Evanston’s first micro-distillery, and one of the only micro-distilleries in Illinois, opened and sold its first bottle of whiskey last week. A journey through Evanston ordinance changes, building codes zoning and state licensing that began over a year ago is nearly complete and sales have begun.
Located on Chicago Avenue behind the Junior League’s Thrift House and tucked up against the CTA tracks, Few Spirits will not get a huge amount of walk-up traffic.
“I think it’s awesome that we don’t have a street presence,” said owner and founder Paul Hletko, a patent attorney and master distiller whose dream resulted in Few Spirits. In the former birthplace of prohibition, a distillery hidden in a littleused alley calls to mind the speakeasies of old, he said. People will find it.
Shortly after Mr. Hletko’s observation, as if to punctuate it, a guitar-laden young man walked up to ask about the business. He said he preferred that his name not be used in this article, adding to the speakeasy vibe Few Spirits wants to channel.
Few Spirits currently sells “white whiskey,” a spirit that is distilled at less than 160 proof to retain its grain flavor. The lower proof distinguishes whiskey from vodka, which distills more of the grain into alcohol and therefore loses any flavor such ingredients add, said Mr. Hletko. White whiskey can be consumed on the rocks or in any drink that calls for vodka.
White whiskey is not moonshine, said Mr. Hletko, because the grain recipe includes corn and other grains. “It is effectively a bourbon recipe,” he said. Traditionally, moonshine refers to a pure corn-based spirit, he said.
The RoundTable sampled some white whiskey and found the flavor of the grains does come through in the finished product. Because it is not aged in oak, it is missing the charcoal, vanilla flavor and character the charred oak barrels add, but stands on its own as a different drink entirely.
Soon Few Spirits will add gin to its retail shelves. “We’re still working on the right recipe,” Mr. Hletko said. A reporter tasted two or three versions and found them more than palatable. Getting the right mix of organics, including juniper, coriander, orange peel and others requires trial and error, persistence and dedication. Mr. Hletko expects to be selling gin within a week or so.
Bourbon and rye whiskey will follow. Both require aging in the aforementioned charred oak barrels, and, in order to be called bourbon or rye, barrels can be used only once. The barrels will not go on the scrap heap, though – Mr. Hletko plans to distill single malt whiskey, which can be aged in bourbon barrels, and aged gin, which can also age in bourbon barrels. The hints’ of the barrels previous occupants add character and depth to the second spirit, Hletko said.
Few Spirits tries to obtain its ingredients from as close to Evanston as possible. “There’s no reason we can’t use Illinois corn,” said Mr. Hletko. The same goes for rye. Malt currently comes from a specialty supplier in Wisconsin, but Few Spirits has its eyes open.
Mr. Hletko runs the still on most days, “stripping” gin or “mashing” whiskey. Asked about the name Few Spirits, Mr. Hlekto said with a wry (rye) grin, “It has nothing to do with Frances E. Willard’s initials.”
Large copper stills dominate the warehouse-like space, but a cozy tasting room, with windows looking out over the stills, serves as the retail area. Hats and t-shirts are already in stock, but the real attraction drips from the still every day.