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For a FEW Bottles More

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Jul 15, 2011 4:30PM

If someone told Frances Willard, one of the founders of the Women's Christian Temperance Union and godmother of the American Prohibition movement, in the late 1800s that her initials would grace the name of a small distillery a mile south of her home in Evanston, she probably would have rapped that person on the shins with an ax handle. Or at the very least given that person a withering gaze.

But that's exactly what's happening at FEW Spirits. Owner Paul Hletko recognizes the historical significance of being responsible for the first legal liquor distilled in the birthplace of Prohibition. It also seems fitting that the distillery hard to find, located in a one-time chop shop behind a thrift store.

"I have a lot of experience home brewing and my grandparents family at one time, before World War II, owned Pilsner Urquell," Hletko said. "So I thought 'I have a family birthright to the booze business.' But beer may not necessarily be right for this market."

Hletko, a patent attorney, started planning for the distillery after attending one of Koval's distilling workshops. he and partner Brooke Saucier ordered two small German Kothe stills from Koval's Robert and Sonat Birnecker, who also represent Kothe in the U.S. From there, plans for the distillery picked up steam.

Saucier, who's worked with the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, said "there were some surprisingly few roadblocks" toward setting up the distillery. He and Hletko managed to have laws on the books changed to apply for a distiller's license and open the distillery.

Hletko has received a lot of support from the Birneckers at Koval and from North Shore Distillery's Sonja and Derek Kassebaum. "I think both North Shore and Koval distill amazing spirits," he said. "But I also feel that there's a market for what we're doing that can allow us to complement what they're doing and stand alone at the same time."

Take FEW's whiskeys, for example. "Koval distills from single grains," Hletko explained. "We use multiple grains here. I like a lot of rye in my whiskeys and you'll find that our white whiskey has a nice, rounded flavor, unlike a lot of other white dogs on the market."

FEW is also barrel aging bourbons and ryes, using custom-cooped small barrels from Minnesota. "We had a number three char done to them to give the bourbon and rye that nice vanilla and spicy characteristics associated with the styles," Hletko said. Once the bourbons and ryes are ready, Hletko will use the barrels for single malts.

The secret ingredient among FEW's 11 botanicals in their gin is Cascade hops, a nod to Hletko's home brewing background and an ingredient he admitted was inspired by New Holland's use of hops in their barley "Hopquila."

"The Cascade hops give our gin a well-rounded citrus aspect that you don't find in other gins," Hletko said. Hletko grows the hops himself and has even planted a small garden of hops outside the distillery. "Within two to three years we'll be able to say that the hops were grown within 20-30 feet of our front door."

FEW Spirits is located at 918 Chicago Ave. in Evanston. Their tasting room is in soft open mode right now, selling white whiskey and gin for $40 a bottle. Paul Hletko said he hopes to have distribution withing the next 6-8 weeks.