It’s no secret that one of our favorite distilleries here at Thirty-One Whiskey is FEW Spirits in Evanston, Illinois. These folks have cranked out some of the best tasting and most innovative spirits that we’ve seen from a widely distributed distillery — so during a recent trip to Chicago, we made a point to go reach out and meet the people behind the bottles that we love so much.
One thing right off the bat here — most distilleries we visit are facilities that are open to the public. Although FEW Spirits had a tasting room at one point, local restrictions and a growing operation meant they had to close it down. As a result, they are not open to the public and don’t do any facility tours at the time of this publication.
We had previously met some of the folks at FEW Spirits during the American Craft Spirits Association’s annual conference, and reached out ahead of our trip to Chicago asking for a peek inside their operation. They were nice enough to oblige and give us a tour as whiskey reviewers, but please don’t go knocking on their door expecting to be greeted with the typical bells-and-whistles tasting experience. (They’re busy enough without having to spend time turning away unexpected visitors.)
We were lucky enough to sit down for a solid hour long interview with a gregarious Paul Hletko, the man who founded FEW Spirits back in 2011.
Paul didn’t start out in the distilling business — he had previously been an engineer, patent attorney, and rock and roll band member before deciding to return to his family’s roots. His family had operated a brewery in Czechoslovakia, making some delicious pilsner beer before the outbreak of the Second World War saw their brewery confiscated in 1939. Despite repeated efforts, the family was unable to reclaim ownership of their brewery after the war and eventually relocated to Chicago.
While Paul had made a comfortable life for himself, it seems like there was still something missing. Hearing him speak about his family history, it seems like he felt a need to connect to his own past and bring that into the present for his family and his children to experience. He knew he wanted to make an alcoholic product of some kind (in line with that family tradition), but the obvious choice of making a craft beer would see him entering an already crowded market with poor profit margins and a limited chance of success. And, according to Paul, the perfect pilsner already exists so it would be useless to try and top that. Wine was another option, but one that didn’t seem to fit with the local Evanston vibe. That left liquor as the preferred choice — and with that decision, Paul got to work rebuilding his family legacy.
The FEW Spirits distillery was founded in 2011 in a small warehouse next to the train tracks and down a side alley in Evanston, Illinois. When asked about the inspiration for the name, Paul simply responds that it was because “we didn’t make a lot”. They were a small craft distillery operating in the days before craft distilling was a common thing, buying second hand equipment wherever they could find it.
One thing that the young distillery put a lot of time and effort into was their branding. As Paul says, “people don’t buy liquor — they buy stories”. What they eventually landed on was the 1893 World’s Fair, hosted in Chicago. This was a moment in time that not only saw a monumental amount of rapid change and innovation that they would pay homage to, but it was a place and time with a distinct style in which the folks at FEW Spirits could anchor their product lines. Not everything about the branding is obvious at first glance, and that’s by design: it allows people to discover the story behind the design choices and experience their product themselves, rather than having it spelled out for them.
For example, that iconic square bottle is the way it is for one very good reason: it’s shaped like a deck of Bicycle playing cards. Paul didn’t have all the cash on had that he needed to open the distillery, so he literally won the rest of it one hand at a time playing poker. Or, as Paul calls them, “involuntary investments”.
FEW Spirits has continued to expand their distribution network and can now be found just about everywhere in the United States — and at one point may have been the #1 brand of whiskey in Europe. Despite that runaway success, the distillery has chosen to remain in their original building, bringing in more equipment but never changing their location. They have opened a warehouse nearby where their spirits are matured, but it all goes through the same stills.
I asked Paul about how he feels about the success of his business. “I got into this business to make whiskey,” he says, “not make money. We don’t measure our success based on revenue, we measure success by the liquid in the bottle.”
The Distillation Process
As with any other whiskey, the folks at FEW Spirits start with picking the right grains for the job. Grains for their spirits are locally sourced from Illinois-based farms and are milled prior to entering the facility. The choice not to mill their own stuff is intentional — while it would allow them to experiment with different coarseness of grains, not only is there absolutely no space to put a mill but the explosive risk of fine grain powder flying around an active distillery wasn’t something they wanted to mess with.
Those grains are cooked and fermented in these massive tanks. There were fewer at one point in the distillery’s history, but these bulbous behemoths are necessary to keeping the stills running and producing as much liquor as they can to fill the demand for their spirits nationwide. The water jackets surrounding these tanks heats the liquid to the appropriate point, allowing the starchy grains to be turned into delicious sugar for the yeast to eat.
FEW Spirits uses 100% lab grown cultured yeast in their fermentation process for the sole reason of ensuring consistency of flavors in the finished product.
After fermentation, the next step in the process is a stripping run in their column still. One interesting choice here is that the first distillation run is done without first filtering out the grains, a common practice in most other distilleries. This allows for some extra flavor components to be introduced during the distillation process as those grains are heated and churned in the still.
During the stripping run, the spirit coming off the still is closely monitored to remove the heads and the tails from the beautifully clear alcohol distillate (pictured above).
Following the initial stripping run, the spirits are then fed into their hybrid column still for the spirits run. This is where the distillery makes their final choices about which part of the run to capture as their “new make” whiskey and which parts get discarded — and it has a significant impact on the quality and the character of the spirit.
Interestingly, the distillery seems to have opted for a shotgun style condenser rather than a more typical worm tub style condenser. It’s a more compact and modern design, but there are some who argue that the shorter distance of tubing in the condenser leaves some liquor on the table when the run is done.
At the end of the process, what you’re left with is this: crystal clear liquor running into one of their massive stainless steel totes. The alcohol will eventually be placed into charred new oak barrels for a period of time before being bottled for sale.
There’s something magical about being in a distillery where you can see and feel the care and attention being placed into their product. There are few places that pull it off well, and even fewer who have been as much of a commercial success as the folks at FEW Spirits (puns intended). And while we’re definitely disappointed that they don’t have a tasting room we can go visit next time we’re in Chicago, we’re just happy to be able to buy a couple bottles to enjoy whenever we want — just as Paul intended.