Prohibition sunk the cocktail into a dark age, which lasted long after the repeal of the 18th Amendment. Similarly, America's distilling industry—at least the legally sanctioned one—was nearly stamped out of existence by the Noble Experiment; only a handful of producers limped through to the other side. But nearly 80 years after Prohibition's end, American-made spirits are in the midst of a comeback. And among this new crop of upstart, independent distilleries, F.E.W. Spirits, located down an alleyway in Evanston, Illinois, surely takes the prize as the storybook example of the movement. The irony of its existence, much like F.E.W.'s lovingly handmade hooch, is quite delicious.
History buffs may recognize the city of Evanston, which abuts Chicago's North Side, as a major hotbed of the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the longtime home of suffragist and prohibitionist Frances Elizabeth Willard (note the initials). But it's clear from talking to Paul Hletko, the founder of F.E.W. Spirits and its head distiller, that he chose to name the first legal distillery in Evanston in respectful, smiling homage to one of the city's most historic figures. Plus, knowing that his product line would always remain small and focused, Hletko wanted to invite a bit of wordplay with the name, à la, "How many kinds spirits do you make?"..."We only make a few." (It works in a number of fun ways: "Want a drink? Why not have a few?")
Generations ago, Hletko's family brewed beer in what's now the Czech Republic. World War II robbed them of the brewery, so when Hletko launched F.E.W. Spirits last year—having stepped away from his previous career as a patent lawyer—he was proudly rekindling family tradition; just now with higher octane.
Currently the distillery is producing gin, white whiskey, and aged bourbon and rye whiskey regularly, with the occasional limited-production spirit, such as a recent quick-selling batch of barrel-aged gin, mixed in. In just a matter of months, F.E.W.'s product line has garnered awards, seen distribution expand to several states and Canada, and sold about as fast as Hletko and his team can produce it.
Hletko recently led me on a tour of the distillery and discussed F.E.W.'s "grain-to-glass" production process. The distillery is also open to the public for tours ($10/person) on Saturdays at 2 and 3 p.m.; reservations can be made at fewspirits.com.