Chicago’s Koval Distillery


What is success? It’s one of those tricky questions that can be answered in a multitude of ways. Ask one hundred people and you get one hundred different answers, much like asking the meaning of life. It basically comes down to discovering your own personal meaning, but I would guess that the majority of people would say something about being happy doing what they love or having some type of lucrative career that enables them to live comfortably and take care of their loved ones. If you’re Robert and Dr. Sonat Birnecker, with two well-paying jobs in academia and two small children, to be successful you simply quit what you’re doing and start the first craft distillery in Chicago’s city limits since prohibition. It’s no big surprise, you obviously see the connection between academia and creating liquor, right? Of course you don’t, because in most cases, there is none.

Robert and Sonat are not most cases though. Their careers were very demanding and time consuming, which led to them not spending enough time with their children. So they made the decision to take up the distilling traditions of Robert’s Austrian grandfather and created Koval in 2008. Robert is no novice, he honed his craft while helping his grandparents in their award-winning distillery and is known as one of America’s top distilling experts, and after only 5 years Koval has won a few awards itself. For those of you that don’t know (I definitely didn’t), Koval is Yiddish for “blacksmith” but can also refer to a black sheep, which is someone who does something unexpected or out of the ordinary. Sonat’s great grandfather up and moved to Chicago from Vienna in the early 1900’s earning him the Koval nickname from his family, and Robert’s grandfather surname is Schmid which translates to Smith, making the name Koval a way to honor and pay homage to both men.

I met Dr. Sonat at an event Koval was sponsoring, and after learning about the origins of the company I definitely wanted to learn more. She was kind enough to agree to give me a private tour of the distillery. Full disclosure, my drinking habits are nonexistent so I decided to bring a couple friends whose opinions on the subject I respected, a couple being well versed in the art of drinking and one being a brewer himself. I had never been on a distillery tour or even been to a distillery at all so I didn’t know what to expect. Koval is located at 5121 North Ravenswood in the quaint neighborhood of Andersonville, it blends so well into the neighborhood that some would probably pass it up and not realize it was there if it wasn’t for the glass windows that expose the Willy Wonka looking still. When my party arrives we are shown the different products they make, white whiskeys, aged whiskeys, brandies and liqueurs, followed by Annie (Koval Event Coordinator and our tour guide) giving everyone in the group a shot glass.


The arrival of the shot glasses are when the real tour starts, we are walked into the room with the still that I swear looks like something off of the Willy Wonka movie set, and Annie, whose knowledge on the subject is beyond impressive, tells us about the distilling process. I won’t get into the technical aspect of what the Dephlegmator, the Whiskey Helmet and Fill Opening do, because I would just be regurgitating information that’s best left to a professional to explain. What I will say is that there will be a point in the conversation where you will learn about three liquids (heads, tails and hearts) that are “cut” during the distillation process, they will be in three jars and you will have the opportunity to smell them. Do not, and I repeat, DO NOT stick your nose too far in the jar, I made that mistake and the smell is still with me today.

I joke about Koval’s still but it’s actually quite impressive, it’s a custom-built potstill that was handcrafted in Germany by Kothe Destillationstechnik. At this point I know what you’re thinking, ‘That’s cool and all, but how does the product taste?” The unanimous decision by the seven people in my group is that Koval is great! There were two different testing stations, one was by the still and it consisted of the clear whiskey and vodka. I learned that Koval released these products first because obviously the aged whiskey had to age two years and the white whiskey and vodka can be made in a relatively short amount of time. The second tasting station was when the bourbon and aged whiskey came out. They don’t use anything fancy to create their bourbon, no artificial flavoring or chill filtering, just a barrel and time. I thought the different types of barrels and how a charred barrel can create flavor was so cool, I was absolutely amazed at the process. There were four different liquors at the second station, all made with different grains; I think the overall favorites were the bourbon, the Rye and the Four Grain. There were also a couple liqueurs, and judging from the reactions, the favorite was the Chrysanthemum Honey. I could describe the tour and the products and all that until my fingers go numb, but the best way to truly get a feeling of what Koval is about, I highly recommend going on the tour. They give tours every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, just email them at and set it up. If you couldn’t care less about the process and just want to taste the results, you can either check your local liquor store or find out where you can find it here.