Driving down Chicago Street in Evanston, chances are you wouldn’t even think to guess at the fact that there was a distillery neatly tucked away down one of the alleys. One would even be willing to bet that most may not even know of this distillery, even though it is right in their backyard.
FEW Spirits is one of those places where you get the idea of what the company is about from the moment you walk in the door and it carries you all the way through until the end of your visit. Whether you pick up a bottle at the store, examine the bottle at a bar, or pay a visit to their distillery, the understanding of the brand is all tied together.
The building is a mix of young and old. Aged rafters and brick walls create the shell that houses steel racks, oak barrels, and steampunk-style stills. A newly constructed tasting room is modern with a touch of heritage and sits at the front of the space, greeting you as you walk in. A table with FEW branded whiskey glasses and bottles of their libations sits in the middle of the room offering a 360 tasting space.
Owner and Master Distiller, Paul Hletko, had just gotten off the phone with Sweden when he greeted me in the tasting room. With FEW already in several European countries, Sweden really wants in on what the craft distiller has to offer. This comes as no surprise as FEW has been making a lot of noise and surprising palates more and more over the past couple of years. Whisky Advocate recently put FEW’s Rye Whiskey in the Top 10 of the Fall Issue Buying Guide, sitting in with some well-known names such as Ardberg, Four Roses, and Mackmyra.
I arrived at the most aromatic part of the day, mashing in. The smell of sweet malts and adjuncts filled the air as the water and grains started to mix. Much like brewing beer, the mashing in process extracts all of the sugars from the grains and adjuncts that will later be fermented into alcohol. However, with a distillers mash, the process takes several more hours, well up into the double digits.
Craft spirits is an art and just like with any project, you usually jump down many rabbit holes just to see how deep they are, and FEW is no exception. They have an entire rack of small batch barrels housing highly experimental projects, and most of them are strictly just for fun.
The distillery focuses on four main spirits including American Gin, White Whiskey, Rye Whiskey and Bourbon Whiskey. Every now and then a seasonal or specialty spirit will be crafted, which are hard to come by and a real treat if you land yourself a bottle, or even a taste.
The Rye Whiskey brings a sweetness that is rich in vanilla, caramel and wood. This overlying flavor ties in the spice and heat of the alcohol and makes a very smooth, well-blended flavor profile. The Bourbon Whiskey offers a bit more of a peppered spice and kick, but still finishes out with the smoothness of a well-tempered liquor.
These aren’t like normal bourbons and whiskeys you’ll usually come across, and the American Gin is no exception to this school of thought, and Hletko wants it that way. It’s common practice for consumers to compare new liquors to industry giants and Paul and the FEW crew welcome that test. They aim to be different while standing up and standing out against the rest. “If people like Beefeater, they’re going to drink Beefeater, and I’m fine with that. It’s good gin,” explains Paul while talking about consumer taste. “Why would I want to make something that tastes like Beefeater? Let’s be different.”
FEW is a smaller place in comparison to what most people think of when they hear the word ‘distillery’ and their mind immediately jumps to the giants down in Kentucky. A couple of stills, a handful of people, and a warehouse full of barrels is all that makes up the physical being of what FEW is. What you won’t actually see, but rather will experience, is the craft, care and pride behind making a unique and specialty product. There is no blending. There are no aged bottles with numbered years on them. Everything is produced, bottled and then sold across the country, and throughout the world.
FEW’s bottled creations were crafted for sipping and enjoying rather than an onslaught of mixing and shooting. Although the American Gin makes up a killer G&T. Sitting in the $40-$60 range, these bottles can be a go-to as well as considered some of your “good stuff” that you limit with sharing. No matter which one you pick up, you’re sure to be surprised and probably even impressed. And yes, it’s local, just outside of Chicago.
Some may ask, how does this line up with craft beer? Well if you haven't heard of FEW yet, you probably will in the near future. Not only are they continually growing, FEW has some projects lined up that puts their spent oak barrels to use with some craft brewers using them for barrel aging. They also have spent 5 gallon barrels available for home brewers to purchase if there is ever an interest in small batch barrel aging.
Next time you're out and looking for a luxury in a bottle, take a gander for the Columbian Exposition inspired bottle labels sitting on the shelf. You won't be disappointed.
If you’re going to have one, have a FEW. Then perhaps have a FEW more, but be sure to enjoy those FEW responsibly.