Koval is a Chicago mainstay when it comes to spirits. Located in a section of the Ravenswood neighborhood referred to as “Malt Row”, it’s Chicago’s first post-prohibition distillery. When browsing any local store in the region, you’ll find a decent amount of shelf space dedicated to the spirits they produce (various whiskeys with different mash bills as well as gin).
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 illegal kind during Prohibition, and the legal kind afterwards) 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, official) 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.
Koval seems to embody a truly craft approach, using local ingredients and a highly controlled process focused on producing award-winning spirits. From their website:
Embracing the grain-to-bottle mentality, each step of the spirit-making process is thoughtfully monitored: beginning with contracting local farmers to grow the grain, to on-site milling and mashing, to finally distilling, bottling, and packaging. After numerous international awards and Robert at the helm of consulting for the burgeoning craft industry, KOVAL has grown to be one of America’s leading small batch, independent spirit manufacturers.https://www.koval-distillery.com/newsite/about-us
The Koval distillery remains privately owned, and focuses on single barrel whiskey production.
All of the grains used in Koval’s whiskey are sourced from local organic and non-GMO farmers. In this case, this rye whiskey starts out with a 100% rye mash bill. Those grains are milled onsite, 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, which is 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. After that, when 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.
In a review of a different Koval product (Koval Bourbon), Nick was not impressed with the bottle. While I do not wholly disagree with his assessment of a single bottle, there is something to behold when you see their entire product portfolio lined up across a shelf. In this case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The bottle itself is something I’m sure you’ve seen before. It’s a short bottle with straight walls, and stout shoulders tapering to the neck. The stopper is a synthetic black cork that fits tight and gives a satisfying pop when you remove it.
The label is minimalistic. The front carries the distillery name and product type. It also declares proudly, “distilled in Chicago.” The font is clean, with the only embellishment being the grain type. The rear label calls out the mash bill and barrel number.
Being a local distillery focusing on single-barrel production, the local liquor stores (I’ve seen it at both Binny’s and Garfield’s) will choose a barrel and the entire batch will be labeled with an additional banner indicating that it was bottled specially for that store.
The very first aroma I get is a sweet note that reminds me of caramel. Beneath that, there are the typical pepper notes that come with nearly every rye whiskey I’ve ever tasted. You will also get notes of pumpernickel bread and a BBQ brisket that has just been pulled out of the pit.
The liquor has a high, nearly syrup-like, viscosity. Given the dark amber color of the spirit, I could see someone mistakenly pouring this over their pancakes.
Taking a sip, the complex aroma that comes across the nose starts to dissipate. The first flavor that comes across is a fresh loaf of bread followed quickly with a sweetness that reminds me of brown sugar. The pepper flavor that comes from the rye is surprisingly subdued. It might be the most balanced rye whiskey that I’ve ever had.
Usually, with a bit of ice, things tend to mellow out in a spirit. The harsher tones are toned down — often at the expense of losing the lighter flavors. In this case, though, there aren’t a whole lot of lighter tones so the overall effect is fairly beneficial.
The pepper from the rye nearly disappears and the other flavors start to come out in its place.
Most notably, the caramel and brown sugar notes come to the forefront. The rye does not entirely disappear, that fresh BBQ aroma that was in the background before now dominates the finish. As good as it was neat, I think I like it better on the rocks.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
Given the sweetness of the spirit over ice, I was a little concerned about adding sugar for an Old Fashioned. So, in preparation, I used about half as much as I normally would have. And I’m very glad I did — even with that smaller amount of sugar, it yielded a very sweet Old Fashioned.
While sweet, the orange and bitters help to maintain a good level of balance. The stronger bitter and spicy notes from the whiskey are still there, just not as prominent. It’s not my favorite Old Fashioned, not as bright and cheery as the drink can be with bourbon or as smooth as rich with other rye whiskey. That said, it’s not bad – just average.
Unfortunately, this suffers from the same over-sweetness that the Old Fashioned did. Up front, the sweetness from the whiskey and from the ginger beer work to create a very sweet cocktail. It’s a good thing that the brighter components of the ginger take a prominent role to help bring some balance to everything.
I happen to be drinking this on a warm summer day, so it’s actually very refreshing to have a drink on the sweeter side. There is not as much depth or complexity as I typically look for in a cocktail, but I certainly don’t hate this.
Cocktail (Soul Transfusion)
I used this spirit one other time when creating a cocktail with Malort – here is that review. The bourbon was used as the primary spirit, but took a backseat to the Malort in the drink.
Since it is more of a liqueur, Malört does not have many cocktail recipes where it stands alone as the primary spirit. So instead, I tried to find an interesting drink where the bitter drink can really shine. I found this in the Soul Transfusion: a cocktail with Koval rye whiskey, Malört, all-spice dram, falernum, and a twist of lemon.
This drink can be best described as a bitter sazerac, and I am shocked at how well all the ingredients balance each other out. While it only contains a half ounce of Malört, that’s still the star in this drink. The ice brings out the grapefruit notes and the bitterness is balanced well with the all-spice and falernum.
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.
This might be my favorite all-around rye whiskey. It’s got a complex flavor profile, especially when drinking it neat and on the rocks. It makes a well balanced cocktail, but it doesn’t necessarily shine as the only star. While not complex as a higher priced rye (looking at you, WhistlePig), it’s fantastic for the price point.
|Koval Single Barrel Rye
Produced By: KovalProduction Location: Illinois, United States
Classification: Rye Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $53.35 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
This ‘Black Sheep’ is nearly as good as a WhistlePig.