Behind the Koval Distillery: Robert Birnecker

The first working distillery in Chicago since Prohibition, the Koval Distillery produces spirits utilizing unusual grains. MIXOLOGY author Andrew Wilkin met with founder Robert Birnecker to find out more about the “grain forward” distillery.

It’s a cold, cloudy January morning in Chicago and Robert Birnecker, one of the crack team behind artisan Chicago distillers Koval, is reflecting on their first ever fruit shipment. The pears, to be used for brandy, froze in transit. “Once the pears freeze, you have 5 days to process them otherwise they’ll go mouldy,” he says. “And there’s no more fruit available in December in Illinois!”

It was fortuitous. Realizing they had to expand from just producing fruit brandies in order to survive, Koval did. They’ve since become renowned for their “grain-forward” rye and white whiskies, as well as a dry gin launched in 2014. Expansion has been swift. Since setting up their initial distillery in a warehouse on Ravenswood Avenue in 2008—the first in Chicago since Prohibition–they’ve moved to a 10,000 square-foot facility in 2011, purchased a 5000l still and 3 more fermenters. Koval is undeniably one of the figureheads of America’s boom in craft distilling.

New distiller in town

It was never a slam dunk. Robert is from a family of Austrian distillers, but as he admits, he didn’t know a thing about distilling in the Windy City. Together with his wife, Sonat Birnecker—previously a professor in German and Austrian Jewish Literature—they wanted to do something different with their life, but they weren’t quite sure what. “We wanted to make something but not open a restaurant or a bar,” he says. They then read an article about craft distilling in 2008 and realized there hadn’t been a distiller in Chicago since Prohibition. Bingo.

“We went into the city of Chicago and spoke to a couple of aldermen. They recommended some buildings, we leased a building, we ordered a still and half a year later we were up and running,” he smiles. And that was it. It’s the first example of the Birnecker’s rapid, get things done approach to work.

Stills, pumps, valves

Teething issues came in packs. His German language skills—Robert grew up in Austria and lived previously in Berlin—came in handy for purchasing their initial still from Köthe, the 2nd largest still manufacturer in Germany. “But where do we get a pump? Valves? I didn’t know any of these things,” he explains. Then, there was licensing. “Telling people we are a distillery, not a brewery, in beer mad Chicago was difficult too,” he explains.

Prohibition laws were still in play, most notably one prohibiting the sale of their products on-site or offering tours around the facility. Keen to exhibit a local focus—“we wanted the public to be able to see how we were doing things”—Sonat had to long-arm the local legislature into changing the law on their behalf. These separate Birnecker strengths have been handy in getting Koval off the ground. “I’m more into the production and financials, whilst Sonat deals with distribution, sales and regulatory hurdles,” he says.

If he could tell a potential distiller anything, it’s this. “Everything takes longer and it costs more than you think,” he laughs.

From bourbon to vodka

“It’s like asking me what child I like better!” I’ve just asked Robert Birnecker about his favourite Koval spirit, realizing that, compelled by the larger stories, we’d barely discussed their actual products. He loves the millet and the biggest selling is the bourbon. The fruit brandies are offered as largely seasonal options, when the fruit is easily available—avoiding more frozen pear catastrophes—and they even produced their first dry gin in 2014. It was a smash, winning the Double Gold Medal (for spirit and for packaging) at the 2015 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

What about vodka? It’s a market he’s deliberately avoided, although they produce a small-batch vodka for the domestic market. “Even if it’s a clear spirit and the biggest selling spirit in the US since 1973, it’s a crowded, tough market,” he sighs. “It’s hard to compete against big brands that sell a 750ml bottle for $7.99. In order to be cost effective in Illinois, you have to price the same bottle at $24,99-$29,99 and you have to have a really, really good argument for selling your vodka for $29,99.” He finishes up his argument. “Tell me, why would I buy your vodka over Smirnoff at $7,99?”

Craft community

On the same day as our chat, Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Gin was bought by Pernod-Ricard. Are big takeovers good for craft distillers?

What’s clear here is that Robert is not antagonistic towards the ‘big guy’. “Ultimately, there is an advantage to having a big partner on your side,” he says. “Through partnerships, you can gain a distribution contact in Germany or Japan or various other countries.” Would they be tempted? “So far, we haven’t had any investors because we aren’t interested,” he confidently claims. With strong distribution networks already, it’s simply not necessary for the Birnecker’s to seek out some help from above. He quickly adds: “craft is also nothing to do with size.”

Here’s the thing. The Birnecker’s are kind of big players themselves. On the side, they run the Köthe Distilling Technologies, helping other craft distilleries with starting up—offering advice and workshops to fledgling distillers. Robert explains that many of the newer distillers in America, and even Chicago, have been given a real helping hand by Koval in recent years but he isn’t worried about the competition he’s create. “First of all, we’re still in the craft sector, which is a drop in the ocean with regards to the wider market,” he says. “And it’s good to have a good quality basis for the entire industry.”

The micro-future

He doesn’t necessarily think every craft brewery has a clear run at nationwide success. “We have over 800 distilleries now in the US and everyone has a different focus. You can’t expect all of them to be national brands,” he says. “What you will see that a lot of these startups will exhibit a strong local focus, as a distilling business with a bar/restaurant on site. Expect more of these micro-distillery pubs.”

So, would they change their minds and now open a Koval bar? “We’re not bar people,” he reiterates. “You have to know what your strengths are and we’re going to focus on expanding what we have.” He talks of moving into distribution in the Scandinavian markets in 2016—focusing on Sweden, Finland, Norway and some cruise-ship lines—as well as Greece, Croatia and Poland.

As we conclude, Robert says goodbye and heads off to check out a new storage facility. I laugh thinking back to their near cataclysmic frozen pear incident. Because if the future is anything like the preceding years, expect to see Koval on the moon by 2020.


Foto: Photo via Koval Distillery.

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