CH Distillery, situated on Randolph Street in Chicago’s West Loop, bills itself as Chicago’s only distillery making grain-to-bottle vodka from Illinois-grown ingredients. As well as Chicago’s first combination distillery and cocktail bar. CH takes a scientific approach to spirit production managing the entire process themselves. Keeping a close eye on every nuance of the process and tweaking it along the way. Last week Chicago Bourbon was fortunate enough to sit down with Tremaine Atkinson, the Co-Founder, Distiller, and Managing Director of Operations for CH Distillery.
From the custom designed fiber optic lighting installation above the bar to the $250,000 glass windows separating the distillation chamber from the bar (more on that later) it is apparent that no detail is overlooked. By no surprise, this attention carries over from the architectural design of the lounge to the architecture of the spirits produced at CH Distillery.
The CH name comes from carbon and hydrogen, the fundamental compounds found in alcohol. Their grain-to-bottle philosophy means that CH starts the vodka crafting process with raw grains, grown in Illinois. This differs from most large scale distilleries who start with industrial ethanol as their source material. While using industrial ethanol is perfectly acceptable, the CH approach of starting with the grains allows them complete control to ensure the final product is exactly what they intend it to be.
Tremaine’s true passion is vodka, and this is where we’ll start. Though don’t worry, we have plenty of information about CH’s bourbon and whiskey plans which we’ll cover in detail. While my first cocktail at CH that night was an Old Fashioned, Tremaine ordered a mix of aquavit and vodka saying, “That’s my idea of a cocktail!”.
Vodka is at the core of how and why Tremaine and his co-founder Mark Lucas started CH Distillery in 2013. Tremaine shared with me one of the things he appreciates about vodka. The ability to see and taste the results of his labor in a relatively short amount of time. This is something he appreciates about vodka over whisky or bourbon. He is regularly tweaking his vodka recipes and experimenting with various spirits and distillation techniques.
In addition to vodka, CH produces multiple gins, rum, aquavit, fernet and others. They have even distilled beer from a couple local breweries in their sherry stills and aged them in rum barrels.
The bourbon that CH currently bottles and sells at retail is not produced by CH Distillery. When we asked Tremaine where it came from he unfortunately couldn’t be sure. The distributor they purchase from will not divulge the source however he is certain it is from a Kentucky distillery. Either way it is a quality product and upholds the reputation of the CH label that goes on it’s bottle. Tremaine went on to say that “the bourbon shortage of a few years ago is very real, we are almost out of the CH labeled bourbon we have been selling.” For this reason their retail bourbon will be changing sometime in 2016. This new juice will be coming from MGPI out of Indiana who supplies bourbon, rye, and whiskey to many prestigious labels.
Outside of CH’s own bourbon whiskey, Tremaine’s preferred whiskey comes from Westland Distillery in Seattle. They currently produce three varieties resulting in rave reviews and multiple awards. But looking further into their process I see why Tremaine might be partial to Westland. Not only do they make an undeniably fine product. They also use locally sourced ingredients and a scientific approach to spirit production; something they share with CH Distillery.
When I asked Tremaine about the bourbon and whiskey they are aging themselves, we got to the really interesting stuff. CH is currently aging bourbon, rye, malt whiskey, Canadian whiskey, a “banana” whiskey, and a sixth truly interesting variety we’ll get to in a bit. The brown spirits they are aging are in fairly small quantities. These likely will not see a retail release under the CH brand but will instead be served at their bar and restaurant. The Canadian whiskey was purchased by CH and is undergoing additional aging on-site in used oak whiskey barrels. It should be ready for consumption in the not too distant future. The bourbon on the other hand, aged in new charred oak of course, was just barreled in April 2015 and won’t be coming out for 3-5 years. The bourbon as well will be served exclusively at CH. This is something you really don’t see everyday and why a trip to the CH Distillery is a must. Some of the spirits and cocktails you drink there may only be available for a short time and only from a CH bartender. Now despite the young age of the bourbon when Tremaine asked if I wanted a sample I couldn’t turn down a taste straight from the barrel! Not that I needed an excuse but as Tremaine said, “You can’t dilute away bad flavors. That’s why it’s worth tasting from the barrel.” When he handed me the beaker, the nose was extremely strong with ethanol. There was a burn in the nostrils and even a bit in the eyes. As I took a sip I felt that same burn on my tongue and lips. Though this didn’t come as a surprise given the 120.4 proof white dog that went in just 9 months earlier. Over the next 3-5 years passing in and out of that charred oak interior much of the harshness will be gone. I will gladly return in half a decade to taste the finished product!
We then moved on to the sixth variety I mentioned above. As Tremaine siphoned from a 53 gallon oak barrel through a rubber tube and into a graduated beaker he told me that I was about to taste something interesting. He prefaced that it wasn’t technically a whiskey as it wasn’t produced from grain; it’s more of a “unique spirit”. Without telling me what it was he handed me the beaker. I took a sniff, swirled it a bit, then the first sip. I immediately identified a nutty aroma and flavor but couldn’t pinpoint its origin. After a few more sips and some deliberation it hit me. This was a flavor very appropriate for this time of year, chestnut, and it tasted great. Tremaine confirmed that the spirit was made from chestnut flour and is being aged in whiskey barrels. He said that it would be bottled in 2016 though again, it will be served only at the CH bar. Keep your eye out for a chestnut cocktail on the menu sometime next fall or winter.
Finally we asked Tremaine what he sees for the future of CH and craft distilling in general. We found out that he has some great plans already in the works. They have a brand new distillery opening in 2016 on the historic Schoenhofen Brewery grounds in the Pilsen neighborhood. Schoenhofen has a strong historical significance to Chicago and to beer brewing as a whole. This new facility will be dedicated strictly to distillation, sorry no bar here, and will be an amazing twenty times the size of the current distillery. Tremaine went on to say that the city of Chicago is clamping down on distilleries due to the fire hazard they can pose. Remember those $250,000 windows I mentioned earlier? CH has a track record of investing in the safety of their operations, which couldn’t have hurt when obtaining approval for their new distillery. There are more than 1,000 distilleries in the US, a number that has skyrocketed in recent years. Tremaine believes that this boom will eventually die down significantly. There are many whiskey and bourbon producers these days and he believes that a few years from now there could be fewer than 50 standouts. Unfortunately, said Tremaine, the vast majority are currently aging an average product and won’t know it for 4+ years. There are bound to be some winners and plenty of losers. If there’s a bourbon you’re particularly fond of you might want to stock up today!
A huge thanks to Tremaine, Mark, and the staff at CH Distillery!