By Suzanne Deveney, Foodable Contributor
Love small batch whiskey or gin?
You’re in luck, because the craft distillery industry is growing at an incredible rate, which means more spirits in the market and more places to try it.
In the United States, the number of craft distilleries has grown from about 50 in 2005 to more than 600 today. If growth continues at that rate, the number may double in the next several years.
Distilleries have also spread around the country. While California, Oregon and Washington remain the states with the most operating craft distilleries, distilleries can now be found in 45 states, including Illinois, home of FEW Spirits.
Founded by Paul Hletko, a former patent lawyer, FEW is located in Evanston, a town about 13 miles north of Chicago’s city center. FEW is the first legal distiller of grain spirits in Evanston, and the irony of the location is not lost on those who know Evanston’s history.
Evanston supported the prohibition movement and remained dry until 1972. It was also home to Francis Elizabeth Willard, who served as President of the Chicago Women’s Christian Temperance Movement in the late 1800s. (Get it? Francis Elizabeth Willard: FEW; although the name also symbolizes the small batch philosophy of the distiller.)
Hletko used his legal expertise – and a lot of hours – to have laws changed, obtain special licenses, and ultimately go before Evanston’s zoning board. In all, the process took him about a year to complete. “Just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing,” says Hletko. “I wanted to do something no one else was doing – or dumb enough to try.”
Hletko succeeded, and FEW opened its doors in 2011.
What is a spirit?
By definition, a spirit is distilled alcohol. Spirits distillation is the process of heating a fermented liquid, evaporating off the alcohol as vapor, and then condensing it back into liquid form. Spirits are classified depending on the fermented material they are distilled with, which for FEW includes locally sourced corn, wheat, barley and rye.
FEW is a “grain to glass” distillery, meaning that it ferments, distills and bottles all of its products onsite. Today, FEW produces four spirits: Bourbon Whiskey, Barrel Gin, Rye Whiskey, and American Gin.
How long are FEW spirits aged?
FEW’s location seems like something out of a 1930s movie set: the 2,700-square-foot distillery sits at the end of an alley in Evanston in an old body shop, now filled with stills, fermentation tanks, and barrels stamped with FEW’s distinctive brand instead of car parts. The building sits under Evanston’s El train, which passes by regularly, and unless you’re looking for the distillery, it would be easy to miss.
But don’t miss it. FEW offers weekly tours of their facility given by one of its distillers, followed by a tasting of the spirits. The distiller pours generous samplings of each of FEW’s spirits, explaining the flavor profiles while answering questions.
When asked how long FEW’s spirits are aged, he responded (with a smile), “Until it’s ready,” – which is most likely code for “we can’t give away all our secrets.”
So how does FEW put out a consistent product?
“Everyone has been trained and we all know what it’s supposed to taste like,” says Hletko. “We strive to have a consistent product but at the same time we recognize that many of the reasons that people are consuming our product is because they are looking for those small, subtle differences that come from a small batch distillery.”
Craft distilling is part science, part art – and a trained palate. FEW’s distillers know the approximate timeframe to start tasting. Once ready, the spirits are left to age in wooden barrels, which can also impart flavor to the final product.
The awards and accolades are piling up for the young distillery. FEW’s gin, bourbon, and rye have received gold medals from various heavy-hitting organizations, and FEW and Hletko have been profiled in the New York Times and Entrepreneur. Last year, Hletko was named a Martha Stewart 2014 American Made Awards finalist.
“We’re well beyond where we thought we’d be at a couple of years into the business,” says Hletko. FEW is available in 12 states and on four continents, which can lead to misconceptions about their size. “Although we have distribution across a geographically large area, we remain a small company.” For Hletko, it remains about the product. “We’re always trying to improve every day.”
Hletko is optimistic about the rapid influx of newcomers into the industry. “I don’t see them as competition. There are an awful lot of differences in distilleries. We’re excited to see all the innovative, creative products that are coming to market.”
And where does he see himself in five years?
“Hopefully right here, doing what I love.”
FEW is located at 918 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, IL. Tours are $10 and can be booked online at fewspirits.com.