A revolutionary spirit since its birth, breaking the mould is nothing short of normal for the first distillery in Evanston since Prohibition. Heralding from just outside of Chicago, Illinois, FEW American Gin is a distillery gin fans NEED to discover.
It’s ironic that the F.E.W Gin range is made in the town of Evanston, Illinois, as it is also the same town that lays claim to being the birthplace of the Women’s Temperance Movement (an influential protagonist in the story of Prohibition). The gins are certainly different, not only from a flavour perspective but also the distillery’s experiments and one-off bottlings too. It would be an understatement to say that this gin has our curiosity at fever pitch…
Founded as a dry community, Evanston was once a major hotbed of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the long-time home of suffragist and prohibitionist Frances Elizabeth Willard. As the Temperance Movement approached boiling point, abstinence began to creep across the country and reputedly, Willard and her league of temperance supporters turned Evanston into a stronghold. Missing out on much of the story (as Prohibition deserves books on the topic alone and our glancing comments wouldn’t do it justice), we’ll just say that they had recruited many to their cause, and despite the Noble Experiment coming to an end, the city of Evanston remained free of alcohol for much longer. By the time it was legalised in the late 1990’s, Evanston had been dry for over 100 years (an article from the Chicago Reader cites dry rulings going all the way back to 1855).
F.E.W’s Master Distiller Paul Hletko furthered the end of Evanston’s prolonged Prohibition in the spring of 2011 when he gave the city its very own craft distillery. It is thanks to his determination and perseverance that the lengthy dry period ruled by antiquated local liquor laws was, at last, lifted of the final remanence of Prohibition’s legacy. The name F.E.W is part word play around the quantity they were making, there being only a few bottles and part nod to one of the city’s most historic figures – note the full stop between the letters that match the initials of Frances Elizabeth Willard. The label and the website, on the other hand, evoke the iconography and imagery of Chicago’s World Fair of 1893. It is clear that F.E.W Spirits are not only witty wordsmiths, but also have an eye for imaginative design – two things we approve of strongly.
So what about the gin itself? We’re not going to deny that when American gin producers begin a description of their own gin as “a new kind of gin” with “subdued juniper”, we grimaced a little at what the result might be and how far into flavoured vodka territory we’ll be venturing. Thankfully, this fear was ill founded and in this case, the gins are worthy of some serious attention.
To avoid confusion – let’s state this for the record – F.E.W make many gins; American Gin, Standard Issue Gin (also know as Navy Strength Gin) and Barrel-Aged Gin are all part of their portfolio. There are also variants (with barrel batches and ABV’s, for example Cask Strength Barrel-Aged Gin). There are occasional trial gins exclusive to those who visit the distillery and more recently a growing cult following around their Breakfast Gin. It’s a veritable juni-palooza over there…
Based on the American gins that we’ve tasted over the years, we would say that on the whole, those that are deemed classic are by traditional London Dry standards actually not so much so. If you could allow us a gross generalisation we would also mention that they tend to be more citrus heavy. It’s obviously not true for all of the American gins, it is a generalisation after all! For example Junípero is one of the most juniper punchy gins around, but as a quick overview of the many American Gins on the market, the subdued juniper, citrus forward flavour profile seems to be a common trend (we are being a little subjective here again). Given the billing, it was therefore with a lot of preconceptions that we delved into the glass.
FEW Gin is made using a base of grain including corn, wheat, and non-malted barley, along with 11 botanicals including juniper, citrus lemon and orange peel, Tahitian vanilla, cassia, grains of paradise and home-grown hops. It tastes lemony, with a creamy vanilla texture and accompanied by other flavours we would associate with maltier genevers, rather than gins. The hops for example, give a different feel and aroma (grainy, lemony tones) but there’s enough of a tingle of juniper to keep it balanced. The earthy botanicals and spiced notes anchor the gin and give it a peppery bite to finish. The base spirit and the cereals used to create it have clearly imparted both subtle flavour here as well as a unique mouthfeel. We feel it plays a large part of why the gin is so special and different to the rest and why we’d recommend it with Ginger Ale over a G&T.
Master Distiller Hlekto, takes a grain-to-glass approach and doesn’t buy in Neutral Grain Spirit, but rather does it all in-house. FEW Spirits buy all their corn from a farmers’ co-op in Indiana and the rest of the grains from farmers in SE Wisconsin, creating their own base for all the spirits they make. For the fermentation they take high-enzyme malt as well as rye, corn and wheat and mash them. They don’t sparge the mash since they want a very concentrated sugary output for when the yeast is added. Interestingly for you yeast nuts out there, Hlekto chooses yeast strains that impart flavour rather than reach exceedingly high alcohol levels.
