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The 12 Best Distilleries In And Around Chicago

By Staff in Food on Jan 7, 2015 8:40PM

Chicago's craft beer community receives the lion's share of press coverage for its growth over the past decade, but if you've been paying attention to bars and restaurants across the city you'll find speed racks and back bars filled with a growing number of hard spirits distilled and bottled in Chicago and across the Midwest.

In fact, with the exception of tequila it's completely plausible to stock a bar with nothing but spirits made in the Midwest and for fans of the locavore movement, that would be a serious commitment to dedication. But which ones would we stock in our home bars?

Here are a dozen picks in Chicago and nearby that would make great reasons for weekend getaways or day trips. As always, debate, dissect and discuss these picks in the comments and share your favorites.

FEW Spirits, named after Frances Willard and located in an old chop shop.

FEW Spirits
If Frances Willard, the godmother of America’s temperance movement, had any idea the Evanston of the 21st century would embrace, let alone tolerate a distillery using her initials in its name, she probably would have taken an axe to the entire town. That cheeky nod to Evanston’s teetotaling history establishes the elegance with which Paul Hletko and his team make their gins and whiskeys. The botanicals in FEW’s American gin are perfectly suited for mixing with lemonade or cucumber and tonic, while the barrel-aged gin and whiskeys are teeming with charred flavor and aged to proof. FEW’s rye, in my opinion, rivals Templeton Rye as the best in the Midwest and makes an ideal base for a Sazerac. The results are flavorful spirits that make great cocktails and would have Frances Willard’s knickers in a bunch. —Chuck Sudo

FEW Spirits is located at 918 Chicago Ave., Evanston.

Yahara Bay Distilling
For many a lesser known name on the list, Yahara Bay flies under the radar due in part to a series of underground successes. Owner and distiller Nick Quint enlisted his stepson, Lars Forde, back in 2007 to assemble a German still in Madison, Wisconsin, where together they began a rather quiet distilling revolution. In a state dripping in beer history, Quint and Forde rolled out 20+ spirits from a Chai Vodka to a respected Kirschwasser (cherry brandy), Apple Brandy (made of course from local apples) and the required reading of gins and whiskeys. Their branding may not be the most consistent, but Yahara Bay represents more than building one brand. They have contract distilled and bottled spirits for a handful of other companies, including the reputed Death’s Door vodka and gin. (Quint took over this contract in 2008 from his cousin Jeff, owner of Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery in Iowa; Death’s Door opened a shiny new facility of their own in 2012.) One of Chicago’s favorite bitters brands also originates at Yahara Bay: Violet Hour vet Ira Koplowitz and Minneapolis cocktail pioneer Nicholas Kosevich macerate and bottle their Bittercube Bitters here too. The duo recently launched a Yahara Bay-distilled, price-friendly vodka called Modest, currently showing at a cocktail bar near you. That is to say— you might not know Yahara Bay by name, but you should. In wintertime especially, taste their apple brandy and Kirschwasser in cocktails at places like Drumbar and The Dawson. In the market for a small-batch bourbon but want something with a little oomph? Try YB’s V Bourbon: at three-and-a-half years old and under $40, in craft whiskey speak, it’s a steal. — Kristine Sherred

Yahara Bay is located at 3118 Kinglsey Way, Madison, Wisconsin.

Death’s Door
If you love the complexity of a filthy, dirty martini that is also lush and floral as I do, try one with Wisconsin's Death's Door gin. Smooth and earthy with heightened floral notes, it marries perfectly with the briny foundation that makes a dirty martini so very dirty. This is a sexy gin that is totally drinkable straight, on the rocks or with some tonic. It warms my pipes and cues artistic inspiration within me consistently, a boozy necessity when I write poems or perform them. Additionally, its morosely poetic name just adds a noir mystique and encourages me to embrace my muse that is a Stanwyck-esque femme fatale.— Carrie McGath

Death’s Door is located at 2220 Eagle Drive, Middleton, Wisconsin.

Journeyman Distillery
I’m in love with Journeyman’s spirits. This privately owned distillery in Three Oaks, Michigan makes all of its products from certified organic ingredients and aged in small batch barrels to produce some of the finest whiskeys I’ve enjoyed. A personal favorite is the Ravenswood Rye, which will make even a rye hater fall in love with its smooth and silky burn. They also produce vodka, gin and rum, along with a slew of specialty drinks including Snaggle Tooth Coffee Liquer and the sweet cider-like home brew of O.C.G. (Old Country Goodness). You can find much of their stock in local liquor stores, but I also like to keep an eye out for the occasional Chicago events they participate in. They did a dinner at Jerry’s a few months ago with their neighbors at Greenbush Brewing Company that was just fantastic. However the best way to enjoy their product is at the actual distillery which includes a beautiful and warmly woody tasting room housed in the the EK Warren Historic Featherbone Factory. There you can take tours—often conducted by owner Bill Welton’s mom—and then taste a multitude of delicious concoctions made with Journeyman’ product. It’s an easy way to lose a day in Michigan! — Jim Kopeny / Tankboy

Journeyman Distillery is located at 109 Generations Dr., Three Oaks, Michigan.

