Small-Batch Distilleries Put Micro-Local Spin On Craft Liquor
Grain-To-Glass Trend Embraces Farming, Local Food Movement
During moments of downtime, Tremaine Atkinson mastered the art of home brewing. But as a spirits enthusiast, he wanted to also perfect another one of his favorite beverages, so he teamed up with longtime friend Mark Lucas to open a distillery to make vodka. With the dozen or so distilleries popping up around Chicagoland, however, he needed to do something to stand apart.
Through research, training and exploring the small-batch distillery scene, he discovered the majority of the local distilleries were not, in fact, local at all. They outsourced a lot of their ingredients and much of the labor was not conducted in house. With CH Distillery, he wanted to change the game, up the ante and offer imbibers something they had never experienced before in Chicago: authentic grain-to-glass products.
Fans of the grain-to-glass movement, such as Atkinson, believe that using local, seasonal ingredients has a positive effect on the taste of distilled spirits. Using crops grown onsite also allows distillers to create rum, gin, vodka and whiskey that reflect the unique flavors of the region.
In the case of CH Distillery, however, the grain comes from Kane County, Ill., and is grown by small farmers. That’s 50 miles west of Chicago, and the grain used is a soft, red, winter wheat that only grows in Illinois because the seed must sit dormant in the winter in order to sprout. It contains high starch content and Atkinson likes it because it adds flavor and character to their vodka.
“Most vodkas end up tasting the same because they don’t use products from scratch,” explains Atkinson. “There are only a handful of us who make their vodka from scratch, and CH has control from grain to glass. There are a lot of handmade vodkas out there that are not truly from scratch. The only way you can do this is handle the entire process.”
The process starts with them making beer out of the wheat and rye. They distill 900 gallons at a time in large fermentation tanks, and from there the process gets complicated as it’s eventually made into the product that goes into the bottles.
The same process is also used to make their other spirits, including gin, limoncello, rum, aquavit and amaro.
But the key to CH Distillery’s success is the cocktail bar situated in front of the distillery. Atkinson says it’s the best-possible marketing tool for their operation. “We wanted to have a full-on cocktail bar so people could really experience the brand,” he says. “At other facilities, people get a little plastic cup to sample the product as they get the tour. That’s just not enough. We also picked the West Loop because it’s a good combination of industrial, fine dining and good cocktail program appreciation.”
This effective marketing tactic has also put them face-to-face with beverage managers from some of Chicago’s top restaurants and bars. They can watch the distillery process from the comfort of their barstools, then taste the products in a number of cocktails made by CH’s bartenders.
“The beverage managers are receptive because the local aspect is very important to them,” says Atkinson. “Thus far, more than 250 places in the city and 300 places in the state of Illinois carry our products.”
California-based Spirits Works Distillery also boasts a grain-to-glass craft spirits program. Engineered by an all-female distilling team, it’s led by co-founder Ashby Marshall, who puts out an updated version of sloe gin based on a generations-old recipe created by her British husband’s family. Timo Marshall is the co-founder of this distillery that uses local, whole, sloe berries instead of the syrup-based products typically associated with the gin. It also incorporates a base of California red winter beans.
That gives it an added punch of flavor, and makes it a great substitute for sweet vermouth, says Ashby Marshall. “It brightens the cocktail,” she adds. “Our sloe gin is great with sparkling wine for a Kir Royale to create a Sloe Gin Royale.”
Overall she doesn’t feel as though the small distillery market is oversaturated —as long as they put out a good product. “Anything small is always better because of the quality,” she says. “You can see who made it, how it’s made, and what it takes to make it, and we’re proud to be in an industry where people are proud to be thinking that way.”