How Sonat Birnecker Went From History Professor to Craft Distiller
What makes a good cocktail? Quality alcohol, for one, that you only detect by its distinctive notes instead of a harsh burn. Two, a balanced flavor, something that tastes new or different while subtly hinting at the familiar. And three, presentation. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but simply served in a way that makes you want to savor your entire glass — not knock it back in quick obliteration.
And what makes a really great cocktail is when there’s someone equally distinctive, interesting and top quality behind it, like Sonat Birnecker, co-founder and President of Chicago’s KOVAL Distillery.
You’ve likely seen KOVAL’s bottles of organic whiskey, gin and specialty liqueurs atop well-kept bars across the country, but what makes these impeccably-designed labels different is that the inside is just as good as the outside, if not better. And Sonat’s story is even more intriguing. She gave up a tenured teaching position to move to the Midwest and build a business (in a previously foreign industry) from scratch.
Below we’re sharing more from Sonat, who proves that, much like her barrel-aged dry gin, life certainly gets more interesting and enjoyable with every sip:
Darling Magazine: For being in the spirits industry, you have a rather unexpected background as a professor in German Jewish Cultural History. How did you go from Oxford and getting a PhD in London to opening a craft distillery in Chicago?
Sonat: I spent over a decade teaching and lecturing in the United States and Germany. There came a point in my life that I asked myself: Do I want to buy a house and settle down in a city that did not feel like my true home, or should I give up my career to be where I wanted to be? I thought about the prospect of giving it all up to start something of my own and after many late night conversations, my husband and I decided to go for it!
In 2008, I gave up tenure to find a different quality of life — one that would afford me an opportunity to work with my husband, Robert, and move to Chicago, the city I love. We then set up KOVAL, the first distillery in Chicago since the mid-1800s, and that has made all the difference.
DM: In our increasingly digital and automated world, what have you learned from focusing on a product like grain spirit, something that essentially comes from the earth and is dependent on weather, biological processes and time?
Sonat: I’ve learned that patience and an attention to detail makes all the difference. The entire process for our whiskey (and every product we create) is monitored from start to finish. Unlike some distillers who purchase or bottle pre-made spirits, KOVAL makes its organic spirits from scratch.
We also pioneered the new American craft style of using only the “heart” cut of the distillate for a cleaner, brighter, more grain-forward whiskey taste. It is a style that has grown more and more popular among craft distilleries that follow Robert’s technique. It originated in our desire to apply a brandy approach of distilling fruit to grain.
Traditional American whiskey tends to use the heart cut and some of the tails [lesser-quality alcohols that run off at the end of the distilling process], whereas Austrian brandy producers would never use any tails. We saw this as a good way to differentiate ourselves from the mainstream. We are also transparent about what is in our bottle. If it is rye, it is 100% rye, which is not always the case as the government allows one to call a product a rye as long as it is 51% rye. We never use colorings either, and all of our products are organic and kosher.
DM: Personally, I love your Sunchoke Spirit because it’s so different in a mild, almost surprising way. Did you set out to make these unique blends and flavors? Or has it been more experimentation and discovery?
Sonat: We are inspired by our travels, our own likes and a desire to innovate and delight. We set out to make unique spirits with the best ingredients. Our process of using the heart cut has also afforded us another way to focus on the purest, brightest flavors and aromas from our distillates. There is always discovery and experimentation along the way, but it is based on a foundation of quality, repeatability and innovation.
DM: Which products are you personally most proud of, and which are your most popular?
Sonat: I appreciate all of our products. A lot of hard work has gone into each and every one, but if I had to pick, I would probably say the bourbon and the gin. Both of these products exemplify, in their own categories, what we are all about.
Our bourbon is unlike any other on the market. It has a mash-bill of corn and millet, which creates a flavor profile that opens up the bourbon category to those who have not always appreciated the spirit, while showing true bourbon fans a new version of a beloved American spirit.
Likewise, the gin brings something new to the category by starting out with a rye white whiskey base (most gins have a base of industrial-made neutral grain spirit), we then macerate the botanicals in this rye base and, after a period of time, it is then distilled with the botanicals. Very few gins undergo so many steps, all of which add richness to the end product.
I am also very proud of the label designed by Dando Projects, as it was an innovation in its own right: the first laser cut, embossed and foiled paper liquor label. Both of these products have won numerous awards and are among our best sellers worldwide.
DM: What qualities or skills do you think you bring to distilling as a woman? What’s the outlook like for other women who might want to become leaders in the industry?
Sonat: Women were among the first distillers in history and distilling itself was, until only recent history, associated with women. In fact, a woman in ancient Egypt is credited with developing the first still. So, if anything, I am just carrying on a very longstanding tradition. Moreover, women can become leaders in any industry.
… a woman in ancient Egypt is credited with developing the first still. So, if anything, I am just carrying on a very longstanding tradition.
DM: You’ve lobbied to change distilling laws to make it easier for other craft distilleries to open in Chicago. Do you think collaboration over competition is key in your industry?
Sonat: We found that sharing our knowledge not only helped others find the information and assistance they needed to reach their dreams, it also helped us grow our business, while helping us to remain completely independent.
Since we started, we have educated over 3,500 people in the art of distilling and set up over 165 distilleries for others, in addition to white label projects for well-known and small craft distilleries. A rising tide truly does rise all ships and we are proud to have helped promote an industry we enjoy.
DM: Do you have a go-to drink recipe?
Sonat: These days it seems to be a Sazerac, Negroni or Boulevardier.
DM: What would we be surprised to know about you?
Sonat: I was in an Austrian/French film starring Klaus Maria Brandauer, called “Jedermanns’ Fest.”
Find all of KOVAL’s products (for the 21+) on www.koval-distillery.com, where you can also sign up for tours, cocktail classes and whiskey workshops. The distillery is located at 5121 N Ravenswood Ave in Chicago, IL.
Have you ever thought about completely switching industries?
Images courtesy of KOVAL