I’d like to introduce a new category in my blog, “Craft Focus.” While it may seem surprising that I’d choose a distillery and not a brewery for my first blog on this topic, take a step into my brain for a moment: This blog is first & foremost a personal expression of how I learn about craft beverages, and I’m sorely lacking in the spirits knowledge department. Conveniently, I’ve also just started a new job right across the street from FEW Spirits in Evanston, Illinois, and have also found that what often seems like coincidence is often a sign. Thus, I followed my “coincidental” curiosity right into FEW for my first foray at focusing on a local craft creator.
And actually, distilling has quite a lot to do with brewing. In fact, the first step in distilling is to brew a batch of wort and to pitch it with brewer’s yeast. In brewing beer, this would be (in some cases) the entire process and you’d simply carbonate your creation and be ready to pour a pint. But wait, there’s more! Very simply put, distilling is the process of removing the alcohol from fermented wort, separating out and blending the good parts that taste good and won’t kill you, then bottling them. (OK it’s a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea, right?)
FEW Spirits, an award-winning, boundary-breaking distillery, seemed like the perfect place to start learning. Lead by our fearless tour guide Katherine Loftus (FEW Event Manager & Tasting Room Manager), we dove headfirst into the process and got to taste a killer lineup of craft spirits.
Bottled spirits sit on display shelves behind the bar, their contents occasionally vibrating like those in a cup featured in a Jurassic Park scene, as the Metra and El trains clamour by on the tracks outside. (Don’t worry, there are no T-rex in Evanston of which I am aware.)
FEW is inconspicuously placed down an alley off of Chicago Avenue. Proud to be the town’s first distillery, they do right by Evanston. FEW has been open for almost 5 years, and their Rye Whiskey can already claim the title of “best craft whiskey” of 2013, awarded to them by “America’s leading whisky magazine,” Whisky Advocate.
Evanston wasn’t always welcoming to places like FEW. In fact, one of the town’s famed historic residents, Francis Elizabeth Willard, served as the president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the efforts of which lead to the Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition) in 1919. In the words of our tour guide Katherine, “we do not say that we are named after the woman who started the prohibition movement per say, but we’ll just let you guys sip on that.”
FEW does, however, advertise that Francis Elizabeth Willard connects the distillery’s story with the time period surrounding the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, the event which serves as the main inspiration for FEW’s branded look and feel. Each bottle of FEW spirits features well-recognized iconography that debuted at the fair (the Ferris Wheel, the electric water fountain, and “Big Mary”–the Statue of the Republic, to name a few).
FEW is especially notable because it is Evanston’s first legal distillery since Prohibition, breaking a drought that lasted just shy of 100 years. Evanston was a dry town until their Holiday Inn began legally serving booze in 1973. According to town law, the first restaurants that served alcohol were not allowed to do so without also serving a full entree, so after moving french fries to the entree section, sales of booze and fries were rumored to be neck and neck at the Holiday Inn.
Our tour was lucky enough to come at a time when they’d just produced a sour rye mash that was open-air fermenting out on the distillery floor. The giant blue vat stood full to the brim with bubbling liquid, and as we gathered around it, I felt like we had entered Willy Wonka’s candy gardens and had sauntered right up to the chocolate river. I imagined myself as Augustus Gloop, tipping headfirst into the massive, delicious mess in front of me (“Noooo regreeeeeeeets!”). Buuut back to reality, we held our hands over the bubbling mass of active yeast, and could actually feel the heat coming off of the yeast as they fermented away. (Science. Is. Awesome.) We ended the tour with a lineup of small tastes of each of their distilled offerings, all of which are proudly made with a blend of spices unique to FEW.
After being briefly immersed in the world of distilling, I’ve chosen to illustrate my two favorite tastings from the tour. And since I am someone who loves gin, these happen to depict FEW’s American Gin and their Barrel-Aged Gin.
F.E.W. American Gin tasting illustration
FEW purposely makes their American Gin citrus-forward, as opposed to typical pine-forward gins. It’s also flavored with lavender and Cascade hops (yes, hops) that are grown in the alley that leads to FEW’s front door. The gin’s aroma and flavor speaks strongly of orange, lemon, Madagascar vanilla, and warming cinnamon. Katherine recommended making a champagne + gin cocktail with this one. OK, twist my arm.
A brief word on gin: “The dictionary definition of gin is that of a neutral grain spirit re-distilled with botanicals, with a predominant juniper flavor.” (FoodRepublic.com) While there are a few types of gin, all of require that vodka first be made, then a giant mesh bag full of a mixture of dried herbs and spices is soaked in the vodka, giving it a unique flavor profile and thereby creating gin.
“Other common gin botanicals include coriander, citrus peels (bitter orange, lemon, grapefruit), angelica root and seed, licorice, orris root, bitter almonds, nutmeg, cinnamon and anise, to name a few.” (FoodRepublic.com)
F.E.W. Barrel-Aged Gin tasting illustration
Yep, just like beer, gin can be bourbon-barrel aged, a popular new trend in the distilling world. This spirit’s barrel character comes forth as vanilla mixed with oak flavors. Another citrus-y botanical, this one has a bit of juniper spice, lemon, and cherry flavors. Katherine recommended either sipping this unique bourbon-gin hybrid, or using it to create an Old Fashioned with a twist.
Summer Can’t Come Soon Enough
Katherine also reminded the group that on select Fridays in the summertime their alleyway turns into a street fair of sorts, complete with food trucks and a menu of FEW craft cocktails served by Chicago’s finest guest bartenders. You can bet I will be there as soon as summer rolls into town.