Koval Distillery in Chicago has an award-winning pedigree that merits attention: Small Business Person of the Year in Illinois in 2017. Exporter of the Year for Illinois in 2016. And roughly 100 international awards for its spirits since it was established in 2008.
Bright, smooth, and rather fruit-forward, Koval’s whiskeys are foundational products of what Sonat Birnecker Hart, who owns and operates Koval with her husband, Robert Birnecker, calls the new school of whiskey. That new school, as well as the distinctive flavor profile of Koval’s whiskeys, rests largely on a production method that uses only the heart cut of distillation. During distillation, liquor emerges from the still in three phases, or cuts: heads (first), hearts (middle), and tails (last). The heart cut is the most prized of the lot and contains the purest aromatic and flavor compounds of the three.
“Traditionally, American whiskey is made using the heart cut and part of the tails. Then it’s aged in the barrel for a couple of years,” says Birnecker Hart. Barrel aging, she continues, mellows the harsher flavors of the tail with time, and whiskey made with tail cuts can make fantastic products. Koval redistills its tails and repurposes them for use in liqueurs.
“When you’re making millions and millions of gallons of whiskey for the world, you’re not getting rid of your tails,” she says, noting that Koval’s small size makes it easier to focus on the heart cut. “It would be financially irresponsible to do so.”
Birnecker, descended from a family of distillers and vintners in Austria, learned the craft of distillation alongside his grandfather. Through those lessons, Birnecker developed the idea of using only the heart cut for Koval’s products: Since isolating the heart cut made for better brandy, and fruit was harder to source than grain, why not use the same, heart-cut-only approach when it came to making grain-based liquors? Thus was Koval’s “new school” of whiskey born.
Koval whiskeys come in a palette of grains, including standards like rye, wheat, corn, and barley, as well as the less commonly used oat and millet. “We felt that the category needed some new styles and some new flavors, and we really loved the flavors we were getting out of millet and oat, and from mash bills that used those grains to make traditional American spirits, like bourbon,” says Birnecker Hart. Koval’s bourbon, which she calls “a bourbon with broader appeal,” uses millet alongside the requisite corn in its mash as opposed to barley, rye, or wheat. The resulting product has strong notes of apricot and vanilla and drinks startlingly clean.
Birnecker Hart was a tenured professor at Baltimore Hebrew University (now part of Towson University), and Birnecker was the deputy press secretary for the Embassy of Austria in Washington, D.C., when they put everything they had into opening Koval. Along with their six-month-old son, they moved in with Birnecker Hart’s family and invested what would have been a down payment on a D.C. home on their first still.
“We started to realize we didn’t want to settle in the D.C. area,” says Birnecker Hart. “We wanted to be in the city we loved and start a family there.”
In addition to creating a niche through its heart-cut-only approach, Koval is also a certified organic and kosher distillery. Each bottle of its whiskey can be traced to an individual farm, as Koval buys all its grains from a local co-op in the Midwest. Each batch is carefully tracked from field to still, where data is collected and inspected using sensory technology. Koval tracks steam pressure, flow rates, temperatures, and ambient (room) temperatures throughout distillation to figure out the variables that factor most in different outcomes.
“We’re still doing this in an artisan way, but we’re collecting big data,” says Birnecker Hart. “That way, if you do a really great run of rye, for instance, you can look back and see what made it a better yield than something you did six months ago.”
Koval’s heart cuts and lengths of barrel aging, she says, are still “made by hand”—determined using smell and taste as guides, and using the distillery’s distinctively bright and clean flavor profile as a measurement for consistency. Koval whiskeys can be aged anywhere between two and four years, with the goal of that flavor profile determining the length of aging, says Birnecker Hart. The data, she hopes, will quantify the reasons for the varied barrel-aging times required to reach Koval’s intended tastes.
Since opening nine years ago, Koval has expanded from roughly 1,000 square feet of production space to a 46,000-square-foot facility in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago that it will completely move into by the end of next year. The company also grew from two employees to 50, from producing one barrel of liquor every one or two weeks to making eight to 16 barrels a day, and from local sales to international distribution. Through Kothe Consulting, the Birneckers have also taken on the role of industry consultants, working with similar distilleries, such as Middle West Spirits in Columbus, Ohio, and Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, Michigan.
Says Birnecker Hart, “We pride ourselves on sharing information, to be industry leaders and industry innovators.”
Beyond its flagship lineup of single-barrel whiskeys—Oat, Millet, Rye, White Rye, Four Grain, and Bourbon—Koval makes occasional brandies and liqueurs, and a dry gin distilled from a white whiskey base. The distillery has also partnered with the brewery Mikkeller to make a breakfast-stout-inspired whiskey with chocolate malt and oats, and it may even have a peated single-malt whiskey in the works.
“We may have done it,” Birnecker Hart says, when asked about the foray into such a style. The experiment has yet to appear on shelves.
Bo McMillan is a writer who currently lives in Chicago and has covered food, drink, and culture for All About Beer Magazine, Paste Magazine, and CNBC, among others. He typically prefers beer and wine over liquor, but finds that rule softening with age—much like a well-barreled spirit, in fact.