Great Lakes Distillery
Remember your first craft spirit? I don’t really, but I do know that my a-ha moment arrived in luscious, dry-meets-genever gin style with a sip of Great Lake’s take on a new American classic. Their Rehorst Gin, named after owner and distiller Guy, features sweet basil and Wisconsin-grown ginseng (who knew?), in addition to seven other standard gin botanicals. This Milwaukee-based distillery, not to be confused with Great Lakes Brewery in Cleveland, might be recognized most for its Pumpkin Spirit, cleverly distilled from the wort of neighbor Lakefront Brewery’s real pumpkin lager. The resulting spirit sips stylistically like a malt whiskey with strong notes of clove and nutmeg, enhanced by aging in used whiskey barrels and, in certain batches, ex-rum and Cab casks. Their full lineup also includes a rum flavored with local maple syrup before a second distillation, two vodkas, two absinthes, three brandies and three whiskeys. The most renowned and easiest to find is Kinnickinnic, named in honor of the river that runs through Milwaukee’s downtown and the synonymous street in the Bay View neighborhood. A combination of sourced Kentucky bourbon and a house-made malt and rye whiskey, it set a high bar for the American malt category. Perhaps due in part to our hyperlocal distilling culture, Great Lakes doesn’t seem to have gained the traction here that they have in their home state. A bit ahead of the curve, since 2006 they have received nothing but high accolades for their spin on spirits. Trust your palate—you might just have an a-ha yourself! — Kristine Sherred

Great Lakes Distillery is located at 616 W. Virginia St, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Chicago Distilling Co.
Owners Jay and Vic DiPrizio, along with Jay’s wife Noelle, have family roots in distilling (and, in Noelle’s family, moonshine) and their Milwaukee Avenue distillery has been a surprise gem in Logan Square’s current restaurant boom. Starting off with a vodka and a white whiskey, Chicago Distilling Co. added a gin to their lineup shortly after opening. The gin, called Finn’s, is one of the finest I’ve sampled among area distilleries, with a prominent juniper flavor that cuts through the bitter of a tonic mix and takes a squeeze of lime like a properly offered compliment. Their Ceres vodka is equally smooth while their Shorty’s 90 proof white whiskey, distilled from a bourbon mash, perfectly balances sweetness from Illinois grain with enough white dog burn to make you wonder how some barrel aging would change the flavor profile. Luckily, home cocktail enthusiasts can buy a small barrel aging kit to toss a bottle of Shorty’s into and allow to age. —Chuck Sudo

Chicago Distilling Co. is located at 2359 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Letherbee Distillers
I didn’t love gin until I sampled Letherbee’s original label at Life’s A Cabernet in Wicker Park. It was 2012, Letherbee’s first year and early on in my career of legal drinking, but that first sip of smooth and warmly spiced liquor opened my mind and palate to gin. Since then, I’ve trusted Letherbee to offer a smooth, balanced spirit even if it’s a liquor with which I am unfamiliar. The Chicago distillery is a three-man operation, made of former bartenders Brenton Engel, Ian Van Veen and Nathan Ozug. Their flagship gin has a unique complexity in the aromatic bouquet from the medley of spices like juniper, cardamom, cinnamon and white cubeb berries. At the beginning of each fall and spring season, Letherbee releases a seasonally inspired gin. The most recent autumnal gin is infused with cocoa nibs, roast hazelnut and black walnut, pleasantly reminiscent of spiked hot cocoa. Look for their delicious Besk, formerly known as mälort, barrel-aged absinth brun and their delightfully smooth and saffron-heavy fernet. Letherbee keeps their products at an affordable price, and you’ll see their spirits in cocktails across the city. Letherbee has recently expanded distribution across the country, appearing in Nebraska, New York, Wisconsin and Maryland. — Erika Kubick

Letherbee Distillers is located at 1815 W. Berteau Ave.

CH Distillery
If there was a beauty pageant amongst Chicago’s distilleries, CH Distillery would surely dominate. The bar and restaurant is situated right in front of the glass-encased distillation room, providing you a prime view of their majestic copper equipment while you enjoy their array of liquors in a cocktail and snack on their dinner dishes. CH Distillery is more than just a pretty face— their line of spirits are delicious. My favorite is their Key Gin, a crazy elegant and delicate gin distilled with white pepper and lavender, but their London Dry is also outstanding. From their Peppercorn Vodka to their classic Italian Limoncello, CH Distillery delivers a great product every time. I suggest taking a tour of the distillery, which always ends with The Tradition: the classic Russian method of drinking ice cold vodka alongside rye bread and a pickle. — Erika Kubick

CH Distillery is located at 564 W. Randolph St.

