FEW Spirits made a believer out of me
There are three things from a distillery that are sure to catch my eye. They can do something different, do something extremely well, or be founded by a Michigan Wolverine. FEW Spirits manages to hit on all three, so I couldn’t resist taking a trip to the distillery.
Paul Hletko, founder of FEW Spirits and University of Michigan alumnus, has made me proud to be a hard-drinking Wolverine. Don’t be fooled by the shabby exterior, his distillery is already putting out some of the most interesting liquor that I’ve tasted. Beyond just the booze, you can’t help but respect a guy who managed to change the laws of Evanston, Ill, in which, until he came along, it was illegal to distill alcohol.
Like many new distilleries, FEW’s first products were gin and white whiskey. That, however, is where the similarities stop. The difference was instantly recognizable as I looked around the small operation. In addition to the stills, fermentation tanks, and barrels you’d expect, there were also piles of grains. You may be surprised to find out that many distilleries simply buy the base alcohol which they then turn into gin. Not here though. FEW prides itself on controlling everything from grain-to-glass. They buy all their corn from a farmers co-op in Indiana and the rest of the grains from farmers in SE Wisconsin. They produce the base spirit that will eventually become gin in-house to ensure that it’s exactly as it should be. This method is used across the entire range, which includes, Standard Issue Gin, White Whiskey, Bourbon, and Rye Whiskey. There is also a Naval Strength Gin on the way, which was just starting to be bottled when I stopped by. On to the good stuff though!
I’ll be the first to admit that normally I hate white whiskey. I think it’s a novelty product that’s just an understandable cash grab from distilleries that need capital. It’s like the PBR of the alcohol world, because the only people who drink it are those who think it makes them cool. This however, was by far the best I’ve tasted. It wasn’t just spit out and put in a bottle expecting suckers to buy it once and move on. Hletko said that he intentionally made a very tight cut because he wanted to ensure high quality and great flavor. It doesn’t have the typical vicious bite of most white whiskeys, and it has some floral notes to go along with the grain. I could definitely see using this to make some unique cocktails. It even won the Double Gold in the New York World Wine & Spirits competition, so it’s tough to argue with that.
Bourbon and Rye Whiskey
Hletko told me that he loves his whiskey full of rye, so it should come as no surprise that his bourbon mash includes 10% of it. That, combined with wheat, helps give the corn heavy spirit an excellent spiciness and complexity that’s lacking in many conservative bourbons. On the other side, the 100% rye grain is perfect for a country gone made for rye whiskey. Honestly, I think almost every US distiller at WhiskyFest had a rye on the table. This one has that big kick that I look for, making it perfect for sipping but also a standout in a cocktail like the Manhattan. Not one to leave anything to chance, the cooper FEW selected is nothing short of a genius, having provided the barrels for an incredible number of award winning whiskeys.
While whiskey is all the rage right now, gin is the flagship of FEW spirits. This is evident by the fact that even though demand is soaring for Hletko’s bourbon and rye, he maintains a dedicated gin still. He told me one of the key things when he started in the business was that he looked at what people were doing and how he could do it differently or better. He certainly did so with this gin. The biggest difference is that it’s created from a whiskey base instead of vodka (To over-simplify, most gin is just vodka infused with juniper and other botanicals). It’s has a very grain-forward flavor, which is unexpected, but certainly welcomed. Many people have sworn off gin, but Hletko insists people try it and they usually walk away having found a new respect for its possibilities. It not like anything else you’ve likely tasted. As I mentioned, there is a naval strength gin (114-proof as opposed to 80-proof) on the way that is an ode to the days when sailors carried gin instead of water because it was healthier.
At around $50, these products don’t come cheap, but they are well worth the money. The attention to every detail and importance put on the perfect ingredients and cuts makes these some of my new favorites. I’m a huge fan of the glass-to-grain technique, and I’m willing to pony up the premium to get that. Plus, one of the botanicals in the gin is hops, which Hletko grows in his own back yard from his time as a brewer. It doesn’t get much cooler than that. FEW is still primarily in Illinois, but has expanded to Washington and Wisconsin and was just licensed to sell in Tennessee. (Full distribution list coming.) Thankfully you can already buy the White Whiskey and American Gin at InFineSpirits.com.