Booze Banter

The Kids Are Alright. A Private Tour of Chicago’s Koval Distillery.


G-LO: We sure did pack a lot in during our short trip to Chicago. That “Maximize your time!” mantra of yours works every single time we get together. I’m talking three bars, one brewpub, a diner, a coffee shop, several liquor stores, a massive whisky show, a distillery, and a good bit of walking around. For a couple of old guys, we’re pretty spry.

AK: Life is short, Mi Amigo. Semper fi! Go for the gusto! Chi-town is built for that take-no-prisoners attitude. And 30° temperatures keep the body moving. Or you’ll die.

G-LO: Right on, Brother! Death would be bad, but it’s not the worst case scenario. Never being allowed to drink another drop of booze would be a fate worse than death. Give me whisky, or give me DEATH! And speaking of whisky, how about that Koval Distillery behind-the-scenes tour?

AK: Needless to say, we were treated to a great visit. I’ve been to many distilleries where it’s a handshake, a quick walk through, a bit of a taste of some whisky, and “Goodbye! Don’t let the door hit you on the way out”. This was not that. We got treated like actual humans!

G-LO: Speak for yourself, Pal! I ain’t no human. But I am an “Esteemed Member of The Media”. And yes, our tour guides, Abby and Mitch, were super gracious and very well informed of all the goings on at Koval. I was amused by the fact that they moved the distillery right down the street from where we went for this year’s Whisky Jewbilee Chicago. So if we overdid it the night before and never made it back to the hotel, we could have slept on their doorstep and still been right on time for the 10:30 tour. Granted, we’d have been smelly and not very presentable, but at least we’d have been on time.

AK: Punctuality is next to godliness, which is right next to gobblygook. Look it up, Mr. Webster. Abby and Mitch were downright perky compared to our post-Jewbilee butts. Last thing I remember from the night before was a bad bar experience on Clark Street in Andersonville. It was a scene out of Bar Rescue without the Jon Taffer rescue team. Maybe they were across the street spying on the goings-on from an unmarked panel truck.  Koval was a welcomed first world experience on a snow flurried morning.

G-LOI looked it up, and lo and behold, you spelled it wrong. Gobbledygook is how ya spell it, and I LOVE the definition according to the real Mr. Webster: wordy and generally unintelligible jargon. Kinda like most of our posts; chock full of gobbledygook! And so was our last stop in Andersonville the night before. The Old Fashioned that our surly 20-something bartendress made you was loaded with gobbledygood, and it tasted downright awful. That was the diviest dive bar that ever dived. It was the Triple Lindy of dive bars, but without the Rodney Dangerfield smart-alecky charm. Taffer would have thrown in a life preserver (or a grenade) and walked out. Nothing worth rescuing there.

And I wholeheartedly agree! Abby and Mitch were positively delightful. I would have been pleased as punch to spend the afternoon with those Kids whilst sampling the entire Koval line-up. Before we get to the tasting part of our visit, did I hear them correctly when they said that they went from an 11,000 sq ft facility to a 40,000+ sq ft facility? That’s one hell of an expansion for a distillery that’s only 10 years old. Fact check me, Bro!

AK: I’ll have to go to the videotape to fact check that factoid. All I know is that their new facility was pretty darn big. I’ve gotten used to seeing distilleries and breweries start up in little warehouse spaces that were formerly the home of Atlas Wholesale Tool Co., or Stevens Aircraft Parts, or Zyndex, or Quantix, or iZynQuanDataSys. This place didn’t formerly house some rinky dink business that went belly up after eight years. This place had to have been a factory where things were built by people. With hands. Connected to the same people. And now Koval is doing the same. Building whisky. With hands.

G-LO: “Pretty darn big” is a perfect way to describe the new Koval space. I remember staring at the big open space in front of us as we waited for Abby and Mitch, and thinking, “That’s an awfully big waiting room. They must have big plans in the works!”. I’d say they definitely do based upon what we saw in the distillery part of our tour. And speaking of distilling, I think I’m finally understanding what they mean when they talk about making their cuts (i.e. heads vs. hearts. vs tails). Guess it would help if I read a book about the process one of these days. Pity that’s actual work.

