Paul Hletko of Few Spirits.
Paul Hletko of Few Spirits. Credit: Clayton Hauck

Even before it formally came into existence, Evanston was decreed dry when Northwestern University imposed a four-mile ban on the sale of alcohol around the college campus in 1855. And the city remained that way up to and during Prohibition, as well as long after it ended—the first legal drink wasn’t sold there until 1972.

The suburb’s long history as a bastion of abstinence actually inspired Paul Hletko to open its first distillery, Few Spirits, just over a mile south of the Frances Willard House, the historic home and headquarters of the second president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

It gives him a good story to tell. “When the first drop falls out of my still, that will be the first legal alcohol ever made in Evanston,” he says. In six to eight weeks he hopes to be running his first batches of rye-based gin and a white rye, both of which he plans to age in new charred oak barrels.

Last week I wrote about a couple of underground distillers, noting that the rise of the illicit hobby moonshining is contemporaneous with the nationwide growth of small but legal craft distillers. A decade ago, according to Bill Owens of the American Distilling Institute, there were only 64 operating distilleries in the country. Today, thanks to various state-level laws, there are 301. Last summer, due largely to lobbying by Ravenswood’s Koval Distillery, Illinois created a new craft distiller’s license that halves the state licensing fee for small nonindustrial-size spirits manufacturers and allows them to open tasting rooms and sell directly to the public on premises.

Hletko is one of at least four local startup distilleries in the midst of navigating the onerous and costly bureaucratic process of getting licensed at the federal, state, and municipal levels. Among them, he’s closest to getting bottles on the shelves, but he actually had to get Evanston law changed in order to do it.

“Evanston is a town where unless something is specifically permitted, it is not permitted,” says Hletko, a 40-year-old patent attorney with an undergraduate degree in industrial engineering. He did have the support, he says, of city politicians and bureaucrats, and managed to get zoning laws changed so he could apply to open in a 3,200-square-foot onetime chop shop down an alley off Chicago Avenue, hard by the Purple Line tracks. He also had to get the law changed to allow for distiller’s licenses, and then apply for one. He got that on Valentine’s Day, but before any of that happened he had to apply for a federal distiller’s license, which meant he first had to have a property for his distillery.

Once that was accomplished, it took him three months to fill out the paperwork—all in the service of tracking and assuring the government gets its tax money. That application was three quarters of an inch thick when he sent it in, but then he had to file for label approval. His labels were rejected a few times on technicalities—once because the words “American” and “whiskey” appeared together on the same line.

Meanwhile, Hletko’s state license is pending and his two custom-built modified pot stills are en route from Germany—from the same manufacturer who custom-built the stills at Koval.

In fact, Robert and Sonat Birnecker are the U.S. representatives for Kothe stills, and after opening Koval in early 2009 started a consulting business for fledgling distilleries. In December 2009 Hletko attended a workshop there, and later so did Toby Beall, of Lockport’s Tailwinds Distilling. The 30-year-old private airline pilot and his wife, Jillian, a schoolteacher, hope to start making rums and an agave based-spirit (they can’t call it tequila) by late summer.

Bill Welter of Journeyman Distilling spent eight weeks at Koval making a couple batches of rye whiskey, which are currently aging in barrels in the Ravenswood distillery. He and Nick Gurniewicz, a Chicago-based employee of Wirtz Beverage, plan to sell it when they open in Three Oaks, Michigan, later this year. They chose that state to produce a varied lineup of white and aged whiskeys, in part because they’ll be allowed to open a cocktail bar on the premises.

Closer to home, Miriam Matasar, a manager at Lula Cafe, and Brenton Engel, a bartender there, are planning to open Let There Be! Distillers just over a mile south of Koval in a 400-square-foot industrial space in Ravenswood they signed the lease for this week. Engel also took a Koval workshop, but he has a small pot still awaiting transport from Maine and wants to start producing a rye-based gin until his rye and bourbon age. The couple also talk of making proprietary spirits for local bars and restaurants, and experimenting with fruit liqueurs and brandies.

For all the bureaucratic and financial hassle involved in making legal liquor—”You have to be a little crazy and you have to be a little uninformed before you start,” says Hletko—there’s a healthy cooperative spirit among the future competitors. He’s taken his share of advice from established distillers, and he’s given presentations on trademarking at subsequent Koval workshops. He believes proliferation can only be good for business.

“I want you to love my spirits but if you don’t like them, there’s something else out there that you’re gonna like,” he says. “Maybe your friends are gonna like mine better. Talk about it over a drink.”