F.E.W. Spirits: A Little Honesty

As the founder of F.E.W. Spirits, Paul Hletko is one of the major players on the ambitious US craft distiller scene. Reinhard Pohorec met up with Paul to get a feel for this headstrong man who traded in his lawyer’s hat to set up his own distillery.

It’s a fact that virtually no other developed country has a more prudish reputation than the USA. It’s also a fact that nowhere else will you find a more pronounced culture of body obsession and pornography. This dichotomy in the American psyche is nowhere better expressed than in the fact that the nation’s largest brand of whiskey is distilled in Moore County, Tennessee, a “dry county”. So, one couldn’t be faulted for thinking that Americans have a somewhat “complicated” relationship with their vices. After all, is it just a coincidence that alcohol, tobacco and firearms are regulated by the same federal agency?

From the Patent Office to the pot still

In contrast, Paul Hletko is the living manifestation of “straight-up”. You know exactly where you stand with this guy. Descended from a family that brewed beer in today’s Czech Republic for generations, Paul’s first priorities were learning the US law of the land to become a professional patent attorney. Today, he earns his daily bread making spirits that are a resounding success and increasingly gaining international notoriety.

And he’s doing it in a place that was once an epicenter of the prohibition movement, yet another paradox to add to this story’s list. History is likely to footnote the “noble experiment” of the 18th amendment to the US Constitution as one of the nation’s high points of ambivalence and intolerance.

One of the driving forces behind the prohibition efforts in late 19th century America was the Woman’s Temperance Christian Union based in Evanston, Illinois, a community founded on the pious principle of teetotalism. A quaint Chicago suburb located north of the city, Evanston was the home and working base of a certain Frances Elizabeth Willard. Willard was a saint for many, a sourpuss for many more, and definitely not the kind of lady you’d want to meet up with for a drink.

The aftershocks of the “noble experiment”

The anecdotes from America’s “dry” years in the early 20th century could fill entire libraries, and the effects of the historic eruption that was prohibition can still be felt today. Incidentally, it was 1990 before Evanston finally legalized beer, wine and spirits. But alcohol’s real comeback in Evanston came in 2011 when Hletko began distilling his “new make” at the F.E.W. Spirits Distillery.

“I wanted to do something to continue my family’s story. After my ancestors lost their brewery to the Nazis, my grandfather was the only one to survive the concentration camp”, says the Master Distiller and company founder. “So I started searching for a new historical connection to continue this heritage, instead of losing it forever.”

A story of workmanship, authenticity and credibility

But Paul’s new chosen profession was no easy game, and the daily bread he earned in the early days was harder and drier than during his tenure as a patent attorney. The idea of only a “few” bottles, of maintaining high quality through low quantities, is inherent to all the company’s products and is reflected in its name and on the labels. This brand name is simultaneously a play on words and the height of benevolent self-deprecation with an nod to the company’s output. And those of you really paying attention will have noted the initials of Prohibition’s ultimate party-pooper, Frances Elizabeth Willard. The iconography of the labels is no less steeped in history, depicting as they do motifs from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

Hletko says, “I think the F.E.W. brand is a combination of several linked factors. We were the first ones to bring alcohol to the home of Prohibition, there’s the connection with Chicago, the 1893 Columbian Exposition and the personal context. It’s all true and authentic”.

And it is precisely this authenticity that you can taste with every drop from the distinctive rectangular bottles. Gin and whiskey are the bread-and-butter of what the F.E.W. Spirits Company does, and they offer a variety of different interpretations of these two staples.

Some of these variations are and were one-off bottlings – limited batches, special barrel bundles – while others have won their rightful place in the heart of the company’s portfolio.

All from a single source

The F.E.W. American Gin is based on a classic bourbon “mash bill” featuring corn, wheat and barley, a distinctive sensory characteristic that gives it a unique touch. In among the eleven botanicals one will find creamy vanilla tones and complex citrus notes, but juniper is always front-and-center here and the name “Gin” is absolutely justified. The grains come from farmers in Wisconsin and Indiana, and it goes without saying that no neutral grain spirits are bought and added.

This bridge between juniper and whiskey runs through the lot as a common thread, also in the “Standard Issue Gin”, bottled at Navy Strength and conceived as a tribute to the rations issued to soldiers and sailors. The same signature is just as clear in the “Barrel-Aged Gin”, aged for four months in five-gallon barrels. The portfolio is rounded out by the F.E.W. upstarts on the American whiskey scene, White Dog, Bourbon and Rye Whiskey, all of which boast great character and individuality along with expert craftsmanship and the highest quality standards.

Mr. Straight-Up Paul Hletko is by no means under the illusion that the road to success is paved with nothing more than a good product. “It’s an almost impossible business to become successful in. Nothing is easy”, he says. He’s also not a great fan of the much-used word “craft” or a sole focus on making good products, but at the same time he stresses that these things are indispensable fundamentals anyway.

Spirits simply are not like the beer scene, where the whole craft trend got its start. And just making a higher quality product than the mass-produced alternatives is also not a realistic strategy. Hletko believes the key is “…outstanding quality, an irresistible incentive to buy and a secure path to the market”. And it’s precisely this last factor that many young producers of truly great products neglect. So, sounds simple, right? And anyway, if it were up to Frances Elizabeth Willard, today would be better than tomorrow for putting spirits out of business altogether.

It’s reassuring to know that in the USA, despite the ambivalence and the double-edged, prudish surface-level tolerance, common sense has won out in the end. At least with some things.


Translation by J.J. Collier.


Foto: Paul Hletko via F.E.W. Spirits