Rhine Hall
This little distillery aims to make fruit brandy trendy again by utilizing our bounty of local Midwestern fruit and also making some fun unusual varieties like mango. Apple brandy is their flagship product, but I’m extremely partial to their new silky smooth plum brandy. They have a nice distillery bar where you can chat with the friendly staff while sipping a delicious hot or cold cocktail and nibbling on a popcorn ball. You can also go on a distillery tour to learn how it’s made or attend a cocktail class. — Melissa McEwen

Rhine Hall is located at 2010 W. Fulton St.

"Ethel," North Shore Distillery's pot still. (Photo courtesy North Shore Distillery's Facebook page.
North Shore Distillery
In the same way as Goose Island helped pave the way for Chicago’s craft beer boom, North Shore helped lay the foundation for every area distillery that followed. Owners Sonja and Derek Kassebaum (along with their copper pot still named Ethel) went from being cocktail and spirits enthusiasts to ambassadors with a high-quality array of vodkas, gins, aquavit, absinthe and limited releases. As a fan of gin, I would put North Shore’s No. 11 against some of my favorite London Dry as it makes an amazing martini. If you’re looking for solid flavored vodkas, try North Shore’s sol chamomile citrus and Tahitian vanilla flavors, which are arguably the best flavored vodkas on the market not made by Hangar One in California. North Shore’s aquavit has been a regular ingredient in my glögg in recent years as it imparts an amazing caraway flavor. But the crown jewel, arguably, is North Shore’s absinthe. The Kassebaums were quick to capitalize on the absinthe craze once it became legal to sell in the U.S. again and they’ve created an absinthe that stands the test of time. Cut it with some ice cold water and sip it long on a bitter cold winter night. —Chuck Sudo

North Shore Distillery is located at 28913 North Herky Drive #308, Lake Bluff.

New Holland Brewing & Distilling
A big part of the craft beer game since 1997, New Holland wisely began distilling in 2005, pioneering the movement in its home state of Michigan. It was a natural progression for co-founder Brett VanderKamp, who expanded the brewing facility the same year after a warm reception from their distribution network across the Midwest and East Coast. They now employ over 200 people in their brewery, distillery and proprietary restaurant. Most beer geeks know and love their Dragon’s Milk Stout. For their Beer Barrel Bourbon New Holland takes a sourced bourbon, ages it for three years in virgin oak, then lets it rest in its own used Dragon’s Milk barrels for an additional three months. The finished spirit is full of caramel-crisped malty biscuit goodness and remains a hot commodity in these cold months. Another standout is their Zeppelin Bend whiskey, a 100% malted barley distillate made in house and aged in new American heavy char oak barrels for at least three years. Virgin casks usually flag a lighter whiskey, but this blend sips more like an unpeated Islay Scotch. At $40 a bottle, Zeppelin is worth a whirl for malt fans skeptical of craft whiskey’s staying power. While their Knickerbocker gin, infused with the likes of fennel, clove and nutmeg, has become somewhat of a staple on a well-stocked craft shelf, New Holland never fears to let their brewing roots seep into their distillations. They distill a “Brewer’s Whiskey,” made with the same fermentation process used for beer (rather than the shorter four to seven-day fermentation period standard in distilling), then age the distillate in small oak barrels and bottle at a nice 90 proof. Even more unusual, the Hatter Royale “Hopquila,” a malted barley spirit, is accentuated with centennial hops post-distillation. It’s malty, zesty and satisfies a hophead’s craving for something a bit boozier. New Holland sits along Michigan’s beautiful western coast, only a two-and-a-half hour drive from Chicago, where visitors can drink beer, whiskey and cocktails, learn important lessons and grease up with gastropub fare all in one place. —Kristine Sherred

New Holland Brewing and Distilling is located at 66 East 8th Street, Holland, Michigan.

Koval Distillery
Started as a mom-and-pop distillery in a bare bones space next to Metropolitan Brewery, husband and wife team Robert and Sonat Birnecker took his Austrian distilling expertise and her finesse to create a lineup of spirits previously unthinkable. They boldly distilled not just rye and wheat, but oats, millet and spelt. Though they built a foundation with these single-grain unaged spirits and organic liqueurs (the Ginger is finally available in 750ml bottles!), they emerged anew in 2013 with cleaner branding and prettier labels that do better justice to the homegrown spirits within. The Rye still grabs attention for its spicy freshness despite its youth, and though the Four Grain and Bourbon usually steal the spotlight, the Millet and Spelt will always hold a soft spot in my whiskey-loving heart. With a first release gin on the shelves and significant growth in international distribution, let's hope Koval maintains its lil’ shop sensibilities. —Kristine Sherred

Koval Distillery is located at 5121 N. Ravenswood Ave.