FEW Spirits and the Art of Distilling

Contributing author Jason Johnstone-Yellin visits FEW Spirits for an up-close look at the distilling process.
 Distilling of wash remains a mysterious alchemy  Paul Hletko's FEW Stills

By Jason Johnstone-Yellin,

“This seems to be the law of progress in everything we do; it moves along a spiral rather than a perpendicular; we seem to be actually going out of the way, and yet it turns out that we were really moving upward all the time.” What Frances E Willard Said, edited by Anna A Gordon, 1905

Located 12 miles north of downtown Chicago, the small suburban community of Evanston is, perhaps, more famously known as the home of Frances E Willard, national president of the World Women’s Christian Temperance Movement from 1879 until her death in 1898, than for the distillery that now (by sheer coincidence, if Paul Hletko, the owner and master distiller, is to be believed) carries her initials.

FEW Spirits is one of the many new artisanal distilleries to appear in the United States during the current craft distilling boom.  Paul’s goal is simple, to produce a top quality spirit unlike anything else that exists in the marketplace.  I was fortunate to spend two days in October distilling with Paul and in speaking with him during that time it was as clear as his unaged American whiskey that while he is continually refining his system in the name of efficiency (examining yields, mash times, wood influence and even yeast strains) he will not adopt any strategy that negatively impacts the flavor of his distillate.  A quick look at his stills (yes, plural) confirms this.  The still on the right is dedicated to the production of his whiskies (rye, bourbon, single malt whiskey, and white dog) while the still on the left is dedicated to the distillation of his gin, distilled from a whiskey rather than a vodka base.

The distilling of wash (essentially young, unhopped beer) into spirit remains a slightly mysterious alchemy.  At its simplest, distilling is simply boiling the wash to above the boiling point of alcohol but below the boiling point of water.  The resulting alcoholic vapor rises up the column of the still towards the spiral cooling coil, where it condenses back into liquid (spirit) and runs down into the receiving vessel.  However, behind the seeming simplicity of the process there are many nuanced factors that contribute to the flavor and alcohol content of the spirit filling the receiving vessel.  Paul continually dances between the temperature gauge at the bottom of the still (how much heat is he putting into the boil?) and the temperature gauge at the top (what temperature is the water going into the cooling coil?) and the hydrometer (what’s the alcohol content of the liquid running from the still?).  After being in production since April of this year it’s a dance that he’s becoming ever more proficient at but one that, by his own admission, he’s happy to practice day in and day out.

While the economics of turning a profit as a craft distiller tempers the romance of distilling spirit there’s no doubt that Paul Hletko and his team are committed to “moving upward all the time.”


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About Jason Johnstone-Yellin: Guid Scotch Drink

Born and raised in Burns country (Ayrshire, Scotland), I have lived in the US since December 2001 (currently residing on the top of a cliff overlooking the Puget Sound in the beautiful Pacific Northwest).

After being co-President of the Aberdeen University Whisky Society in 1999 and 2000 I found that I missed having access to a number of formidable whiskies after I moved to the US.  I also missed the honest conversation that comes from sharing a dram with a friend.  After some due diligence I founded the Single Malt Whisky Society of the Palouse in 2004.  Being President of my own society has allowed me to share my love of single malt with friends who were/are interested in learning more about the hallowed spirit.  We're now approaching the half way stage of year eight and have just tasted our 200th whisky together (Lagavulin Distillery Only 2010 bottling).

I've been blogging about whisky since 2009 and started the Guid Scotch Drink blog in April of 2010.  I've been recognized by Whisky For Everyone, Connosr, and Malt Whisky Yearbook 2011 & 2012 editions as a worthwhile whisky blog.  I'll lift a dram to that!

I regularly lead whisky tastings, plan and run whisky dinners, and have lead private whisky tours of Scotland since 2009.  I'm also the co-founder and Vice-President of the Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society.  Watch this space for more information on that side of things.

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