A spirited endeavor

Illinois craft distilleries cooking up success

The interest in craft spirits has been on the rise and a number of Northern Illinois distilleries have taken advantage of the opportunity, discovering that these craft spirits, made in small batches, are quite unique in comparison to those mass-produced by the big companies.

In a study conducted late last year by the American Craft Spirits Association, there were 1,315 craft distilleries active in the United States. Holding a market share of about 3 percent. While they’re nowhere near capacity of the big boys, they’re not trying to be, either. But some in the industry believe there is potential for craft spirits to someday achieve the market share parity that craft beer now enjoys in the United States, at 11 percent.

If you’re curious about these small batch concoctions, just head out the door! Locally, the state is filled with plenty of craft distilleries; some which just popped up in the last couple years.

“It’s really kind of taken off in the last 12 years,” says Mike Orlando, owner of Fox River Distilling Company in Geneva. “Just like with craft brewing it’s unlike the mass produced product. We’re never going to be the biggest distiller, but we’ll be the best and the proof is in the pudding because of the awards we’ve won.”

That includes its Bennett Mill Single Barrel Straight Bourbon, which was Heartland Whiskey Competition’s “Best of Show” and also won “Best in State” and a gold medal for best straight whiskey.

“The accolades keep coming and the awards are fantastic,” Orlando says. “Consumers are responding with dollars as well. The really cool thing is when we’re sitting in a local bar or restaurant and without prompting, because no one knows who we are, we hear people order our product . That brings a tremendous sense of pride.”

In addition to its award-winning whiskey, Fox River Distilling’s other spirits include bourbon, gin, moonshine, vodka and a seasonal after-dinner drink, Michaelangelo Limoncello Riserva.

Fox River Distilling
204 Dearborn Court, Unit #110, Geneva
(630) 402-0027

For Toby Beall, traveling and working as a commercial pilot led to countless visits through the Caribbean Islands, South America and Mexico. Ultimately it led resulted Beall, along with his wife Jillian, to dive into the American craft spirits industry.

After years of planning they opened Tailwinds Distilling Company in Plainfield in 2012.

“We were living in Arizona and then moved back here to get it started,” Toby Beall says. “Basically our main focus is rum, but we were also exposed to agaves and tequilas and wanted that to be our next product, and we’ve been blown away with how well they have done. It’s definitely been an interesting ride.”

Tailwinds spirits now include its line of Taildragger rums, including After Dark, White, Amber and Coffee, as well as its Rested 100% Blue Agave Spirit and Silver 100% Blue Agave Spirit.

“The thing that separates us from others is the attention to quality,” Beall says. “Especially with the rum – it’s simplified with no gimmicks, no added colors or flavors – it’s just rum how it is meant to be and it’s worked for us.

“In the United States recently, people have come back to rum. They only knew Bacardi as tasteless and didn’t know rum had the potential for so many applications, especially with bartenders and mixologists.”

In just five years, Tailwinds has grown in leaps and bounds and shows no signs of slowing down.

“We’re not even a drop in the bucket compared to Bacardi, but as a craft distiller with a humble beginning we continue to expand,” Beall says. “We’re now expanding with bigger equipment to keep up with. We did 7,000 bottles last year and we’ll do 150,000 now.”

Tailwinds Distilling Company
14912 S. Eastern Avenue, Unit #103
Plainfield, IL
(815) 290-0786

Head north to Copper Fiddle Distillery in Lake Zurich, where you can learn about how owners Jose Hernandez and Fred Robinson make their whiskey, gins and rums while you enjoy one of the 15 different cocktails on the menu, including the Classic Old Fashioned, Creamy Tommy or Dark & Stormy.

“You have to go way back to the late ‘70s and early ‘80s… to when the microbreweries started in Colorado and craft started doing what we’re doing,” Robinson says. “Craft has been growing and things are very solid for us. When we started in the summer of 2012 I think there were 275 craft distilleries and now there’s about 1,400 and the numbers continue to grow.”

Recently, Robinson’s 84-year-old father and his brothers visited. After picking them up at the airport, they stopped at a liquor store.

“They wanted to get some beer for the house and I wanted to show them that my product was being sold in the store, “Robinson says. “It’s amazing because this is something we started in a garage. It’s pretty serendipitous to see your product in stores like Binny’s and now we’re from Rockford all the way down to Carbondale.”

