I can’t travel right now. Or, I could, but then my wife would quarantine me in the guest room for two weeks afterward. So instead of going around the country to taste whiskey, I need to bring the country to me… and one place I’ve been wanting to try is Koval’s whiskey, produced in Chicago, Illinois.
Chicago has a long and storied history when it comes to alcohol, with a particularly bloody period during the 1920’s and 1930’s. When prohibition began, it wiped out all the city’s distilleries and, for the next half century, the city’s alcohol consumption was fueled by imports (of the legal and illegal kind) from other states and countries.
That all changed in 2008 when Robert and his wife Sonat Birnecker decided to quit their academic jobs and start the first legal distillery in Chicago since prohibition. The name “Koval” comes from a yiddish phrase meaning “black sheep”, which is a designation Robert’s grandfather earned when he left the family home in Vienna in the early 1900’s to start a new business in Chicago. The couple decided that the name was appropriate for their new business as well.
The Koval distillery remains privately owned, and focuses on single barrel whiskey production.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
All of the grains used in Koval’s whiskey are sourced from local organic and non-GMO farmers. In this case, this bourbon starts out as a mixture of 51% corn and 49% millet. Those grains are milled on site, allowing the distillery to carefully monitor the process and get just the right size and consistency of ground grains.
Once the grains are milled, they are cooked to convert the starches into sugars and then fermented by adding yeast to the mixture. The liquid is then distilled in a custom-built Kothe pot and column still, designed to be as green as possible during the distillation process by re-capturing the water used during distillation to ensure minimal waste.
Once the whiskey has been produced, it is added to a new charred oak barrel and left to age for an undisclosed period of time.
Once the whiskey is ready, the end result from each barrel is poured directly into the bottle. There’s no blending or mixing — every bottle they produce is a single barrel whiskey.
I’m sadly finding this bottle design a bit… meh.
The bottle itself is a design we have seen time and again. It’s basically a pot still in glass form, with a big bulbous base, straight walls, and a curved shoulder that ends in a relatively short neck. The whole thing is capped off with a stopper.
The label is similarly underwhelming. I appreciate the minimalist aesthetic and I like it’s a smaller label that allows a lot of the inner whiskey shine through… but it feels a little sparse for the space it takes up. It’s simple, straightforward, and doesn’t have a lot of embellishments to it, which I like, but it seems to get lost in the crowd on a liquor shelf.
The very first aroma I get is a good hit of fruit. Something a little darker and richer, like apricots and plums. There’s some raw alcohol behind that initially, which blows off after the spirit sits in the glass for a couple minutes and leaves behind the fruit and a good bit of brown sugar that combine to make almost a syrupy texture. There’s some vanilla in the back, as well, hanging out for good measure.
I think the millet is throwing me for a bit of a loop here. There’s a touch of tartness to the aroma, and I think the millet is the source of that aspect. It might also have contributed to the fruit aspects, but I honestly have zero other experience with millet and have nothing to compare it to.
Taking a sip, there’s the well-saturated caramel and vanilla up front, with a bit of plum and other dark fruit following not far behind. There’s that same tart (but not quite reaching bitter) flavor in there as well, which I’m not entirely a fan of. The spirit finishes with a bit of dark chocolate that eventually develops into more of a charred oak flavor as it sits.
Usually, with a bit of ice, things tend to mellow out in a spirit. The harsher tones are toned down, but often at the expense of losing the lighter aspects. In this case, though, there aren’t a whole lot of lighter tones so the overall effect is fairly beneficial.
That tartness isn’t quite as apparent with a few ice cubes, and the depth of that charred oak finish only really gets to the dark chocolate phase. It’s a mellowed out spirit for sure, but there are still plenty of well-saturated flavors in there to persist to other formats.
One thing I do start to pick up on now is a bit of raw grain in the spirit. I’d almost call it raw rye grain, but there is no rye grain in the mash bill. I think it’s the millet starting to make more of a name for itself, but again, with my limited millet experience I can’t be sure.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
I’d think with the dark fruit and the dark chocolate flavors, this would turn out to be a more interesting old fashioned. Unfortunately, though, it seems that this is a little too unbalanced in the darker and richer aspects to truly excel here.
Without any added sugar, this is a very bitter drink. The natural inherent tartness of the spirit only contributes to the bitterness of the bitters and, as a result, it takes a good bit of simple syrup to level this out.
Once the sugar is added, there’s some nice enhancement of the existing dark and rich tones… but there also isn’t much interaction or balance here either. It’s more of a feedback loop than a balancing act, making things just a touch off balance for me.
This could probably be a really good old fashioned with something like peach or orange bitters, which would be good bright and cheerful compliments to the spirit that balance out nicely. But for the testing we do here, we use straight angostura bitters to maintain a consistent approach to the process for each whiskey… and angostura bitters do not compliment this spirit.
This is a little smoother than I usually take it, but it’s a good showing.
Right up front, there’s a pretty good balance to the flavors. The darker and richer tones in the spirit do a nice job balancing out the bright and cheerful ginger in the ginger beer, and the end result is something complex and delicious.
Usually, I like to see a little something in the finish as well — like a peppery spice from some rye content, or a bit of depth and texture beyond the usual. Here, though, we just get a smooth and consistent finish. It’s not at all bad, but might be just a touch boring.
Something to note here is that, because this is a single barrel expression, each bottle will be different. The broad strokes may remain the same, but you are always going to have something unique and new every time you pop the cork. That’s part of the charm behind a single barrel production run — but it also makes it difficult to know exactly what you are getting into.
I like that this is using millet, which is something that you don’t see often. And in general, there are a lot of good flavors here. It might not be a five star winner, but this absolutely is something that I’d go back to time and time again for those nights when I want something a little unique and different to sip on.
|Koval Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey
Produced By: KovalProduction Location: Illinois, United States
Classification: Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 47% ABV
Price: $51 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4/5
Al Capone could only dream of getting his hands on something like this.