Startup Stories of Spirits Entrepreneurs is a mini-series that gleans firsthand insight and delves into the challenges, inspiration, lessons learned, and more, from a variety of spirits entrepreneurs.
By Allison Levine, Foodable Contributor
Paul Hletko has brewing in his blood. His grandfather was a brewer in the Czech Republic but lost his business in World War II, and, despite moving to the U.S., continued to fight to get his brewery back until he died in 2008. Hletko wanted to pay homage to his grandfather and, with a passion for whiskey and gin, opening a distillery seemed like a natural option.
Hletko started as a home brewer in his hometown of Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago. While a brewing hobbyist, Hletko worked as a patent attorney and had also worked in the music business, doing everything from playing guitar to running a record label to designing custom guitar effects. He began to plan the distillery, and it took five years before it was operational. Hletko was juggling two businesses but knew it was time to exclusively focus on distilling spirits.
“I was no longer able to do both and it was a real gut check,” he says. “The mind will tell you all sorts of things that it wants you to believe, like you need the money or that people will laugh at you or that you aren't good enough to do it or whatever it takes to keep you in your comfort zone. But I had to make a choice between doing what I wanted to do and doing what I had to do.”
The shift from home brewer to commercial distiller occurred in 2011 when FEW Spirits opened its doors.
What’s in a Name
Evanston, Illinois was founded as a dry community and was the headquarters of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the organization that fought for suffrage, as well as to ban alcohol. Frances Elizabeth Willard, an inhabitant of Evanston, was a longtime president of the organization. While she died in 1898 before Prohibition, she was influential in the movement and was the first woman to have her statue in Statuary Hall in U.S. Capitol.
FEW Spirits was named using Francis Elizabeth Willard’s initials. On the one hand, it is a slap in the face to the history of temperance. But on the other hand, the name works perfectly in marketing taglines, such as “we don’t make a lot, we make FEW” or “if you are only going to have one, have FEW.”
With an anti-alcohol history, no alcohol was sold in Evanston until 1970 and there had never been alcohol production. Hletko was instrumental in laying the new groundwork to open a distillery in Evanston. But there was no instruction manual.
“The wide range of things that you need to have instant expertise about, as well as the lack of an instruction manual, were the biggest challenges,” says Hletko.
To get through these challenges, he credits hard work, trial and error, creating, science and art. He also turned to friends and mentors.
“I've had the privilege to learn from some of the best, including Robert and Sonat Birnecker at Koval, Drew Kulsveen from Willett, Matt Hoffman from Westland, Johnny Jeffrey formerly of Death's Door, Rob Masters from Spring44, John Couchot from Rogue and now Boston Harbor Distillery, Scott and Becky Harris from Catoctin Creek, and more.”
While there were no guidelines when Hletko began, he helped establish alcohol production in Evanston. While FEW is still the only distillery, two breweries have since opened in the area.
Hletko loves to play around and, finding inspiration to be a creative process, is inspired by other artistic avenues. “Inspiration comes from many places, ranging from food to music and literature. But mostly, passion is at the core. Spirits give a glorious palate to paint with, as alcohol carries flavors very well, and can help really focus and intensify the flavor.”
FEW’s core products are bourbon, rye and gins. Located in the American Midwest, close to the finest grain anywhere, it was only natural that Hletko would focus on using products as close to home as possible.
FEW also launched two new products this year: Anguish and Regret and Breakfast Gin. Inspired by history and the classic Chicago drink of malört, a bitter Swedish spirit that became popular in Chicago during Prohibition, Anguish and Regret is an infusion of a house-made ras el hanout Moroccan-style spice blend. It contains peppercorns, ginger, cinnamon and other spices in a neutral grain spirit made by FEW. The flavor is bitter and earthy with lots of ginger spice. The Breakfast Gin is a gin made with Earl Grey tea and lemon peel and was created specifically for brunch cocktails.
FEW also did a special release of a Bloodshot small-batch Bourbon Whiskey to celebrate the 21st anniversary of Bloodshot Records, a Chicago-based record label.
For those looking to enter the spirits industry, Hletko says you have to be serious about the business side of things.
“The spirits industry is a business that thrives on passion, but it is a business,” he says. “If you want to have a hobby in the spirits industry, that's fantastic, but hobbies and working in the spirits industry are not the same thing.”
Bonus: Cocktail Recipes
“I remain weak for Negronis and any of our gins make a good one,” says Hletko. The Cocktail Academy in Los Angeles created a FEWgroni, swapping Campari for the more mildly bitter Salers, and sweet vermouth for dry.
- 1 ½ oz. FEW American Gin
- ¾ oz. Salers
- ¾ oz. Dolin Blanc Vermouth
Add all the ingredients to an Old Fashioned glass filled with a large ice cube. Stir, and garnish with an orange twist.
A few bartenders around the U.S. have also created favorite FEW cocktails:
House Martini by Hastings Cameron & Ed Hong, Gib's, Madison, WI
It looks like a Martini but tastes totally different. This powerful stirred drink combines tequila with the bitter and spicy FEW Anguish & Regret.
- 1 ¼ oz. Tapatio Blanco 110-proof Tequila
- ¾ oz. FEW Anguish & Regret
- ¾ oz. Dolin Dry Vermouth
- 1 grapefruit coin (cut a silver dollar-sized disc of grapefruit peel with a paring knife, leaving a little pith for the extra bitterness)
- 1 pinch salt
Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass, fill with large ice cubes and stir for 18-24 seconds. Strain into a chilled Nick & Nora or Martini glass. Twist a slice of grapefruit peel over the surface of the drink to express the oils, then trim into a rectangular shape, puncture the center with the tip of a paring knife and insert the stem of a lavender sprig so it sits upright, and use as garnish.
Ginger Swizzle by Jenny Goodwin, Fado Irish Pub, Atlanta
Somewhere between a Mint Julep, a Mojito and a Mule, this ginger sipper gets an extra spicy kick from FEW Rye Whiskey.
- 2 oz. FEW Rye Whiskey
- ½ oz. The King's Ginger Liqueur
- Juice of half a lemon
- 1 oz. simple syrup (1 part sugar, 1 part water)
- 3 mint leaves
- 6 dashes Angostura Bitters
Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into an Old Fashioned glass filled with a large ice cube. Garnish with a lemon twist and a mint sprig.
Northshore Collins by Eugene Lee, Big Bar, Los Angeles
Brunch drinks always seem to scream spring, but the vanilla and hops that flavor Few American Gin, along with a rich aged rum, make this one great for later in the year.
- 1 oz. Few American Gin
- ¾ oz. aged rum, such as Zaya
- ½ oz. lemon juice
- ½ oz. Small Hand Foods Gum Syrup
- ¼ oz. Passion fruit puree
- ¼ oz. Small Hand Foods Orgeat
- Club soda
Add all the ingredients except the club soda to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake briefly and strain into a Collins glass filled with fresh ice. Fill with club soda and garnish with a lemon twist.