online here. All products are 10% off after the tour.
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