Just a few blocks from Hollywood Beach in Andersonville is Koval, Chicago’s first boutique distillery since the days of prohibition. Robert and Sonat Birnecker, the husband-and-wife team behind Koval, handcraft vodka, whiskey, brandy and liqueurs entirely from scratch, drawing on Robert’s long lineage in the brewery business as well as the farm-fresh grains and produce the Midwest region has to offer.
Unlike many small-batch producers, Koval doesn’t start with a pre-made base. From mashing to bottling, they keep the entire process in-house, distilling their entirely organic spirits in a custom-built Kothe Destillationstechnik potstill from Germany. The still’s elongated whiskey helmet, designed specifically for grain spirits, allows a greater surface area for the liquor to develop a full aroma and distinct flavor.
Koval started out by producing five single-grain white whiskeys, which are more flavorful than vodka and slightly more intense than aged whiskey. With its powerful punch, white whiskeys make great mixed drinks. For sippers, they also distill regular and dark single-grain aged whiskeys, branded under the name Lion’s Pride. Like the white whiskeys, the Lion Pride varieties include rye, wheat, oat, spelt and millet, all matured in new American oak barrels sourced from The Barrel Mill in central Minnesota.
We tried a few of Koval’s spirits, finding that each style had a definitively different flavor. The Levant Spelt white whiskey tastes like a slightly bland moonshine, but would serve as a good base for a cocktail with heartier mixers, while the sweeter Lion’s Pride regular rye would work well in a Manhattan that’s easy on the vermouth. We enjoyed the Lion’s Pride dark millet as a sipping whiskey, and the rosehip liqueur would go great in a lavender martini or other floral drink.
Prices vary depending on type, but on average a 750-milliliter bottle of Koval whiskey runs around $40 and sells online from West Lakeview Liquors or from Koval’s brick-and-mortar shop.