From full time professor in the United States and Germany to ushering in a new style of American whiskey. Meet Sonat Birnecker Hart, Co-Founder and President of Koval Distillery, the first distillery in Chicago since the mid-1800s.
Corinne: Can you tell us a little about yourself, your background and why you chose to go into distilling spirits?
Sonat Birnecker Hart: After receiving an MSt from Oxford and a PhD from the University of London, I spent over a decade teaching and lecturing in the United States and Germany. In 2008, I gave up tenure to find a different quality of life — one that would afford me an opportunity to work with my husband and Chicago, the city I loved. Robert and I saved enough money for a down payment on a modest house, but instead of using the money to buy a house, we bought a still, moved into my parent’s home in Chicago, and started the first distillery in Chicago since the mid-1800s.
You have successful set up the first distillery in Chicago since the mid-1800s. What were some of the challenges you faced?
The beginning was difficult, but a fun kind of difficult—like studying very hard for an exam and feeling good about one’s preparation. We did absolutely everything ourselves. Aside from the overall challenges of growing our business, we were also confronted with the need to change the laws in Illinois. We lobbied and worked to change the Illinois liquor laws, and ultimately changed the laws to establish a Craft Distillers License, making it possible to have a small retail component, reduced licensing fees, tasting room, and tours. This has revolutionized the liquor industry in Illinois and has paved the way for a number of other local distillery businesses.
The liquor industry is very expensive, and we started with only $30,000. Finding ways to finance our growth was a challenge, particularly when we needed to put away enough whiskey for what we estimated we would sell three, four, five years into the future. We were determined to remain independent and thus needed to find ways to finance everything without taking on investors. We decided to use our intellectual capital — particularly our distilling knowledge and experience — in creative ways. To this end, we grew our business by educating others in the art of distilling through another company we set up: Kothe Distilling Technologies. We found that sharing our knowledge not only helped others find the information and assistance they needed to reach their dreams, it also helped us grow our business. This helped us grow in the beginning, and it has made it possible to be one of the few completely independent family owned and operated artisan distilleries of our size and scope in the United States. Since we started, we have educated over 3,500 people in the art of distilling and set up over 160 distilleries, in addition to white label projects for well-known and small craft distilleries.
In terms of whiskey production, Koval is renowned for bringing a new style of American whiskey that focuses on the pure “heart cut” of the distillate. Can you please elaborate on that?
Our focus on using only the ‘heart cut’ is in contrast to the common industry practice of mixing ‘tails’ with the ‘heart cut’ and then aging in a heavily charred barrel. Tails on their own taste and smell like a wet dog and contain Propanol, Butanol, Amyl and fusel oils, which tend to muddy the pure character of the ‘hearts.’ KOVAL’s approach came from a desire to use the same strict cuts that brandy makers use for fruit distillates in Austria and apply them to grain. We knew this would allow us to develop a clean, bright style of whiskey. After teaching this approach for nine years in our classes and through our consulting, many artisan and craft distilleries have also adopted this approach, and proudly promote their adherence to KOVAL’s new school of American whiskey making.
Tell us about the various Koval’s whiskey expressions and what sets them apart from other craft whiskeys?
First and foremost, we are committed to using only the best ingredients. We believe this starts with using organic grains, not only because the rye, corn, millet and other grains we use are grown without pesticides, but also because being organic affords us a way for us to support sustainable agriculture. In making everything from scratch, we are able to monitor the entire process from start to finish, and we can trace every bottle back to the grain shipment, and even where and when it was harvested. Another mark of distinction is, as I mentioned, the importance of using only the ‘heart cut’ of the distillate, which allows us to focus on incredibly clean, bright characteristics. Not only did we want to offer a new style of American whiskey, we also wanted to expand the whiskey category by using unique grains such as millet and oat. Our Bourbon for example is made with corn and millet, creating an unexpected flavor profile that further develops the Bourbon canon in a way that has appealed to those who are not normally drawn to Bourbon. Using oat in in our Four Grain adds a lovely creaminess to the mouth feel that we could not have achieved with the other grains in it (malted barley, rye, wheat) alone. One thing that we are very proud of is that when we say a product is a Rye whiskey, it is 100% rye. This is not always the case for American Rye whiskey, as it is only required that they have 51% rye to call it a Rye. All of our whiskeys are single barrel.
Can you tell us about the aging process of the whiskey?
We age our whiskey in 30-gallon medium char (alligator char) American Oak barrels from Minnesota. Using each barrel only once, every whiskey we age extracts the full range of flavor from the oak. The barrels are also of extremely high quality as the wood is seasoned for 36 months and the heads are also charred in addition to the barrel. Each one is sealed with beeswax, while others in the industry are sealed with paraben wax, a byproduct of oil refining, which unlike beeswax can at times enter the barrel.
Our whiskeys are aged between three and four years, and we pull barrels as soon as they attain the flavor profile we want. We use the barrels for the natural color and flavor they impart, and because we only use the heart cut of the distillate, for us the aging process is one of refinement. We do not need to rely on the barrel as a filter for off flavors associated with the tails, as is common in the industry. All of our barrels are New American Oak and come from Minnesota.
Koval also produces a Dry Gin and a Barrelled Gin made from a rye whiskey base. What botanicals are used and how is the gin produced?
Most gins on the market begin with a neutral grain spirit. We start our gin with a rye white whiskey base, which brings a natural spiciness and floral component to the gin before we even add any botanicals. Some of the main botanicals used in the gin aside from juniper berries are rose hips, grains of paradise, angelica root and coriander. Before we distill the botanicals we macerate them in the rye white whiskey and then we distill them for a double extraction.
The Barrelled Peach Brandy is a new expression available in Australia. Will we see more liqueurs and specialty spirits from Koval?
Indeed! We love to work on new and interesting projects and have a number of them in the works. Some are fun collaborations with other brands, while others are new expressions of whiskey or other distilled spirits that we have yet to release.
You also co-founded Kothe Distilling Technologies, educated over 3500+ aspiring distillers and helped set up over 160 distilleries in the last 9 years. What trends/evolutions have you seen in craft distilling in recent times?
We have seen a lot of things chance since we started, most of all innovation. Artisan brands are not afraid to try new things and, in order to succeed, they have to be very good. Gin has become an extremely popular category all over the world and I think that rum and brandy is going to gain in popularity going forward. It is a very exciting time to be a part of this industry. Recent trends are more business related, as we have seen a lot of consolidation in the industry, with large brands purchasing smaller brands.
What advice would you give women contemplating a career change into distilling, and have you encountered any challenges being a woman in the industry?
Women were among the first distillers in history and distilling itself was, until only recent history, associated with women. In this industry, I have worked with, and known women who own their own distribution companies, manufacture spirits, create brands, and are top sales people. Women are integral to this industry. In fact, a woman is credited with developing the first still. So, if anything, women are just carrying on a very longstanding tradition being a part of this industry.
Are there any new developments for Koval distillery that you can share with us?
We recently purchased a 46,000-square-foot factory that will allow us to expand well into the future. We will be releasing more in our Susan for President line of fruit brandies and we have a number of collaborations in the works. For us however, the journey is the goal; we are doing something we enjoy, with family, in a city we happily call home. Whatever happens in the coming years, I hope that this remains the same.
In partnership with Noble Spirits, distributors of Koval in Australia.
Photo Credit – Supplied.