FEW Spirits sits in a white brick building at the end of a small alley in Evanston, IL. This isn’t one of those dark alleys from a scary movie. Though it would make a great location for a prohibition era speakeasy. This alley holds the dream of Paul Hletko and his eleven dedicated and passionate employees. Paul is the founder and master distiller of FEW Spirits, established in 2011. Before FEW, Paul was an attorney for 15 years and home brewer for 20. His grandfather owned a large brewery in the Czech Republic before WWII which was taken during the war. Paul decided to open FEW, in part, to honor and build on his grandfather’s legacy. Also to show his children what can be accomplished when you chose your own dream and don’t let others tell you it’s not possible. We recently spent an awesome morning touring FEW and speaking with Paul and his Retail & Events Manager, Katherine Loftus.
As seems to be common in the midwest; Paul had to lobby for law changes to allow him to open the first ever distillery of grain spirits in Evanston. Evanston’s history as a dry town, and the base of the Temperance Movement, had made it an unfriendly city for alcohol for much of its existence. Starting at the beginning of their story, what is the origin of the name FEW? Many sources say Frances Elizabeth Willard, co-founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, was the inspiration. We found out the real story from Katherine. As displayed on their website, “BY THE FEW. FOR THE FEW” is the true origin of the name. The distillery was started by a few people with the intention of making just a few spirits to be enjoyed by a few friends. As with most good things, word spread. Today they still rely about 90% on organic word of mouth advertising. The process of grain selection, distilling, aging, blending, and bottling continues to be done in house by those twelve employees.
The labels on each of their five main spirits are uniquely Chicago. Each depicting a different scene from Chicago’s history. In the spirit of keeping it local, they were designed by a local designer and printed right here in Illinois.
The bourbon and rye are aged in barrels 5 to 53 gallons in size, all char #3, then blended by Paul to achieve his desired taste profile. The method of using different sized barrels struck us as unique. And it makes sense, smaller barrels age quicker but don’t always produce the desired flavors. Larger barrels take longer to age but do produce a more consistently positive outcome. By marrying spirits from these different barrels FEW can hit the exact result Paul desires. While they are currently aging in various barrel sizes we’re told most bottles on shelves today came from 15 gallon barrels. The bourbon and rye always age in brand new charred oak barrels from The Barrel Mill in Minnesota and Independent Stave. The single malt whiskey is aged in 5 gallon barrels. Some barrels are then reused for the barrel aged gin and single malt whiskey. Or used for collaboration projects, more on that to come. Most of their barrels are aged offsite just a few miles away. Their non-temp controlled rack-house currently contains about 4,000 barrels and is also where they manage bottling and distribution.
(Read more about where bourbon barrels come from, click here)
Through both a commitment to local businesses and Paul’s other passions, FEW has released several collaboration spirits. A former musician himself, Paul paired with Bloodshot Records to release “Bloodshot’s Small Batch Bourbon” in honor of the label’s 21st birthday. This was a truly small batch. Just 5 barrels producing a total of 500 bottles. There was an outdoor party held at the distillery last July to launch the spirit. One of many parties hosted by FEW and one of many to come. After bottling the bourbon, the used barrels were then passed to Lagunitas Brewing Company, a local Chicago brewery. Lagunitas used the barrels to age a beer they called “Bloodshot FEW Brew”. Talk about a fantastic collaboration!
We heard details of another collaboration project when we asked Katherine about their relationship with other distilleries in the area. She expressed that the Midwest has a close knit distilling community. She went on to tell us about the ‘Four Kings Collaboration Whiskey’. This whiskey was released in 2014 as a collaboration between FEW Spirits, Corsair Distillery in Nashville, Journeyman Distilling in Three Oaks, Michigan, and Mississippi River Distilling in LeClaire, Iowa. Each contributed 30 gallons of whiskey that was then blended and bottled. The project was also backed by Brett Pontoni, spirits buyer at Binny’s. It was sold by the bottle exclusively at Binny’s and by the pour at Delilah’s. They followed up in 2015 with a collaboration Rye. We don’t know what 2016 has in store but we’ll keep you posted. We asked Katherine about international distribution and she told us the US is their number one market and the UK is number two.
