Wednesday, March 3, 2010

I Visit Koval, My Neighborhood Distillery.

‘White whiskey’ is a new term, but a good one. It’s good because anyone with a rudimentary understanding of distilled spirits gets immediately what it means.

Too bad it’s illegal.

Under U.S. law, all whiskey (except corn whiskey) must be “stored in oak containers,” i.e., aged. White whiskey is just another name for white dog, spirit straight from the still, innocent of oak. It may be ‘white whiskey’ to you and me, but it’s not any kind of whiskey to the U. S. government until it has seen the inside of a barrel.

That’s why the five white whiskeys made by Chicago’s Koval Distillery are just called ‘grain spirits,’ even though they are, in fact, white whiskey. Very fine white whiskey at that.

Koval Distillery is in a little storefront on North Ravenswood Ave., just south of Foster, directly across from the Metra tracks, in the Andersonville neighborhood. I’m not saying it’s small, but you can take the whole tour without moving. The still is a custom-made Kothe from Germany and the two principals of Koval also happen to be Kothe’s exclusive North American distributors.

They are Robert and Sonat Birnecker, who are applying the artisan distilling traditions and techniques of Robert’s Austrian grandfather. Their products are certified both organic and kosher, and they are a 100 percent grain-to-bottle producer. Look, there’s the mash cooker, a half-dozen or so closed fermenters, the spirit tanks, the bottling line, the grain in bags on shelves next to the knocked-down case shippers. It’s all there in plain sight.

Robert has his own desk where he sits in thrall to his laptop. He says hello and goodbye but never looks up. Sonat and everyone else have their laptops open on the picnic table next to the kitchenette. Part of the space, partitioned off with curtains, resembles a daycare center with its brightly-colored toys. On a small couch against the front wall, the Birnecker’s little boy dozes.

The vibe is simultaneously relaxed and intense. Everyone seems to be having a good time.

Finely made un-aged fruit and grain spirits are much more popular in Continental Europe than they have ever been here. Robert is from Austria but Sonat is from Chicago, and this is grain country, so they are making grain spirits primarily. They have five white whiskeys, each made from a different grain: rye, wheat, oats, spelt and millet.

Yep, spelt and millet. You got a problem with that?

The names are a little fancier: “Rye Chicago,” “Midwest Wheat,” “American Oat,” “Levant Spelt,” and “Raksi Millet.” Sonat’s mom designed the pretty Art Nouveau labels.

Each mash bill is 100 percent of the named grain. No malt is used. Enzymes are added to convert the grain starch into fermentable sugar. Koval distills on the grain and agitates to prevent sticking. The grain spirits come off the still at 92 percent alcohol and are reduced to 40 percent for bottling.

Since whiskey typically comes off the still at about 70 percent alcohol, Koval is off the whiskey model in that respect so its flavors are much more subtle. This is white whiskey in the eau de vie style; a very clean spirit with a light but distinctive flavor of the underlying ingredient.

Though subtle, that flavor is deep and well constructed. Grain spirit is drier than an aperitif but more flavorful than a vodka. I can see it as an after-dinner drink, or as a palate cleanser between courses.

Tasting the five grain spirits one after another, it’s remarkable how different each tastes. I think I named a favorite at the time but can’t remember which one it was. They’re all good.

They have a little bit of natural sweetness, but no sweetener is added. Nothing is added except water.

As good as they are themselves, Koval’s grain spirits also serve as a handy platform for other products. Take the rye off the still at 95 percent alcohol instead of 92 and you have vodka. Steep it with a maceration of herbs, add sweetener, and you have a liqueur. Put some of it in oak barrels and then you can call it whiskey.

They also make a perfect backbone for creative cocktails.

The Koval White Whis…I mean, Grain Spirits are $34.99/750 ml at Binny’s in Chicago. Check the Koval web site for other distribution information.

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