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Homegrown spirits: Distillery tours let adults sample the hard stuff

Matt Altman shows off bottles his CD (CatalinDynastii) Vodkhis vodkdistillery Mid-Oak Distillery Midlothian. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

Matt Altman shows off bottles of his CD (Catalina Dynastii) Vodka at his vodka distillery, Mid-Oak Distillery in Midlothian. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 27, 2012 8:28PM

Local craft distillery tours and tastings provide an indulgent alternative to brewery and winery tours as more spirits distilleries open in the Chicago area.

Adults with discerning palates will be able to distinguish between the all-natural hard liquors being made here in small batches vs. mass-produced spirits that occupy the bottom shelves of neighborhood liquor stores. Considered premium products, these spirits are usually distilled many times to achieve more smoothness and flavor and to get rid of any impurities or bitterness.

Area distillers also pride themselves on using ingredients grown in the Midwest whenever possible, and some even grow the botanicals (herbs and spices) they use in their own gardens. They also try to find suppliers that grow everything organically.

Paul Hletko, owner and distiller of FEW Spirits, (918 Chicago Ave., Evanston, 847-920-8628, makes white whiskey, gin, rye and bourbon.

White whiskey retains its clarity due to not being aged in oak barrels. Bottle prices for FEW’s premium spirits range from $46 to $65.

“We focus on the quality of ingredients in our ‘grain to glass’ facility. We have total control,” he said. “We’re not certified organic, but we use organic ingredients as often as we can and as local as we can.” The juniper in the gin, for instance, comes from Hletko’s own garden.

FEW Spirits is open for tours on Saturdays at 2 and 3 p.m. The $10 charge includes a tasting of three one-quarter ounce pours. The distillery can accommodate large private groups for special tastings by reservation.

Allowing a distillery within its borders marks a milestone for Evanston, the suburb that was the headquarters of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. After Prohibition, Evanston remained dry until 1972.

Because FEW does not have a tavern license, it must serve its tastes straight. Some distilleries do have licenses that allow them to make mixed drinks.

North Shore Distillery (28913 Herky Dr., Lake Bluff, 847-574-2499, does have a tavern license and charges $8 (with tax and tip) for cocktails during its tours/tastings, which cost $10. North Shore also is licensed to serve visitors three one-third-ounce pours of spirits.

North Shore distills vodka, gin, absinthe and aquavit and plans to add whiskey in the future, said Sonja Kassebaum, partner.

“We have a specially designed still to accentuate the flavors and products. We peel fresh fruit and pick wild botanicals,” Kassebaum said. “We do these things that are not possible in mass production.”

Gin and vodka are North Shore’s best sellers, but Kassebaum and her distiller husband, Derek, also enjoy making French-style absinthe, flavored with anise seed and fennel and infused with many herbs. With its high alcohol level of 120 proof, absinthe should be diluted with two parts water before drinking, Kassebaum said.

All of its liquors are available for tasting Fridays between 4 and 8 p.m. and Saturdays between 2 and 8 p.m. Tours are offered on Saturdays at 2 and 4 p.m. Reservations are encouraged because tours are limited to 15 people at a time.

Matt Altman makes small-batch vodka, named CD Vodka, at Mid-Oak Distillery (4704 W. 147th St., Midlothian, 708-925-9318, He is working on flavored vodkas, including a chocolate peppermint for martinis he plans to roll out in time for the holidays.

He and two associates hand-write batch numbers on each bottle. “That gives people the perception of the small craft feel,” he explained. The three also hand-pour the vodka into each bottle. The vodka retails for about $25.

Mid-Oak’s tasting room is open daily from 5 to 10 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. The establishment is licensed to sell mini-cocktails. Specialties are 10 mini-martinis for $10 and miniature Bloody Marys, the latter showcased on Sundays. Altman recommends calling ahead for parties of more than two people.

Koval Distillery (5124 N. Ravenswood, 773-295-4454, makes the most varieties of all of the area craft distillers and is certified organic. Its products include three styles of whiskey, vodka, brandies and liqueurs.

“We make 32 different products,” said Jason Liechty, manager for owners Robert and Sonat Birnecker. White 100 percent rye whiskey is a top seller. Koval also makes single-grain whiskies from millet, spelt and oats. Retail bottle prices range from $24 to $52.

Those taking the comprehensive 1-1/2-to-2-hour tours get tiny tastes of three white whiskies, three aged whiskies and three liqueurs, that total 2 ounces in all. Tour hours are 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 1, 3 and 5 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday.

Rum and tequila are being distilled at the new Tailwinds Distilling, (14912 S. Eastern Ave., Plainfield, 815-290-0786, The tequila technically must be called “blue agave” because the name “tequila” can be used only if the spirit is made in the Jalisco region of Mexico, said Toby Beall, founder and head distiller.

Midnight Caye Silver is made from 100 percent blue agave and can be drunk straight or in margaritas. Midnight Caye Rested, being aged now in French oak barrels, is a sipping agave. Retail prices are $40 and up.

Taildragger Rum, not yet available, will be made in two varieties from organic molasses — white and amber, the latter aged in French oak barrels.

After the grand opening this fall, a tasting room will be open for weekend tours for the usual $10 with three sample tastes. Midnight Caye Silver is in distribution in some liquor stores.

Tasting room operators recommend that tasters agree on appointing a designated driver who isn’t imbibing in the taste portion of the tour.

Real Russian Vodka, (847) 662-4444, distilled in Gurnee, does not have a tasting room but has limited area distribution in liquor stores and is carried so far by one restaurant, The Forge in Vernon Hills. It can be tasted at some of those liquor stores and at special sponsored events, said Inna Feldman-Gerber, president of Premiere Distillery.

Her father, Gregory Feldman, is a third-general master distiller, using a family recipe dating back to 1905. He distills the vodka six times, she said.

“The more you distill it, the better the flavor. It’s smoother and gets rid of inpurities or bitterness. Our vodka doesn’t have the things that produce the hangover,” she said.

Real Russian Vodka retails for $18. “You don’t have to pay a fortune for a premium product,” Feldman-Gerber said.

Carolyn Walkup is a Chicago area free-lance writer.

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