When Sonat and Robert Birnecker created KOVAL Distillery, they had a clear set of objectives in mind: they wanted to meet a comfortable work-life balance, they wanted to follow their own rules and they wanted to bring heritage to life in a creative way, making it relevant for the here and now.
It’s a dream shared and pursued by many, particularly in the Craft Gin industry, but the main thing that sets this duo apart is timing. They began their descent into distilling madness a good decade ago, way before the craft distilling culture was anywhere near breaking its stride. Before, even, there was any inclination that such an explosion in popularity would happen.
Such context almost makes their decision a little crazy, but the Chicago-based couple behind KOVAL Distillery was willing to take a risk on an idea that would allow them to work together on building something big. Something that could be passed onto the next generation, even.
Prior to pulling open the distillery doors in 2010, Robert was Deputy Press Secretary for the Austrian Embassy and Sonat was fully ensconced in academia, teaching and lecturing in both the United States and Germany. They were successful, professional champions within their field, so their joint decision to open a distillery was never a cynical one. The plan wasn’t to create some big multinational company, it was to follow their passion and delve into Robert’s Austrian distilling ancestry.
In the world of craft distilling, a decade (this past one especially) is a long time. In 2008, the laws were still wedged very firmly in the last century. Within Chicago, the Birneckers had to fight their way through 1930s legislation that barred spirit distillation. Prohibition had cut a deep path that still ran deep beneath the surface of the city and while changing laws is never easy to start with, it was particularly difficult here, with the weight of local history looming over every decision.
It took an exhausting, bureaucracy-filled two years of lobbying before the duo were able to openKOVAL – the first distillery to open in Chicago since the mid-1800s. It was a huge milestone for the city and saw a great change in Illinois liquor laws, ultimately leading to the establishment of the Craft Distillers License. Not bad work for two people, eh?
Kicking down the door was just the start of the KOVAL adventure. The Birneckers have helped to revolutionise the Illinois liquor industry in dozens of other ways. Tours, tastings and shops are now a huge part of the business models of craft distilleries. To have had the foresight to battle for all of these elements and push distilling into the pro-transparency, access-all-areas 21st Century took a little more than gumption and lucky guesses. The duo showed some great intuition as to the direction in which the industry would head, and showed a cunning for long term strategy that has made them not only a big name, but an incredibly important one too.
The name, incidentally, is befitting of their trail blazing nature.KOVAL means ‘blacksmith’ in several Eastern European languages, and ‘black sheep’ in Yiddish. While the black sheep in your family might be the kid who threw baby Jesus across the stage and shouted “Hail Satan” during a year five assembly, it can also be construed in another way: the black sheep is the one who forges ahead and does something out of the ordinary.
The term KOVAL already existed within Sonat’s family. Her great-grandfather earned the nickname in the early 1900s, when at the tender age of 17 he emigrated from Vienna to Chicago to start a battery company. It seems almost like genetics rather than decision, then, that Sonat didn’t follow the crowd, instead tailing off and venturing in a whole new direction.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, the Birneckers don’t do anything by halves. They haven’t just stuck to one spirit type, they’ve gone all in, with Whiskey, Gin and Eau de Vies on the roster. They make everything in house, so this is very much a grain to glass operation and their input into the end product begins much, much sooner than you’d expect. They contract the farmers that grow the grain, they take control of the milling and mashing. They ensure an organic product throughout, believing that a good gin must come from a good spirit, and that a good spirit must come from a good grain.
The entire supply chain is monitored; even the new American oak barrels that the whiskey is aged in are controlled, with wood taken from the forests of Minnesota. The use of charcoal purified Lake Michigan water, too, is a part of this. Every step of the process is documented, too, to the extent that every single bottle is traceable to the field on which the grain was grown. It’s an impressive feat.
The base forKOVAL Gin is derived from a white rye grain spirit (referred to in the US as white whiskey). The distillate already has a degree of cereal spiciness and a soft floral bouquet. It brings in a dimension to their gins that others simply don’t have, creating an identity that operates almost as a serial number: it’s 100% unique to its makers, almost like DNA.
There are 13 botanicals withinKOVAL Gin, though the Birnecker’s are secretive about the exact identity. Juniper is a given, of course, but the rest are referred to simply as woodland spices, which means it’s time for us to get our Sherlock hat on and delve in…
KOVAL Gin to taste…
On the nose, floral top notes of lavender and hibiscus are joined by a crispy, lime-like citrus zing. There’s a creamy depth here, which could well be the base or a hint of vanilla. The scent is that of a woodland meadow, surrounded by pine yet brimming with bright, colourful flora.
A rush of citrus and pine greet the palate, but they are quickly swept aside by a great swathe of floral flavours, which rush through to leave a deeper taste behind. That of rosehip and pepper. A grains of paradise-like spice is left behind, along with remnants of piny juniper and a lavender twang, which has shaken off its floral qualities to become something softer, like rose blossom. It’s worth noting that at 47%, this is a strikingly smooth gin.
We’re definitely big fans of the flagship, but it’s theKOVAL Barrel Aged that has us squealing with excitement. It’s exactly what you want from the genre and one of the true successes of the subcategory. Perhaps it’s the white whiskey start that the spirit gets, or just the oaky-knowhow of the duo behind it, but this is a true hybrid spirit that manages to avoid doing what many have done before, which is to make a weird Whiskey or a barely-there Gin.
KOVAL Barrel Aged Gin to taste…
The underlying cereal notes of the gin are exacerbated, while the time spent in oak has allowed the spirit to steal characteristics both of the wood and of the barrel’s previous occupant.
Caramelised top notes of honeyed thyme greet the nose, while to taste the sweet vanillin of charred oak and whisky add a weight to the formerly floral nature of the gin. The coriander, meanwhile, has shifted from lemony spice to toasted seed, while the finish has completely mellowed out, with a gentle lingering warmth dousing the fire of the grains of paradise. It’s delicious, particularly in a Negroni.
Both of the gins are outstanding offerings, but as you might have worked out by now, this isn’t a team that rests on its laurels. Earlier this year, KOVAL released a Cranberry Gin Liqueur, which offers an enticing blend of fruit-forward and bittersweet flavours, surrounded by the crisp, well-rounded note of KOVAL Gin’s 13 signature botanicals. Here in the UK, it makes perfect sense to release a fruit infused liqueur, as it’s right at the heart of the current trend, but in the US the scene is in a different place, so once again KOVAL is playing the part of the black sheep and turning heads.
“This new direction inKOVAL’s line is an homage to aperitif culture,” Sonat explains. With its dazzling all-natural ruby colour and refreshing tart sweetness, the Cranberry Gin Liqueur is an approachable, yet distinctive offering. “It is an excellent base for easy, enticing cocktails and spritzes for all seasons.” She’s not wrong, there; at New Year it belongs in the bottom of a Champagne flute, whereas midway through the year it’s perfect Summer Cup material.
It’s hardly surprising that KOVAL is now one of the largest independent, family owned and operated craft distilleries in the USA. State-to-state legislation means that this is one of the few American-made craft gins to be widely available across the whole country, and if that wasn’t enough, it’s available in 55 export markets.
KOVAL Distillery is leading a new generation and has been pushing the envelope ever since its inception.
All through that, though, it has remained true to its core aspiration. The Berneckers live a balanced life, and they’ve managed to bring history – both of their ancestry and of distilling – into the modern age. Theirs is a success story that few could dream possible, but it’s one that the duo take with confident strides.KOVALDistillery will be here for a long, long time.
Copyright © Gin Foundry