The following originally appeared on Food Digital on November 8, 2011:
“This seems to be the law of progress in everything we do; it moves along a spiral rather than a perpendicular; we seem to be actually going out of the way, and yet it turns out that we were really moving upward all the time.” What Frances E Willard Said, edited by Anna A Gordon, 1905
Located 12 miles north of downtown Chicago, the small suburban community of Evanston is, perhaps, more famously known as the home of Frances E Willard, national president of the World Women’s Christian Temperance Movement from 1879 until her death in 1898, than for the distillery that now (by sheer coincidence, if Paul Hletko, the owner and master distiller, is to be believed) carries her initials.
FEW Spirits is one of the many new artisanal distilleries to appear in the United States during the current craft distilling boom. Paul’s goal is simple, to produce a top quality spirit unlike anything else that exists in the marketplace. I was fortunate to spend two days in October distilling with Paul and in speaking with him during that time it was as clear as his unaged American whiskey that while he is continually refining his system in the name of efficiency (examining yields, mash times, wood influence and even yeast strains) he will not adopt any strategy that negatively impacts the flavor of his distillate. A quick look at his stills (yes, plural) confirms this. The still on the right is dedicated to the production of his whiskies (rye, bourbon, single malt whiskey, and white dog) while the still on the left is dedicated to the distillation of his gin, distilled from a whiskey rather than a vodka base.
The distilling of wort (essentially young, unhopped beer) into spirit remains a slightly mysterious alchemy. At its simplest, distilling is simply boiling the wort to above the boiling point of alcohol but below the boiling point of water. The resulting alcoholic vapor rises up the column of the still towards the spiral cooling coil, where it condenses back into liquid (spirit) and runs down into the receiving vessel. However, behind the seeming simplicity of the process there are many nuanced factors that contribute to the flavor and alcohol content of the spirit filling the receiving vessel. Paul continually dances between the temperature gauge at the bottom of the still (how much heat is he putting into the boil?) and the temperature gauge at the top (what temperature is the water going into the cooling coil?) and the hydrometer (what’s the alcohol content of the liquid running from the still?). After being in production since April of this year it’s a dance that he’s becoming ever more proficient at but one that, by his own admission, he’s happy to practice day in and day out.
While the economics of turning a profit as a craft distiller tempers the romance of distilling spirit there’s no doubt that Paul Hletko and his team are committed to “moving upward all the time.”