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KOVAL Distillery

Apr 28, 2017 Food & Beverage

In the mid-1800s, Chicago was on the precipice of becoming one of the world’s distillery capitals.

Surrounded by ample grain-producing farmlands, the city was a natural epicenter for fine spirits. But then came the Great Chicago Fire—and worse, Prohibition. The distilling momentum shifted from Chicago to Bourbon County, Kentucky. In 2008, however, the winds of change swept back toward the shores of Lake Michigan when master distiller Robert Birnecker and his wife, Sonat, left their academic careers and founded KOVAL—the first small-batch urban distillery to open in Chicago since the election of Abraham Lincoln. 

KOVAL's roots lie in Robert's family heritage, which includes three generations of Austrian distillers. This inherited knowledge and expertise led Robert to produce organic grain-to-bottle whiskey, liqueurs, and specialty spirits made from regionally grown oat, rye and millet—all non-GMO certified and sourced from Midwestern farms. By avoiding the common industry practice of purchasing premade spirits, KOVAL supports the local economy and sustainable agriculture, making it a business that exemplifies Illinois Made. 

Combining traditional artisan practices with advanced new technologies, Robert and his master distilling team craft their spirits from scratch, aging each batch in a single 30-gallon barrel—hence the term "single barrel"—to capture the charred oak flavor. KOVAL exclusively uses the "heart" cut of the distillate, resulting in a bright, clean whiskey born from a finely honed process. Every step—from milling to mashing to packaging—occurs onsite in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. That attention to detail means one can trace every batch down to its barrel, or even the specific shipments of the farmers' raw materials. 

KOVAL's spirits have won gold medals on both sides of the Atlantic, and distribution now reaches about 25 states as well as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Japan, Canada, and Australia. The international acclaim may only rise, too, as Whisky Magazine recently named KOVAL one of the top 100 distilleries to visit on the planet.

For his part, Robert hasn’t completely let go of his past life in academia. In recent years, he’s taught distilling techniques to more than 2,500 people and helped to set up more than 90 craft distilleries in the U.S. and Canada. And you can learn from him, too: in Chicago, KOVAL regularly offers distilling workshops, cocktail classes, and tasting pointers for amateurs and professionals alike.

So why "KOVAL"? In numerous Eastern European languages, the word means "blacksmith," but Yiddish also has an alternate translation—"black sheep," or someone who forges ahead or does something out of the ordinary. As one of America’s largest independent distilleries and the pioneer for a new generation of exceptional spirits, KOVAL has put Chicago back on the map for sophisticated whiskey drinkers the world over.

Discover more Illinois Artisans at Illinois Made.

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