A few years ago now, I met Paul Hletko at a whiskey event in Chicago. The brand ambassador he had with him at that event turned out to have been a classmate of mine back in high school in Memphis. As odd as that coincidence was, the most memorable part of that whiskey event was meeting Paul. I introduced myself, handed him my card, and within seconds, his face lit up and he told me that he knew our site well. And perhaps within two more sentences, it was clear that he not only had read quite a bit our writing, but he also really got us. I saw him later that night at the legendary Delilah’s, and a wonderful whiskey friendship began. So when I had a little free time during a trip to Evanston, Illinois this past fall, I made sure I could spend some time with Paul and have him show me FEW Spirits Distillery.
Paul had practiced as a patent lawyer before he decided to leave it all behind and start distilling whiskey. He did so, in part, because his family had run a brewery in the Czech Republic before the Nazis took over most of Eastern Europe, and he had aspirations of continuing the family business, in some sense (craft brewing was a crowded business in the United States at the time–and still is). Once he decided upon whiskey, he set out to learn what he needed to learn and start the process of building a distillery in Evanston. The choice of Evanston and the name of the company tells you a lot about the man behind the whiskey: Evanston was an early leader in the prohibition movement, in no small part due to the founding of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which happened there in 1874. In 1879, Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard became the President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a post which she held until her death in 1898. Along the way, Willard played a crucial role in passing the 18th and the 19th Amendments to the Constitution (instituting Prohibition and guaranteeing women’s suffrage, respectively). That’s right: Paul started a distillery in the cradle of Prohibition and named it after the woman most instrumental in enshrining it in the Constitution (thankfully, only for a time). The fact that she was a helluva pioneer for gender equality just seems to be a bonus.
FEW Spirits is a small operation, but one very focused on the craft of distilling. As Paul likes to say, “It takes 14 days for us to make what Jim Beam spills in one day.” Part of the reason it takes so long is because FEW makes rather narrow heart cuts in selecting the spirit they put into barrels. As a result, the time that spirit spends in wood is less of a focus: it takes a back seat to the art of distilling. It took me a while to get this in my head right, in no small part because we here at the Malt Impostor have spent a lot more time on Scotch and on Scottish distilleries than on anything else. But one thing that helped was the following: I asked Paul if he was experimenting with aging spirit longer and if he had any designs on slowly increasing the age of his whiskey as time goes on. His answer was a quick no (though I think that was an answer more to the second question than to the first), which he explained by noting that he had his whiskey right where he wanted it (among the descriptors that seem to fit his desiderata are clean, smooth, and bright). Once I understood better what FEW was going for, I could see why he would say that. It’s an important lesson to learn, especially for those of us trying to get a good read on the burgeoning craft whiskey industry in the United States.
FEW Spirits Distillery is tucked down an alleyway, and it’s cozy to the point of feeling like a comfortable place to hang out. Hanging out there for an afternoon, it’s clear that many visitors feel precisely that way about the place. Tasting Room Manager Katherine Loftus handled a mildly restive Saturday afternoon crowd adeptly and with enviable aplomb (and a great sense of humor). The tour is well worth the time, and it gives you the chance to taste many FEW offerings, including their quite successful gin offerings: the American Gin in the more familiar style, and the Barrel Gin, which ups the ante with aging in five gallon barrels that adds a depth and maturity that is reminiscent of a Bourbon. But it’s important to note: even in the gins, they add in no neutral grain spirits–it’s all distilled from regional grains on site. Beyond the facts that reveal the character of the operation, the feel of the tour is tinged with irreverence in a wonderful way that bears the mark of the company’s founder. And it’s an attitude that has attracted an enviable following in the Chicago area, but also in a number of other states and abroad. Count me as part of that crowd.