Thursday, June 5, 2014

Few Spirits Is Everything It Ought to Be

I live close to Few Spirits and know Paul Hletko, the proprietor, but I had never seen the distillery. I went up there yesterday and while I know the neighborhood (it's near the Windmill Walgreens), I didn't know Few's exact location. It's good I had the address. Having seen no sign on my drive-by, I parked and followed the numbers in descending order. As I stepped into an alley, I noticed that the number on the next door was too low, so I glanced down the alley.

There it is!

That part of Chicago Avenue in Evanston is right up against the L tracks. There hardly seems room enough for one building between the street and the track, but here was a second one; one-story, white-washed brick, a very utilitarian 19th-century structure, probably a carriage garage or even a small factory originally, tucked away, out of sight, with the constant rumble of the Evanston Express a few feet away.

"Perfect," I thought.

Evanston, the first suburb north of Chicago, was founded in the 1850s, simultaneous with the founding of Northwestern University. Both were the work of Methodists, so alcohol was prohibited. Frances Willard, president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), lived in Evanston, where her home is preserved as a monument to abstinence. Evanston was officially dry until 1972 and laws still on the books had to be changed before Few could make, sample, and sell distilled spirits there.

The distillery isn't big. Other than the bar area, it's just one room. They have a mash cooker, two fermenters, a little hybrid still (pot bottom/column top) just for gin, and a large one for everything else. The newest addition is a small column still. The size of a column still is determined by its diameter, they're all about the same height. You usually have to cut a hole in the roof and build a little cupola around the top, as Few has done.

The column is just for stripping water from fermented beer. It doesn't have a rectification section. Everything that starts in the column is finished in the large hybrid. Now that he has a column, of course, Hletko wants more fermenter capacity.

Few makes both aged and unaged spirits, and barrels of aging spirit can fill a space fast. Most of Few's aging barrels have been moved to another location nearby. A handful were left behind for atmosphere. Bottling is at the other location too. Most urban distilleries find it challenging to expand. Moving some operations to another location is usually a good solution.

Hletko's office is stuffed into one crowded nook. A few bags of milled grain are waiting for the next cook. A fork lift is parked in the open garage doorway. Most of the clutter is trackside. The rest of the space is pretty open.

Few is doing it right. They've cultivated a loyal, local following and stuck to a tight core of products. Their rye is justly considered one of the best micro-distillery whiskeys in the country. Hletko has a good presence in the local drinks community.

Pat Foley, the TV play-by-play announcer for the Chicago Blackhawks, peppers his delivery with tips, "for you young hockey players out there." Well, you young micro-distillers out there might want to study Few Spirits.


Florin said...

I had the same exact experience Chuck when I visited them, had to look twice between the low and high street number. I see you stopped short of saying that F.E.W. stands apparently precisely for Frances E. Willard herself, a story that's both cute and ballsy. When I visited Brooke Saucier was their manager/partner and he stopped what he was doing to show me around, very nice guy. I see he's not working with them anymore - that was a couple years ago. Great operation, good luck to them!

(Incidentally, I had a much worse experience at their better known distilling colleagues from across town on Ravenswood. Longest, driest, most boring distillery tour ever.)

Chuck Cowdery said...

Too bad. It was fun when Meg Bell was giving the tours.