The Iconic Spirits Blog

Koval Distillery

September 11, 2013

Tags: koval distillery, robert and sonat birnecker

In Yiddish, the word Koval means blacksmith, but it has another connotation---that of a black sheep, a person who strays outside boundaries and sometimes does the unconventional. Robert and Sonat Birnecker, the husband and wife team who run Koval Distillery, chose the name because it reminded them of their ancestors. Sonat’s great-grandfather emigrated to Chicago from Vienna soon after the turn of the 20th century; Robert learned the art of distilling from his Austrian grandfather, Robert Schmid (Schmid means “smith” in German). Thus, Koval seemed like the perfect name for the distillery the Birneckers founded in 2008.

On the face of it, it seemed an unlikely venture for the couple. Sonat, with degrees from Oxford and the University of London, was teaching at a university in Baltimore. Robert was the Deputy Press Secretary at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Of course, he came from a family with a century of background in spirits, and also held certificates from Austria’s leading university program in distilling technology, but the spirits business seemed to be an unreachable continent away. Then Sonat’s mother gave them an article on Tuthilltown Spirits and the phenomenon of the exploding American craft distilling industry, and it sparked their imaginations.

When the Birneckers moved to Chicago to start Koval, the first legal distillery within the city limits since Prohibition, they brought a rigorous set of quality standards with them. Their copper pot still was custom-designed in Germany by Kothe, a company that specializes in tailoring their product to the needs of each distiller. Determined to support sustainable farming, they sourced only organic grains from local Midwestern farms. They took their water from Lake Michigan, and ran it through a natural charcoal purification method. They decided to control the distillation from start to finish, and resisted the temptation to outsource any part of the process. Today, they make a full line of whiskies, liqueurs, vodka and specialty spirits.

Koval produces a range of liqueurs including Jasmine, Rose Hip, Orange Blossom, Coffee and Caraway. Their Ginger Liqueur yields whiffs of tart citrus on the nose. In the mouth, the rich texture is dominated by pure, candied ginger flavors, and the spirit is beautifully balanced between sweetness and pungent ginger; slight spice notes emerge in the mid palate and continue on the finish. Even more intriguing is the Chrysanthemum Honey Liqueur, which combines sweetness, floral scents and a distinct earthiness on the nose. This unusual combination continues on the mouth, and the interplay between floral character and sweetness is reminiscent of St.-Germain, although the liqueur is better integrated and just as pleasurable. The long finish is pleasantly sweet, but not cloying. Both retail at $28 for a half-bottle, and weigh in at 40 proof/20% ABV.

Their Four Grain Single Barrel Whiskey ($50; 94 proof/47% ABV) displays a nose of rich grains, barrel sweetness and hints of vanilla. The texture is light and smooth on entry, but those grains (oat, malted barley, rye and wheat) kick in shortly thereafter, backed up by a nice mix of creaminess and pepper notes. This is a whiskey of formidable character---not unlike a single malt Scotch when sipped on its own, but one that also mixes well in a variety of cocktails.


(Created by Christopher Keener of Chicago’s Lula Café)
1 oz. Koval Ginger Liqueur
.5 oz. Cocchi Americano
.5 oz. Dolin Blanc Vermouth
Sparkling rosé
Pour spirits into flute and top with sparkling wine

(Created by Geoffrey Wilson of Loa in New Orleans)
2 oz. Koval Chrysanthemum and Honey Liqueur
.75 oz. Koval Four Grain
.5 oz. Bittermen’s Commonwealth Tonic Liqueur
.75 oz. lime juice
.25 oz. ginger syrup
Shake, strain over ice, and serve with Crispin Browns Lane Cider

ABOUT THE BOOK: Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, by Mark Spivak, is published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot). Writing in an engaging and appealing style, Spivak chronicles the untold tales of twelve spirits that changed the world and forged the cocktail culture. While some are categories and others are specific brands, they are “the best kinds of stories---the type a writer could never make up.”

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