Copper Fiddle
532 W. State Route 22, # 110
Lake Zurich, il
(847) 847-7609

Popping up amidst the cornfields of DeKalb County is Whiskey Acres Distilling, which prides itself on using the finest grains, grown onsite to create its spirits.

“We’re a farm and we understand our ingredients more than most,” co-founder Nick Nagele says. “We market to people who really care who makes the product and what goes into it. We’re really millennial heavy, but our products go across multiple generations as well. Last Friday, the majority of people in for tours were in their 60s, 70s and 80s. The people like seeing an operational farm also being an operational distillery.”

Like many of the other distilleries throughout the Chicago area, Whiskey Acres Distilling continues to gain in popularity.

“You can find our products across the state at places like Whole Foods and higher end liquor stores,” Nagele says. “We’ve had growth with visitors at our tasting room and we’re soon going to break ground for a new visitor’s center. What we have now is historic and wonderfully quaint but we’ve outgrown it. It’s not enough right now.”

As for competition, there doesn’t seem to be any among these distilleries. Each creates a unique product.

“It’s like a fraternity,” Robinson says. “We’re all brothers-in-arms who have the same problems, fight the same battles and are happy for each other. Our recipes are unique. It’s a good group.”

Whiskey Acres Distilling
11504 Keslinger Rd.
DeKalb, il
(844)-4-WHISKEY

Heading out for a sip? Check out one or more of these Northern Illinois craft distilleries while you enjoy an autumn day in greater Chicago!

Black Dog Distillery
10038 Clow Creek Road, Plainfield, IL
(630) 675-5069

Black Dog invites guests to sit, stay and sip and it makes sense since their handcrafted spirits are made in small batches and truly can be enjoyed and they also love animals and donate some of their earnings to local animal shelters. Their specialty is to create extremely unique flavor profiles that you cannot find from large distillers.

Blaum Bros. Distilling Company
9380 W. U.S. Highway 20, Galena, IL
(815) 777-1000

Utilizing the best grains in the local area and abroad, Blaum Bros. craft spirits by hand, meticulously controlling the entire process, from the milling of the raw grains to the mashing, fermentation and distillation on the custom-made copper still. Join them for a cocktail and a tour.

Few Spirits
918 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, IL
(847) 920-8628

Few Spirits are truly handcrafted and small-batched and are regarding highly for transcending the usual taste most drinkers expect. Utilizing only the best grains that have been aged to perfect, Few Spirits boasts its gins, bourbon, whiskey and rye. Tours and a store are available for visits.

KOVAL Distillery
5121 North Ravenswood Avenue, Chicago, IL
(312) 878-7988

Since 2008, KOVAL has been producing organic whiskey, liqueurs and specialty spirits in Chicago's first distillery since the mid-1800s. Founders Robert and Sonat Birnecker, chose to leave their academic careers to bring the distilling traditions of Robert’s Austrian family to America. Today, they offer tours, whiskey workshops, cocktail classes and more.

Mid-Oak Distillery
4330 Midlothian Turnpike Unit B, Crestwood, IL
(708) 926-9131

Known most for its CD Vodka, which is handcrafted and offers quality with every sip, Mid-Oak Distillery’s is pleased to offer vodka that’s consistently smooth with the perfect hint of sweetness and available in a variety of flavors, including some seasonal ones.

North Shore Distillery
13990 Rockland Road, Green Oaks, IL
(847) 574-2499

Derek & Sonja Kassebaum started North Shore Distillery, which is an artisan distillery, in 2004. The duo enjoy working with their hands and rely on their still to make great things, including vodka, gins and rums. They invite you in for a tasting, a cocktail or to shop.

Quincy Street
39 East Quincy Street, Riverside, IL
(708) 357-7414

Creating historically inspired spirits, based on classic and original formulas has resulted in unique expressions of taste. Stop in for a tour and a taste as well as to purchase their wide-assortment of spirits, including their QSD Poteen (aka Irish Moonshine).

Wondertucky Distillers and Bottling
515 E. South Street, Woodstock, IL
(815) 308-5271

Want to stop in for a taste? Wondertucky would be happy to see you and to showcase its single filtered shine corn whiskey, which was the first legally produced and distributed spirit in McHenry County. Wondertucky Distillers use local ingredients to create a real taste of down-home shine.