I got more fact checking for ya! Did I hear them correctly when they said that they only run a single distillation process, as opposed to a double or triple distillation process? Something about deep “heart cuts”, or something along those lines. Sounds to me like the kids at Koval threw out the rule book and decided to go their own way.

AK:  Correct. Single distillation all done in a uniquely designed still system that they can change on the fly depending upon what’s being made that day.  Every distiller has their own little, or not so little, unique thing about the way they make their juice.  Koval has many little parts that they call their own, not the least of which is that they are 100% organic which is 100% more work from a compliance standpoint. Ever try to source cage-free barley?

G-LO: Cage-free barley? Is that a thing? If it is, I bet that’s some really happy barley. , And by the way, I’m very impressed with your memory. Sounds like you were paying close attention while I was shutterbugging.

AK: Plenty of interesting details from our guides. My people will be glad to know that Koval is Kosher too. That’s a whole different level of details. Interesting to choose organic and Kosher to (a) hang your hat on and (b) believe in. Hope they add a pastrami liqueur in the future.

G-LO: Ohhhh! A pastrami liqueur would be stellar. And if anyone could figure out how to do it, it’d be the mad scientists at Koval. But in the meantime, while they’re doing the voodoo that they do so well, let’s make a couple of these cocktails and order some pastrami on rye sandwiches from Canter’s Deli

Running a conventional distillery can’t be easy. Adding certified organic and Kosher just adds to that already complex complexity, but it also insures that pretty much anyone will buy your product. Well, anyone over 21 at least.

Checking out the stills and all those lovely barrels filled with all kinds of spirits was good fun, but what really took this tour to the next level was checking out the bottling run. It was like being on set for the filming of a “How It’s Made” video. The Boys and I have spent many a Sunday morning watching “How It’s Made” marathons. You never really think of all the engineering and product development that goes into making the machines that make things. Loved watching how they sterilize, fill, cork, and label those bottles! It served as a nice bookend to our tour.

AK: That was spectacular, but walking into that airplane hangar of a warehouse was awesome. Boxes of bottles as far as the eye could see. And that’s not even where they age the juice! That would be another pin on the map of whiskey heaven. I almost ditched you, Abby, and Mitch to hide behind a few pallets of Rye because, well… just because. But then I realized that (a) you’d miss me, and (b) it must get really cold in there. I like distilleries that do as much as they can under one roof. Obviously, as you get bigger that gets harder to do.

G-LO: I’d miss you? Somebody sure thinks mighty highly of themselves. OK.. FINE! So maybe I’d miss you a little. Bastard.

So true about how much they can get accomplished under one roof. And the really crazy thing is that they’re not completely settled in the new space, so I’m sure if we check in on them in a year, they’ll be doing even more under that big-ass roof of theirs.

While the behind-the-scenes tour was good fun, I thought our post-tour tasting was even more funner(?), more fun(?), funnier(?). And the fact that we got to sample a pretty big chunk of their line-up before noon makes it even more funnerer!

AK: Considering it was snowing all morning and I was freezing, nothing sounded better than a late morning tipple or two. And since I’ve only tried a few out of the Koval line, this was really interesting and more funner(?), more fun(?), funnier(?)! The sampling, not the snowing and freezing.

G-LO: We are simpatico regarding the weather. While I may live in the Northeastern United States, my blood is Sicilian and it doesn’t like the cold very much, so yes, a late morning tipple (or in our case, 5 or 6) was very, very welcome.

I too have sampled some Koval spirits, mostly at several Jewbilee events, but have never spent all that much time with them, so I usually lose all of their finesse when having them alongside many a high octane spirit. And when I say finesse, I mean that they are making some very subtle and highly approachable spirits under that mega-roof of theirs. I believe we tried the standard Bourbon, the Rye, and a cask strength Bourbon, along with the Barrel Aged Gin and the Cranberry Gin. How’s my memory, Chief?

