Sign of the times
The F.E.W. Spirits Distillery occupies a low-slung brick building down an alley past a thrift store and opposite a Greek diner. According to founder and distiller Paul Hletko, the space once functioned as an illicit chop shop. Oddly enough, in what was founded as a dry city, it took a distillery moving in to make the site an honest place of business.
Large glass windows separate the distillery floor from the storefront shop and tasting room. The whiskey still stands in the distance.
The product line
F.E.W. launched in 2011 with a gin and white (unaged) whiskey. The permanent product line subsequently expanded to include aged bourbon and rye whiskey,
Paul Hletko left a patent-law practice to found F.E.W. He wanted to carry on a dormant family tradition of alcohol production, and saw more of an opportunity for growth in making spirits than by brewing beer.
Making the mash
Assistant distiller Tom Reedy adds corn to the fermentation tank for the beginnings of a batch of F.E.W.'s aged bourbon whiskey, which follows a high-rye-content recipe that delivers a spicier end product.
Grain to glass
Every drop of alcohol in a F.E.W. Spirits bottle is distilled on the premises from grains Hletko obtains from Midwestern suppliers such as Indiana's Prairie Mills.
Stirring the pot
Looking inside the fermentation tank as it heats and churns the bourbon's raw materials. From here, the mash will be transferred to large tubs for several days to allow the yeast time to work its magic.
F.E.W. uses two separate German-made stills for its gins and whiskeys, not only to operate efficiently, but also to avoid having to wash out one all-purpose still with abrasive cleaners.
Mason jars for collecting fresh distillate as it runs off the stills.
Heart of the matter
Metal canisters dotting the distillery floor contain the precious "hearts"—the best quality distillate of a given production run—which form the base of F.E.W.'s spirits.
Hletko has developed a unique recipe for each F.E.W. product. So neither the bourbon nor the rye is simply the barrel-aged version of the white whiskey. Same goes for the American Gin, which is made from a completely different blend of botanicals than F.E.W's short run of barrel-aged gin and limited edition of 114-proof (aka Naval strength) Standard Issue Gin.
Stacks of grain bags pile up to the tasting room windows. The stills at F.E.W. are running six days a week to keep up with demand. Hletko has plans to expand production to a second facility in Evanston in the near future.
One barrel at a time
All of F.E.W.'s aged spirits are from single-barrel bottlings—meaning there's no vatting or blending from multiple barrels. Each bottle includes a hand-written label with a batch number, bottle number, and barrel name (guests of the distillery are encouraged to sign unnamed barrels).
A roll of rye
The distillery's handmade ethos even applies to, well, applying the bottle labels. To make F.E.W.'s rye whiskey, Hletko opts to use a yeast more commonly used to ferment red wine. He feels it helps bring out the softer fruit characteristics in the spirits.
A few barrels more
A shipment of newly made barrels arrive from a supplier in Minnesota. Although the barrels pictured here are large, F.E.W. mostly uses small barrels to age its spirits.
From right: Paul Hletko, assistant distiller Tom Reedy, and Hletko's business partner, Brooke Saucier.
Fair and square
The handsome single-color labels that decorate F.E.W.'s squared-off bottle include vignettes recalling the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, which showed off a revitalized Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871.