Robert Birnecker was the Deputy Press Secretary for the Austrian Embassy. His wife Sonat was a tenured professor. And like many other business success stories of their time, they left that life behind to pursue a career suiting of their life passion — in this case, alcohol. Robert already had an introduction to distilling as a teenager, when he helped out at his grandparents’ award-winning distillery in Austria. He also had received numerous certificates from Höhere Bundeslehranstalt und Bundesamt für Wein-und Obstbau Klosterneuburg, one of Austria’s most prestigious distilling programs. So, when looking for a new opportunity in life, Robert and Sonat established Koval in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago. Opening in 2008, it was the Windy City’s first post-prohibition distillery.
Koval’s objective was to put their own spin on the distilling process, and that started with using organic grains — by no means a new concept in and of itself — that become the central focus of the spirit. They also focus on using just the “heart” (preceded by the “head” and followed by the “tail”) cut of the distillate, which carries the most flavor from the grain.
According to Robert, “[the head] is like nail polish remover or rubbing alcohol; it’s not something you want to drink.” Similarly the tails aren’t particularly drinkable, either. “Its oily heaviness overshadows the heart and overshadows the delicate flavors of the grain,” said Robert. Yet traditionally in whiskey making, the head and the tails are often redistilled for more batches. To Koval, that doesn’t make sense. “We use great grains. We have great millet,” said Robert. “Why would we put in tails and overshadow the great flavor?”
Photos By Andrew Connor
The aging process is also different at Koval. The industry standard barrel size for aging is 53 gallons, which usually takes about five to seven years to fully age. Koval’s barrels, on the other hand, are 30 gallons, and with a higher surface-area-to-volume ratio, Koval only needs to age spirits for two years. What’s more, the shorter aging process adds smokey, woody barrel-aged characteristics, but without covering up the flavor of the grain.
The end result: whiskies that deviate from the norm in a big way. Koval’s staples, like bourbon and rye, aren’t at all like their contemporaries, and other offerings, like their millet whiskey, are entirely unique. Though they may not satisfy the stuffiest of whiskey drinkers, they remain an excellent option for those looking to try drinking something different.
Four Spirits from Koval
The big rule of thumb with bourbon is a mash bill comprised of at least 51 percent corn, but the majority of distillers far exceed the 51 percent requirement and generally use anywhere from 60 to 80 percent corn. Usually the rest is rye or barley. Koval, on the other hand, hit the minimum of 51 percent corn, and for the additional 49 percent of the bill used millet.
Tasting Notes: Koval’s bourbon has almost Big Red-like notes of cinnamon on the nose. That may sound like Fireball to some, but it’s accompanied by a smokey campfire scent that makes for an aroma that is subdued, warm and pleasant. Light notes of cinnamon continue on the tongue, with a sweet candy apple quality to boot. It drinks clean, with few lingering flavors. Overall a nice, simple and easy-drinking bourbon that strays from the pack in a good way.
Koval’s Rye is made from 100 percent organic, Midwestern rye (though only 51 percent is required for the “rye whiskey” distinction). Of Koval’s offerings, their rye whiskey has the most hype behind it: in 2013 it won “Best International Whiskey” at InterWhisky in Munich, Europe’s biggest whiskey festival.
Tasting Notes: The nose is subtle: hints of leather, dust and green spices are present, with a slight hint of straight alcohol shining through. The leather notes continue on the tongue, accompanied by a sweet, smooth vanilla flavor. Altogether it is clean and smooth, with a nice, thick mouthfeel on the finish.
While Koval’s spirits are on the whole a bit left of center, their millet is without a doubt the most unique of the lineup. Millet is a popular grain in Africa and Asia, even being used as a base for Raksi and Tongba, two alcoholic beverages from Nepal, and Boza, a libation popular in Romania, Bulgaria and other Balkan countries. Millet isn’t popular in distilling in the US (yet), but Koval has used it as the sole grain here. As a bonus, millet is naturally gluten-free.
Tasting Notes: On the nose, the Millet has hints of cereal, walnuts, lumber and baking spices. Flavor-wise, it has notes of flax-seed, butter, caramel and spices. The mouthfeel is oily and it has a very smooth, clear finish.
Four Grain is made from a mash bill comprised of oat, malted barley, rye and wheat, so while most of Koval’s whiskies are a practice in highlighting single grains, this stands out as a decidedly different approach.
Tasting Notes: On the nose there is a strong scent of salty, unshelled peanuts, accompanied by hints of pine and banana. On the tongue it is peppery and spicy, with a bit of apple. It has a strong bite at first, but mellows out quickly and finishes clean.