AK: Well, we started with the 100% Birdseed. Errr… I mean 100% Millet, which was pretty interesting. Sweet. Easy and smooth. A bit spicy, and quite the long finish.  I tawt it was pwetty tasty, Sylvester!

Then we had the Rye. Smooth, buttery, not sharp. Right in my wheelhouse, Harry Carey.

Then Gentleman Mitch treated us to a wee bit of a cask strength Bourbon from a private barrel. Good lordy, oh my, was that one special! 55%, or eight clicks above the standard offering. They need to put something like that out in the regular line-up, if you ask me. No one ever asks me.

Then it was the Four Grain which was a panoply of flavors. Wheat, Rye, Oatmeal and Malted Barley. 30-30-20-20, if you’re scoring at home. Apparently, this was a delicious accident from a bunch of leftover grains that they threw together. And voilà! All aged for six months in a #3 char American Oak barrel.

Lastly, we hit the Cranberry Gin at 30% ABV. It’s their standard Gin recipe but with organic cranberries from Wisconsin, then proofed down. Sweet and tart, with a neat little Gin finish. Sure didn’t taste like whatever I was expecting. I’m not sure what I was expecting. I liked this one so much that I bought a bottle at Binny’s for Mrs. Satellite Engineer to experiment with.

G-LO: Geez, Tweety, my memory ain’t so good with regards to the whisky. I think I scored a 50/100 which if my long-term memory serves me well would equate to an F on the high school grading scale. Not good, but at least I got the Gin bit right, though I could swear I tried their Barrel Aged Gin in addition to that delicious Cranberry Gin.

My memory may suck, but Koval’s spirits most definitely do not. While I generally prefer a whisky with some bite, I can also appreciate a subtler and more easy drinking spirit as well. All four of the whiskies we tried were really interesting and very easy drinking, even the cask strength Bourbon which I would have never guessed was 55% ABV. That was delicious as-is and needed no water to enjoy. The Rye was also really tasty and definitely different from other Rye whisky that I’ve had. It was very fruity with much less bitey spice. It was closer to the Catoctin Creek Rye that we tried at Jewbilee Chicago the night before which was also really mellow and easy drinking.

As far as that Cranberry Gin goes, if it wasn’t for the fact that I wanted to avoid the whole checked luggage thing for the flight home, I too would have bought a bottle. Such a fun and versatile spirit! It was lightly sweet, lightly tart with a mild pucker, and had just enough Gin flavor to get the wheels turning with regards to cocktailing with it. I enjoyed it on it’s own and could see it being used in a variety of beverages, i.e. something as simple as a highball with sparkling water and a wedge of lemon, a holiday friendly punch, or maybe even a cranberry martini. I’m guessing Mrs. Satellite Engineer will have mucho mucho fun with this elixir!

AK: Koval really has an interesting lineup. We didn’t even get into all the Rye based liqueurs they have. I’m sure those are packed with flavor. And very prettily bottled. It seems as if they are doing some backroom experimentations with barrels from the local breweries, coffee-mongers, and a cider maker. Love the quest for the wild and wacky!

G-LO: And if anyone knows from wild and wacky, it’s YOU, Mi Amigo! Speaking of their Rye based liqueurs, LimpD and I reviewed their Ginger Liqueur many moons ago. It was really really nice with a great balance of sugary sweetness and tingly ginger. If your curiosity has been piqued, you can read all about it by clicking these words. How’s THAT for a shameless plug?

In case you couldn’t tell, I really enjoyed our time at Koval, and Abby and Mitch’s enthusiasm was downright infectious! Those Kids know their stuff and they were a joy to spend time with. And now that I have a greater appreciation for what they’re doing at Koval, I will definitely keep their spirits on my watch list.

Any final thoughts?

AK:  I agree wholeheartedly! Our hosts treated us with true Midwest hospitality and flavor. And flavor is what really makes Koval stand out to me. Their range really stretches the flavor spectrum and even gets into the weird and wacky which is right up our alley. Tie all that up with their 100% organic bow, and you really have something special.

G-LO: Well said! We most definitely like our packages to be both pretty AND flavorful. Koval’s offerings are most definitely all that. And so much more!

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