Chasing the White Dog at Koval Distillery

I’m still fairly new to the world of spirits and mixology. As an eager amateur, I read books and peruse blogs for information, I hit the local bars and lounges for ideas and I experiment at home and at parties. Generally, I hear about the trends and then go out and find them, but I feel I’ve turned a bit of corner since I spotted one of the newest trends in the drinks world before it became big news. I’m talking about white whisky. New make. White dog. Moonshine. Unaged water of life.

Without giving you a full lesson (I did that already), whisky begins as a grain, is fermented and then distilled and usually barreled and left to age for up to several decades. In general, this aging imparts all sorts of goodness to your dram; flavors from the wood enter the whisky, unpleasant flavors in the whisky round out and a smoothness develops as the sharp corners are slowly chipped away. But, people have begun to be interested in unaged spirits. Part of it is curiosity about where the different flavor components of the aged stuff comes from, but part of is built on the fact that new make spirits can often be damn good. I don’t think that 15 year Scotch is going out of style, but the best of the new makes may be just beginning long histories on the shelf.

This week I had the chance to visit one of the distilleries at the forefront of this white whisky movement. Koval is located in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood and bills itself as “Chicago’s first boutique distillery.” The operation produces five white whiskies, five liqueurs, a brandy, a vodka and a limited edition bierbrand [1]; all their products are from local sources, organic, and kosher [2]. As part of the tour, we got to see some barreled whiskies (about 10 barrels or so) that will soon be released under the Lion’s Pride brand name. The barrels contained either the rye or the oat whiskies and have been aging for about a year in new American oak. Our tour guide said that they distillery is also doing something interesting with the barreling, but refused to reveal what. Our little group guessed it might be wood chips or staves in the barrels (another emerging trend in whisky), but don’t quote us.

2 year old Master Distiller Lion marking the barrels

2 year old Master Distiller Lion marking the barrels (Picture provided by Koval)

The distillery is a (surprisingly) small operation. The owners, Robert and Sonat, are former academics who changed careers in 2008. (Hmmm… I’m taking notes on this.) Robert comes from a family of European distillers, so he brings a bit of Old World knowledge to play and the two do all the distillation work with only one other assistant. The company rounds out its employ with a PR gal, our lovely tour guide Meg. Meg is a former biochemist and spoke of her history in Oklahoma moonshine drinking and amateur absinthe making.  The distillery uses a single still (a pot still into a 3 plate column still combination) which takes 300L of mash and turns it into 30L of spirit. That’s 40 normal size bottles. Tiny! To be called whisky, the spirit must see some barrel time, so they run the liquid through a barrel as fast as they can (stupid rules!) then bottle it. Each of their whiskies is a 100% unmalted grain (rye, millet, oak, spelt and wheat) and their liqueurs are either directly distilled with grain (rose hip, chrysanthemum honey and jasmine) or infused from a mix of finished product (ginger and coffee). The brandy they produce at the moment is pear, but there are plans to use a revolving selection of fruit.

The still

The combination pot still (middle) and column still (left) (Picture provided by Koval)

Following the tour of the distillery, we stopped by In Fine Spirts to try the whole line. My favorite was the rye with a wild and full, yet balanced taste and a fantastic nose with hints of floral and fruit. The millet is comparably vibrant, though I had a soft spot for the very subdued and unique spelt. The oak (the only whisky without a clear fruity note) was solid and the wheat had a touch of banana on the nose (though others detected it in the taste as well). The liqueurs were a pleasant surprise due to the curious flavors. I don’t know how anyone (Koval or not) would ever come up with rose hip but it is best summed up as “Christmas” with hints of cinnamon, clove and other spices. We tried a bit mixed with gin (a concoction named the Rose Hipster) which opened up some new flavors, but this is almost drinkable straight. Chrysanthemum honey has a touch of great sweetness and would go well in tea or tossed with fruit (as Meg herself has done for parties). Jasmine was a delicate herbal treat and the ginger a fine example, more complex than the simple ginger vodka I’ve infused before. The coffee liqueur was deeply coffee flavored (one person said “freshly brewed”) and thin, perhaps the antithesis of the syrupy (chewable) Kahlúa. The pear brandy was delicious, a clear eau-de-vie rather than an aged cognac style. I found the nose pleasant and the pear flavor coming in only at the end, creeping up in a nice way.

Rose Hips

Rose hips, the fruit of certain types of roses (Picture from Wikipedia)

Koval’s products (and white whiskies in general) are curious in that they can appeal to two more or less distinct groups. Serious whisky drinkers who take their hooch neat are using white whiskies as a way to learn about how the flavors of the base grains appear and then change with aging. Mixologists are using the stuff to bring new flavor profiles to old classics, making white variations of traditional whisky drinks or (perhaps more commonly) using the vibrant sprits in place of tequilas and rums or building new creations from scratch. As a drinker with one foot in each camp, I get excited for all of these reasons.

I picked up a bottle of the rose hip liqueur ($25 for a 350mL) and plan to start experimenting shortly. I’d love to give mixing with the white whiskies a whirl, but I’ll have to save up a bit first. (They run $40 for a 750mL.) I’m expecting to see more great things from Koval and from the many other small start up distilleries putting the same care and effort into their small batch products.

DISLAIMER: I have borrowed my title from the book Chasing the White Dog by Max Watman, a tale of white whisky that, like white whisky itself, seems to be catching on like wildfire.

[1] Bierbrand is a spirit distilled from beer. Though common in Europe, it’s hard to find in the US. This particular bierbrand is a product of coincidence. Koval and Metropolis Brewing share the same building and when one of Metropolis’ batches didn’t carbonate properly, Koval took the trash and made treasure out of it. It’s popular, so Metropolis should keep an eye out for any Koval employees who might want to sabotage the brew so they can make more.

[2] My Jewish friend who also went on the tour, a snarky fellow, points out that there’s almost no way to make sprits that wouldn’t qualify as kosher. You just have to pay a rabbi to come by and sign off.


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Filed under Drinks, Spirits, Tasting Notes

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