KOVAL Distillery is beginning to make its way around the world. It is certainly developing its presence in London. Robert and Sonat Birnecker, the husband and wife team behind KOVAL Distillery, left their successful careers in politics and academia to start the first distillery in Chicago since the mid-1800s. They made this switch so that they could work together and live in the city they loved: Chicago. Little did they know they would be responsible for a veritable whiskey revolution. In addition to KOVAL, they own and operate Kothe Distilling Technologies, a leading consulting firm for the craft industry. In under ten years, they have educated 2,700 people from around the world in the art of distillation, set up 160 distilleries in the US, Canada, and Scandinavia, while garnering over 50 international awards for their own spirits and growing KOVAL into America’s largest independent, family owned and operated distillery.
When starting KOVAL, the Birneckers wanted to differentiate their whiskey from others on the market in two main ways: their use of unique organic raw materials and an innovative process. Indeed, KOVAL is widely credited with ushering in a new style of American whiskey that focuses on the pure “heart cut” of the distillate. This is in contrast to the common industry practice of adding “tails” to the heart cut in a barrel. Tails on their own taste and smell like a wet dog and contain Propanol, Butanol, and fusel oils, which muddy the character of the hearts. Robert comes from three generations of brandy makers in Austria, and wanted to focus on developing a clean, bright, style of whiskey. Inspired by the strict cuts brandy makers’ use for fruit distillates in Austria, Robert knew that applying this approach to grain would be a mark of distinction. As Robert explains, “If my grandfather chooses not to add tails to his pear brandy to achieve a vivid, rich pear flavor, I thought it also a fitting approach to whiskey.” As a result, all of KOVAL’s whiskeys have a clean, bright, grain forward character. After teaching this approach to whiskey making for 9 years, many American artisan and craft distilleries have also adopted this approach, and proudly promote their adherence to the “heart cut” approach.
KOVAL not only exemplifies a new style of whiskey through its process, it’s founders have also been named “leaders of the alt grain scene” by Wine Enthusiast for working with less obvious whiskey grains such as oat and millet. As Sonat explains, “We did not want to use the same mash bills as everyone else, so we chose grains such as oat and millet, which offer luscious new flavor profiles.” Indeed, their Bourbon is unlike any in its category—with a mash bill of corn and millet—while their Four Grain, a recent highlight of Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible, is a complex quartet of oat, malted barley, rye and wheat. KOVAL also makes a 100% Millet, and 100% Oat. All of their whiskeys are single barrel and aged in new American oak.
KOVAL is not only known for its whiskey. In fact, their gin has received numerous awards, including a double gold at San Francisco World Spirits, for both the distillate itself as well as its innovative laser cut packaging. The base for this gin is a white rye grain spirit (called a white whiskey in the US). Thus the base distillate already has a degree of spiciness from the rye and floral bouquet. KOVAL then macerates 13 botanicals in the rye base for a first extraction before the second infusion via distillation. KOVAL also has a barrel-aged iteration of its gin, which serves to opens up the category for new interpretation.
KOVAL does not seem to be slowing down any time soon. The company recently purchased the building that houses its main production facility on Chicago’s North Side and launched a new line of fruit brandies named after Sonat’s late aunt called, Susan for President. While bottles are rare, they are worth the hunt. When asked to consider what is next, Sonat said,
We are doing what we love, with those we love, in a place we are proud to call home. The journey is really the goal and we aim to do our best each day and count our blessings.
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