Robert Birnecker dreamed of taking Austria’s time-honored distillery tradition to the United States. His Koval brand has achieved that dream – though not with Old World-style fruit brandies, but by producing distinctly New World whiskeys. Two years after the company’s founding, his white rye won a gold medal at the renowned Destillata competition …
You originally set out to produce fruit brandies, but now you primarily distill whiskey. How did that happen?
Because we’re Chicago’s first distillery since 1890, the permit process took longer than expected. When the okay finally arrived, it was December and impossible for us to access seasonal fruit. But in the long-term, that was a stroke of luck.
We ended up being able to distill very successful white spirits from cereal grains. We then began producing our whiskies, which don’t fit Scottish, Irish or classic American profiles, but have their own identities entirely.
How did you decide to use millet?
In the beginning, we were only distilling wheat and rye. That quickly became boring. Because you can theoretically make whiskey from any grain that contains starch, we decided to try using oats, spelt, and millet. Millet is particularly interesting because it produces an unbelievably sweet mash. When we turn millet into mash, our employees take cups of it to drink, because it tastes like milk with honey.
And a lot of sugar means a lot of alcohol in the end product …
Exactly. Rye yields a pretty meager result. Millet, by contrast, is wonderful. I had been pretty strongly against bourbon for years, because corn distillates can taste very spirity and harsh. But our bourbon, with its combination of 51 percent corn and 49 percent millet, has a vanilla note and light popcorn aroma from the corn, while the millet’s sweetness mellows everything out.
Then it must go well with a cigar?
Absolutely. I don’t smoke myself, but during tastings with passionados, the combination has been very well-received. Stronger cigars go very well with our bourbon and our Four Grain – both have 47 percent vol. and distinctive aromas. For a lighter cigar, I would recommend the Millet, our pure millet whiskey, with 40 percent vol.
You don’t have an aged cigar whiskey in your repertoire?
No, because long storage doesn’t really suit our style. However, we have custom-made whiskeys with 55 percent vol. for various clients.
What do you use for barrels?
We use 30-gallon barrels made from young American oak, with a light to medium char. For a long time we looked for a producer who was willing to make them according to our specifications. Normally, barrels are sealed with paraffin, a petroleum product. In order to maintain our organic certification, we needed to seal them with beeswax instead. He was the only one who said, “Okay, let’s try it.” Now he builds all his barrels this way.
Your distillates are also certified kosher. What does that mean?
Just like with the organic certification, it means that we don’t add anything – no flavors, no colors. We only use water, grain, enzymes and yeast. In the US, the kosher stamp is a seal of quality, even for non-Jews. We are inspected four times a year by the Orthodox Union, the country’s highest certifying body.
How do you store your barrels?
Chicago’s climate is a little different than Kentucky’s. Our storage areas have a constant temperature of around 68 degrees, and we only store up to four stacks high. Otherwise it would be impossible to create a single barrel that meets our standards.
There are people who paint a 40-inch container black and put it outside in the summer. That gives you storage conditions like in the Caribbean, with up to 12 percent evaporation in the alcohol and a faster maturation. But that just isn’t compatible with our style.
The term “craft distilling” was coined in the US – how would you define it?
It depends – there’s not just one kind of craft distillery. Some people buy whiskey from large distillers and refine the product. Others use a neutral alcohol and spices for their gin. And there are people like us, who do everything ourselves from the ground up. For us, it’s all about consistency and quality. Every step in our fully-automated, 5,000-liter distillery is strictly controlled. We’ve partnered with Kothe, a professional distilling equipment company, to develop complex software that allows me complete oversight of the distillation process via my smartphone.
Has the competition gotten tougher?
When we started in 2008, there were around 35 registered distilleries in the US. Today there are over 600, some of which are making quite extraordinary products. Back then, nobody was asking questions like, “Could you please tell me how to find Heaven Hill Distillery?” But now they’re showing up.
For the big distilleries, that’s not always so comfortable. I think this increased demand has to do with the internet’s vast wealth of possibilities, as well as consumers’ thirst for knowledge. But the main reason is that people are starting to be interested in whiskey again. Smaller distilleries are cropping up everywhere, not just in the US. It’s an exciting time – whiskey still has a lot more to offer.
Interview: Elmar Schalk & Nina Bauer
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Spring Edition 2015. Read more