I Have a Distillery Around the Corner, And You Don’t

FEW BourbonWell, you probably don’t. If you do, please tell me about it and invite me to visit it.

I’ve been derelict in two areas – posting in general of late (I blame the post-NCAA exhale, a busy work schedule, and me being an excuse-maker), but more importantly, posting about one of the items in the subhead of this site: bourbon.

But as we approach WhiskyFest here in Chicago, I wanted to give you a long-overdue look at Few Spirits in Evanston. Let’s pause real quick and marvel at the fact that anybody is making any kind of alcohol in Evanston at all, let alone of the world-class variety. Do you know when the first bar opened in Evanston? Not a restaurant that also served alcohol – but bar? I’ll wait for your best guess.

Ready? The answer is 2012. It’s World of Beer. That may seem crazy (because it is), but it gets a little more understandable once you realize that Evanston was founded as a dry city and arguably acted as the epicenter of the Temperance movement. Even today, it has trouble containing its nanny impulses. But in this instance they worked with Paul Hlatko, Few’s founder, to update zoning and liquor laws. In a delicious homage to the city’s history, Few derives its name from Frances Elizabeth Willard, who served as the president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and worked for many great causes, like woman suffrage, and one pretty bad one in Prohibition.

So given those hurdles and history, it would have been a substantial victory to simply set up shop and turn out a passable product. Instead, Few went all-in, undertaking full grain-to-bottle production, allowing for complete process control, local sourcing of the grains for the alcohol and for some of the most innovative results I’ve ever had the chance to taste. This piece in Time Out Chicago is pretty accurate:

“People say, ‘Oh, I’m a whiskey drinker. I want to try the whiskey, but please don’t pour me the gin. I don’t like gin,’ ” recalls Hletko, who has been sampling out the first two releases—a gin and a white whiskey—of his new Evanston-based distillery, Few Spirits, at shops like City Provisions. Hletko, a soft-spoken former patent attorney, isn’t going to let anyone off that easy.

“I say, ‘That’s great. This is a different gin. Give it a shot.’ ”

To which he hears: “No, no, no, no, you’re just gonna waste it, you’re just gonna waste it.”

“That’s cool,” Hletki counters. “Try it. Just a taste.”

And though Hletko admits not every single person ends up liking it, “it’s well over nine out of ten.”

That’s pretty much me. It’s not that I don’t like gin – I enjoy a Hendrick’s and tonic as much as the next guy and will FEW Barrel-Aged Ginstaunchly defend its place in a martini as opposed to the godless, tasteless Communist swill that is vodka – but if given the choice, I opt for rye or bourbon. But Few’s Barrel-Aged Gin is nothing short of amazing. Like, I don’t even want to mix it with anything because it is difficult to come up with ingredients that could improve it. But don’t take my word for it. Take the Beverage Tasting Institute’s (Gold Medal, 94 rating). Better yet, just try to find it on store shelves – you kind of have to luckily stumble across it. Your best bet is actually going to the distillery when they are open for tours (Saturdays at 2:00 and 3:00).

The bourbon is great, too. It actually drinks more like a rye, with more spice than what you’d probably expect – to the point where I actually like it more than the rye that Few offers, which is the inverse of my usual preferences. There’s also an American Gin that, while more traditional, isn’t whipping you in the face with a juniper branch like many people have come to expect (and thus, avoid). Finally, there’s a serious white whiskey that’s really clean, but has a finish a little more flavorful than most because, again, they’re in charge of their own grains and getting creative (this one would be really fun to use in cocktails).

Unfortunately, it’s not all sunshine – as I mentioned, they’re having a tough time keeping their customers stocked, not just with specialty products like the barrel-aged gin, but across the board. If you do visit, you’ll be blown away by how compact the facilities are, and it becomes immediately obvious that it would be difficult to meet demand in Chicagoland, let alone the other states and countries where Few has been met with rave reviews and plenty of orders. But after winning over the cradle of Prohibition, Springfield – where common sense goes to die – has gotten in the way:

For Few Spirits, the Evanston whiskey and gin maker, state rules ultimately may prevent the company from growing in Illinois.

Hletko said he’s at a point where he needs to invest to produce more, but his license as a craft distiller caps production at 15,000 gallons a year. He is producing about half that now, and he wants to be able to at least triple production.

Hletko said he looked into upgrading his license, but the next level would take away his ability to sell his products at the distillery. Those sales, he said, are paying the bills.

As a result, he is lobbying state legislators to change the rules and is looking for a warehouse in a state with looser regulations. He’s been waiting to make the final decision, he said, but he can’t wait much longer.

“The state likes to pretend it’s small-business friendly, but as soon as we started growing we had to look at Wisconsin,” Hletko said.

Or our other neighbor, Kentucky. They know something about distilling down there. Why would production be capped and tiered out by licenses, anyway? To make it difficult for innovators (read: competitors) to enter the market (cronyism alert!). The state will probably end up punting on what could be 40-50 immediate jobs, and who knows how many more in the long term? Why the hell does anybody live or work in Illinois again?

Anyway – you can do the math: a fantastic product that has drawn fans on several continents will have to expand production somewhere else. Hurry up and get to Evanston to try this stuff before Few realizes that, no matter how much they want to stay, there will come a time when it will likely make very little economic sense to do so (I’m hoping it’s at least a long time before this happens).

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3 thoughts on “I Have a Distillery Around the Corner, And You Don’t

  1. This is pretty fascinating stuff on a variety of levels. First, I had no idea that Evanston, my place of birth, has historically had such prohibitionist tendencies. Maybe that’s why I like to drink so much now.

    Second, I happen to be a gin lover, and the description on the website of the American gin sounds fantastic in its own right. The barrel-aged variety must be unbelievable. I’ve got to try it next time I’m back there.

    Third, these licensing regulations that so many states have that are transparently designed to keep certain businesses (like micro-distilleries or small craft breweries) from becoming competitive drive me insane. Here’s hoping Few doesn’t pack up shop and leave Illinois — but I’d understand if they did.

    There actually is a distillery around the corner here, which I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t visited yet, even though I’ve been meaning to for a long time. I love these kinds of places.

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