08 April 2022
When US prohibition ended in 1934 most of the country began to return to normality and the booze once again began flowing. Pockets of motivated temperance advocates remained however, and nowhere more so than in the home of the US temperance movement - Evanston, Illinois. Evanston was previously home to one Frances Elizabeth Willard (note her initials) who became president of the United States Womens Christian Temperance Movement in 1879, a position she held until death in 1898. The WCTU was originally organised on December 1873, for the purpose of creating a "sober and pure world" by abstinence. In the same year more than 200,000 retailers sold liquor in the U.S., a whopping 120,000 more than just 10 years before. So the cause for concern was understandable.
While us whisky lovers may not agree with Willard's reasoning, it's difficult to ignore her tenacity. Her seemingly boundless energy took her on a 50-day speaking tour in 1874, an average of 30,000 miles of travel a year, and an average of 400 lectures a year for a 10-year period.
She really didn’t like whiskey.
Following the repeal of prohibition, when given the option to go “wet” or “dry” under an amendment to the Illinois Liquor Control Act, the citizens of Evanston took the dry option (boo!)
It wasn’t until 1972 that the City Council voted to allow restaurants and hotels to service liquor on premises. The Council later approved the sale of alcohol at retail liquor outlets in 1984.
But you still couldn’t make spirits in Evanston.
Then Paul Hletko came along.
Undoing 160 years of Prohibition history was no easy task. Paul made many trips to Evanston city hall, dealing not so much with resistance to his wants but more just the inertia it takes to affect any kind of change in local government.
So Evanston is the spiritual home of temperance in the U.S. But it’s also the spiritual home of FEW Spirits, who are located only a half a dozen blocks away from Frances Willard’s former home, on 1730 Chicago Avenue. There’s a plaque outside the property that commemorates her time there.
Paul is a patent lawyer turned distiller, whose family has a background in making booze thanks to his grandfather ran a well renowned Czech brewery many years ago. Establishing FEW spirits in 2011 was in part a continuation of the family legacy.
The distillery is small. Surprisingly small for a brand that has managed to gain some good international traction with their product.
Fermentation is temperature controlled and a different yeast is used for each product they make here. Paul reckons that the yeast plays at least as big a role in the flavour of each expression as the mash recipe does. The fermenters are also agitated, so ensure even distribution of heat. Fermentation takes three days.
Distillation is done in a Vendome steel beer stripping column, which is linked to a copper doubler. It’s more common to see distilleries of this size using pots instead of columns, which is why the column at FEW is one of the smallest column stills that Vendome have ever made. “I don’t think there’s an advantage or disadvantage to using columns over pots from a flavour point of view,” says Paul, “but what I will say is that when it comes to efficiency the column takes the place of eight pot stills.” The spirit comes off the doubler at 67% ABV.
The spirit is then cut with water to 59% ready for filling in to barrels. All products made here start their maturation in new American Oak casks with the exception of some single malt spirit that goes in to their own used bourbon barrels. Paul also has a range wine barrels, coffee barrels and even a 100 year old Irish whiskey barrel for special projects and perhaps future experimental releases.
The distillery is currently filling around eight barrels a day, which then get sent to one of three warehouses which are a mile or two away from the modest distillery building.
The FEW bottles are some of the prettiest in the industry, each one labelled with an illustration inspired by the 1893 Columbian Exposition (or Chicago World Fair). World Fairs showcased the latest in technology, the arts and products and were known to attract tens of millions of visitors.
“That Fair was a turning point for Chicago and the rest of the world,” says Paul. “There was all sorts of cool stuff there that nobody had seen before.”
The bourbon bottle - FEW's flagship spirit and the product we're sharing with you - shows an illustration of The Statue of the Republic, a 65-foot statue that dominated the fair’s skyline. The original was destroyed, but there is a 24-foot bronze replica in Jackson Park that was created for the 25th anniversary of the fair in 1918. The bourbon is a mix of 70% corn, 20% rye, 10% malted barley.
In FEW bourbon we find cherry juice and peach lemonade on the nose, which is joined by vanilla custard spiked with mace on repeat smells. Dry and nutty on the palate, with pecan and Brazil nut lingering until spice trickles in. The finish has just a touch of tannin, delivered in such a way that you really want another sip!