This attention to detail and their search to produce the exact flavours they are looking for is testament to the care and true craft they are seeking to achieve – we feel that this is reflected in the gin.
First launched in August 2011, FEW American Gin is a worthy addition to the craft distilled gin category. As mentioned above, we tasted it with a lot of expectations and were relieved to find a balanced gin with a lot of complexity both from the base and the botanicals. We expected it to be well made – anyone who takes a grain-to-glass approach is always going to produce a well-rounded product – but on occasion some of these (by other craft distillers) have not been very “ginny”. FEW American Gin is definitely modern in its profile, but not so far that it is not recognizable as a gin. We enjoyed it, especially in a refreshing Summery G&T or Martinez.
This Navy Strength beast is interesting. To many, Navy Strength Gin is defined by Plymouth and that style has become the reference point. But this doesn’t have to be the case – just because the proof is higher – why does it have to be earthy tasting? F.E.W Standard Issue Gin (named as a nod to military and navy rationing and equipment) exemplifies other interpretations on the higher proof style of gin. It has a bright sweet and spicy taste with lemon bursting through on a creamy base. The finish is long and sweet, with liquorice prominent. The grain is also apparent throughout – almost as if it were the signature style for all F.E.W gins.
It’s no secret that, on occasion, we’ve been known to indulge in the dark side and enjoyed a malt or two. So it was with incredible excitement that we tasted their barrel-aged gin, desperately hoping it would manage the best of both worlds. Batch one was released on the 29th February 2012 as a limited edition, given the relative uniqueness of the day as a leap year.
Aged for four months in small 5 gallon new American oak barrels with charring grade #3. They use a different recipe to their American Gin, with a more traditional heavy juniper and spice botanical mix, which Hlekto felt would be more suitable for the effects of interacting with wood. The exact list is undisclosed but it includes a lot of citrus with bitter orange and lemon peel, as well as cassia and angelica.
Bottled at 46.5% ABV, the wood is evident from the amber, leathery colour. On the nose is sugary liquorice, while clove, candied citrus and base tones of grain come through on the palate. The relatively high ABV isn’t apparent other than as a way of carrying layered flavours and much like NY Distilling’s barrel aged offering experiments, the balance between the clarity of the juniper, other botanicals and wood is well struck. Familiar gingerbread flavours come through too – perhaps a result of the grain, while the finish lingers nicely with soft caramelised sugary notes coating the palate. The amount of oak is noticeable throughout and really adds a new dimension to sipping gin, it’s not merely rested or lightly aged for a subtle effect. The ageing is a big part of the flavour ensemble and remains one of the best examples of barrel aged gins available in the world.
We enjoyed it in a version of an Old Fashioned (with sugar and Spanish Bitters) as well as in a variation of a Gin Buck (50ml F.E.W Barrel Aged Gin, top with Ginger Beer and a large orange wheel as a garnish, serve in a hi-ball glass with lots of ice).
There were only 150 bottles of the original F.E.W Barrel-Aged Gin released, most of which were snapped up as soon as it was announced, thus prompting Hlekto to go back and make more. 3 years on the batches have kept rolling out and while there are some minor variables between batches, they mostly follow the above flavours and ageing timelines.
It’s worth noting that at the time of original release, barrel-aged gin wasn’t really well known and the bottling was both brave and innovative. However, the small batch nature of it meant the risk was relatively low and when successful like in the case of F.E.W Barrel-Aged Gin, can spawn multiple variants (there is now also a Cask Strength Barrel-Aged Gin). To us, this is a good example of how craft distillers can make the most of their small scale to create innovative products that help keep interest in what they are doing – and their core range – in addition to showcasing their skills
Currently the distillery is producing gin, white whiskey, bourbon and rye whiskey regularly, with the occasional limited-production spirits. F.E.W Spirits seem to be gathering momentum and enjoying the surge in interest around craft distilling. Today, their presence in the UK far outweighs their size, mainly due to the indefatigable efforts of the Maverick Drinks team who import and distribute them. Crucially, they have shown the template for other craft distillers to follow if looking at breaking into UK and Spanish markets as their success has allowed many others to find a route to market abroad.
Spirits aside, we’ve got a lot of respect for a team that managed to change the local laws to make their dream possible. The fact that they grow some of the botanicals, namely the hops, in Paul Hletko’s yard adds provenance, and their grain-to-glass approach is mightily impressive. As with many of the better craft distillers, we hope that they can continue riding the wave of success and follow up their releases with more inventive and exciting spirits.
For more information about FEW Spirits, visit their website: www.fewspirits.com
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