(Read more about our tasting with Brett at Binny’s Lincoln Park, click here)
After the history lesson from Katherine we went on to tour the distillery floor! FEW has several mash tanks, two large and two smaller. The largest can accommodate 1,800 pounds of grain and 900 gallons of water. Once mashed, the wort heads into one of five fermenters and in roughly 3 to 4 days it produces a wash of 8 to 12% alcohol. The wash then makes it’s way into a column still, which protrudes through the original roof of the building. Talk about a get things done attitude. This raises the proof to about 60%. After that is a second distillation in a copper lined hybrid still from German company Kothe. We were told that FEW uses a more generous cut of the distillate to round out the flavor. One of the ingredients in their gin is cascade hops, some of which are actually grown at the distillery. They have one dedicated gin still, the smaller of the two. This is where those FEW grown botanical hops come in along with 15 pounds of other botanicals to make each batch of FEW gin. The gin varieties they produce today are an American Gin, Standard Issue: Naval Gin, Barrel Aged Gin (aged in their own whiskey barrels), and their latest addition the Breakfast Gin.
Breakfast Gin was the idea of Steven, one of FEW’s employees. It features a tea cup on the label and was an experiment that turned out to be a hit and become a staple of the FEW lineup. Heavy with scents of Early Gray tea, this Gin is perfect in a French 75 or any brunch style cocktail typically reserved for vodka. We could also see this gin being a perfect addition to an actual boozy tea.
“FEW Fridays” are the second Friday of the summer months, May through September. FEW brings in live music, food trucks, and sets up a cocktail bar in their tasting room. This is truly a community commitment open to friends, families, and those new to FEW. Their visitors include Evanston locals as well as many Chicago residents who hop the Metra UPN or the Purple Line after work and jump off at the Main Street stop less than a block south of the distillery.
FEW gives public tours of their distillery and had roughly 4,000 visitors in 2015. All tours are hosted by Katherine; be sure to tell her you read about them on Chicago Bourbon. The fact that they have such high tour volume and have such a strong following shows that their commitment to their processes and spirits, as well as the FEW family, is paying off for Paul and the team.
After learning the history of FEW and seeing their process our last stop was the tasting room. With six bottles neatly lined up Katherine stepped behind the bar. We started with the clear spirits and worked our way darker. Both the American (80 proof) and Standard Issue (114 proof) gins tasted excellent. The latter being higher proof had some burn, as should be expected. The Breakfast gin, with it’s heavy Earl Grey flavor and slightly higher use of tails, has a complex and light profile. The Barrel gin is their own recipe and is aged in used whiskey barrels. This gin has notes of cinnamon, oak, vanilla, and rye. It has enough of a whiskey profile to be experimented with in a Manhattan. Our final two tastings were the award winning Rye and Bourbon. The rye, bottled at 93 proof carries a mash bill of 70% rye, 20% corn, and 10% barley. It has received rave reviews by independent reviewers and industry panels alike. We would have to agree. The rye has a nose of Earl Grey, chocolate, and licorice. A palate of chocolate, oak, and vanilla. Adding a bit of water brings out more licorice in the nose and mellows the taste. It is spicy yet well balanced. The bourbon is bottled at 93 proof with a mash bill of 70% corn, 20% rye, and 10% barley. Paul told us that 93 is his favorite number hence the proof of the bourbon. We later found out from Katherine that he was probably pulling our leg on that one. The bourbon has a high oak nose, with caramel and just a hint of licorice. Adding a few drops of water brings out floral notes and a slight amount of smokiness. The palate contains strong oak, caramel, vanilla, and is somewhat sweet for a rye based bourbon with a dry finish. One great aspect we noticed is that the strong oak nose and palate turn out to be excellently balanced with the other flavors. It’s easy to find yourself into a second or third pour still appreciating the individual nuances of this bourbon.
That’s it for our visit to Evanston’s FEW Spirits. We’ll be back to the distillery for FEW Fridays this May. Subscribe to the blog below and follow us on Instagram to see our coverage. Or better yet, put one of these Chicago winter days to use touring FEW then meet us there in the spring!
The FEW building entrance (as seen from the alley)
Merchandise sold in the tasting room. The candles are made from re purposed bottles.
Bags 'o grain waiting to be converted into delicious spirits.
Inside the masher
The view from inside the mash tank!
A birds-eye view of the fermentation tanks.
This is the column stripping still extending through the roof!
Column still porthole
Through the porthole of the column still.
The hearts run.
An open air mash tank.
The large hybrid still used to make FEW bourbon and whiskey.
Rye in blue, bourbon in red.
Let there be no confusion. American oak charred to a level 3.
The barrel gin. Aged in used whiskey barrels. Next to a sample of the gin botanicals.
Gin botanical samples. 15 pounds is used for every run.
A very special thank you to Katherine Loftus at FEW Spirits for hosting us and Paul Hletko for taking the time to answer our questions and share their work.