The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Looking Local for WhiskyFest Chicago 2011

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Apr 18, 2011 7:15PM


Every year we attend WhiskyFest Chicago we look for some new angle for coverage. Sometimes we find that angle before the doors open. Sometimes it comes to us while walking around the ballroom, our nostrils deep in a nosing glass. Walking around what appeared to be a scaled down version of what we've come to expect, compared to previous years, we kept coming back to two booths in a far corner that exemplify the growth of local distillers in the past five years.

As fast as the craft brewing community has grown in Chicago over the past 5-10 years, the rapid ascent of local distilleries is equally, if not more, impressive. Koval Distillery and New Holland Artisan Spirits have joined the ranks of North Shore, Death's Door and Templeton Rye as must haves in our in-house bar stock. It's easy for a fan of high quality spirits to stock their bar with locally produced gins, vodkas, whiskeys, rums and even barley spirits that convincingly approximate the taste of a reposado tequila. Koval and New Holland have each stepped up their games in the past couple of years.

For Koval, the launch of their "Lion's Pride" aged whiskeys was a local game changer. The first aged whiskeys made in Chicago in 90 years, these labors of love, each made from wheat, rye, spelt, millet or oat, has a distinctive flavor profile depending on the barrels in which they're aged. Organic, unfiltered and uncolored, Robert and Sonat Birnecker have truly outdone themselves here. We've been falling back on the oat whiskey at home, but the dark aged millet whiskey is probably our favorite of the lot, with a flavor profile that reminds us of cinnamon and other sweet spices. This whiskey would make a wonderful hot toddy, or a sweeter summer cocktail.


New Holland brought aboard master distiller Dennis Downing in October 2009. Downing has continued New Holland's tradition of distilling wort from the grain, managing temperature and removing solids. This gives their spirits a cleaner wash and brighter flavor profile. That comes in handy with their Knickerbocker gin, Zeppelin Bend whiskey, their line of freshwater rums and especially their Hatter Royale "hopquila." But Downing's Brewer's Whiskeys are welcome additions to the line. These malt whiskeys have a spicy flavor profile that is the complete opposite of the sweetness we picked up on the nose. It's like being suckered in with the promise of a kiss, then smacked in the face. And worth it. New Holland recently added a second still to its production brewhouse. Downing told us the plan is to handle the whiskeys and rums there, while distilling the gin and hopquila at the brewpub's pot still. "since gin requires a clean wash for the botanicals to take hold, we feel it's best to separate the two," he said.