How a professor of Jewish studies resurrected the Chicagoland area’s distilling tradition.
“I was an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at Baltimore Hebrew University, now part of Towson University in Maryland, and a former Walter Benjamin Chair of German Jewish Cultural History at Humboldt Universität in Berlin.”
Now, Dr. Sonat Birnecker Hart is the Owner and President of KOVAL Distillery in Chicago.
But that doesn’t mean her career in education is over. In fact, it’s only expanded its reach.
Alongside KOVAL, which Sonat runs with her husband, Robert Birnecker, they also run a consulting business, educating others to help them achieve their distilling aspirations.
But her work doesn’t stop there either.
“While running the distillery and helping with consulting are my main jobs, I have a lot of other occupations and serve on a number of boards, while homeschooling my two boys.”
She seamlessly combined her educational background and KOVAL Distillery into something beautiful. But how did a professor across the pond transition to owning the first distillery in Chicago since the mid-1800s?
KOVAL Distillery, a true family business
When the time came for Sonat and Robert to make career changes, they had a simple criteria for their next business venture.
“We wanted to do something we have some knowledge about,” Sonat explains, “Robert grew up distilling with his grandfather in Austria.”
“Starting a distillery seemed like a great business opportunity, not least because we were the first to have a distillery in Chicago since the mid-1800s.”
Being a history-making establishment is exciting, but it wasn’t the only thing that drew Sonat and her husband to founding KOVAL Distillery.
“The business also offered us a way to work together as a family. More to the point, it was a way for me to work while also being a mother, not just a working woman. I could nurse on demand when my boys were young and have them close at hand.”
The entire family could be together during the work week, and as Sonat says, that’s “something we could only do if we owned our own business.”
A family affair, KOVAL was started by Dr. Sonat Birnecker Hart and her husband, Robert
“Everything we do at KOVAL is somehow inspired by our family, and the name of the distillery is just one of many examples,” Sonat adds.
“The name ‘Koval’ means ‘blacksmith’ in numerous Eastern European languages, but the word in Yiddish also refers to someone who forges something new, or does something new or out of the ordinary. A bit of a ‘black sheep,’ if you will.”
“My great-grandfather earned ‘Koval’ as a nickname when, at the age of 17, he totally surprised his family and emigrated from Vienna to Chicago in the early 1900s to start a battery company.”
There’s another connection to the name, Sonat explains, “Coincidentally, the surname of Robert’s grandfather, at whose side Robert learned the art of distilling, is Schmid – German for ‘Smith.’”
With a smile, Sonat tells us that they chose the name KOVAL to honor both of the influential men in their families.
“And to reflect our own decision to leave our careers and start something new.”
The creative, innovative spirit of KOVAL Distillery
“Our products were born out of a love of Chicago.”
Sonat speaks with a sense of pride, “We like to think our products are a reflection of Chicago in that they are of the highest quality, beautifully packaged, modern in their approach, and yet wildly appealing.”
Not only are KOVAL Distillery’s craft spirits a reflection of The Windy City, but the state of Illinois finds its way into the bottle too.
“We use local grains and other raw materials, and of course, water from our great Lake Michigan.”
But Sonat doesn’t qualify any of those as KOVAL’s most unique ingredients. Instead, she points at factors behind the scenes of the distillation process.
“I would have to say innovation and creativity. We like to do things differently, everything we do is an attempt to create a unique all around spirit.”
The independent Chicago distillery offers a wide array of small batch whiskeys, bourbon, and gin.
Innovation is front and center in KOVAL Bourbon Whiskey. The award-winning bourbon matches the required corn mash with an atypical grain, millet. The unique combination results in a craft bourbon with notes of mango sweetness and soft apricot.
To earn the name rye whiskey, the mash only needs to be 51% rye. But that doesn’t work for KOVAL Distillery. Their KOVAL Rye Whiskey is made from a mash of 100% rye. This KOVAL whiskey retains the classic spicy finish you expect, but it has a slight sweetness to it as well.
While KOVAL Rye is a thoroughbred rye whiskey, the Chicago distillery also makes KOVAL Four Grain Whiskey. This award-winning KOVAL whiskey marries oat, malted barley, rye, and wheat in its mash bill. Together, they form a craft whiskey journey from a ripe banana nose to a spicy finish.
They make more than just whiskey. Their KOVAL Dry Gin is made with a distinctive blend of spices, resulting in a craft gin packed with nuanced notes of emerald grasses and white pepper.
Sweet Home Chicago
Sonat is well-aware that KOVAL would not have been possible without the support of the community surrounding them.
As she explains it, “KOVAL is about the importance of place; in our case, a desire to be in Chicago, a city we changed our career paths and lives to be a part of.”
“From the very beginning, the Alderman in our Ward was instrumental in helping us find a location, and navigate some of the legal issues stemming from atrophied laws established at the end of Prohibition, many holding back the growth of our distillery.”
Alongside their Alderman, Senator, and House Representatives, Sonat lobbied to change the antiquated Illinois liquor laws, ultimately making KOVAL Distillery a reality.
KOVAL Distillery is the first distillery in the Chicagoland area since the mid-1800s.
Once they had their distillery, Sonat understood the important role KOVAL would play in the Chicagoland community, explaining that independent distilleries are “integrated into the social structure of where they exist.”
She continued, saying, “There is something nice about knowing local makers, seeing them in your community, and understanding how their business positively affects the community.”
For Sonat, being a part of the Chicago community is what spurred KOVAL to begin with.
“Founding KOVAL was really a way for us to return to the city we love.”
Educating the future of the industry
“It is wonderful to be able to work every day with my family and my fabulous team on exciting challenges that involve an industry that I love and am involved in,” Sonat tells us with a smile.
“We work to educate others in the art of distilling through our consulting arm, Kothe Distilling Technologies.”
Sonat speaks passionately about the consulting arm of her business, “We found that sharing our knowledge has not only helped others find the information and assistance they needed to reach their dreams, it has also helped us grow our business while remaining completely independent.”
Not only are they growing their own business, KOVAL is helping expand the footprint of the independent distilleries worldwide.
With their consulting arm, KOVAL Distillery is molding the next generation of independent distilleries.
“Since we began, we have educated over 3,500 people in the art of distilling, and have set up over 200 distilleries all over the world, in addition to white labeling projects for both well-known and small craft distilleries.”
Sonat hopes that KOVAL is known for their high quality spirits and their commitment to their community, a global community she’s constantly working to expand.
It may be a journey to get some of the distilleries and projects off the ground, but Sonat doesn’t mind.
“The journey is the goal, so I am constantly rewarded.”
We can’t wait to relish her robust rewards.