Best Distilleries in Illinois: Your Insider’s Guide to the Top Spots

Illinois, the land of Lincoln, is much more than meets the eye. It’s not just about Chicago’s towering skyscrapers and deep-dish pizza. The Prairie State has another secret up its sleeve – a thriving distillery scene that’s as diverse as it is flavorful. Whether you’re a whiskey enthusiast, vodka lover, or gin aficionado, there’s something for everyone in Illinois’ distilleries.

Now imagine this: You’re taking a leisurely drive through rolling farmlands dotted with quaint barns and silos. Suddenly, nestled amidst verdant fields lies your destination – an Illinois distillery, inviting you to explore its crafted spirits. There’s nothing quite like the smell of raw grains being transformed into liquid gold right before your eyes.

So let’s dive in! Get ready to uncover some of the Best Distilleries in Illinois where unique flavors are born and matured to perfection. With each visit to these establishments offering their own signature touch on classic spirits and innovative concoctions alike, you’re sure to embark on an unforgettable tasting journey.

Exploring the History of Distilleries in Illinois

Let’s take a step back in time, shall we? The history of distilleries in Illinois is as rich and complex as the spirits they produce. It all kicked off back in the 1830s when Irish immigrants brought their knowledge of whiskey-making to this fertile land. They found that corn, which was abundant in Illinois, made for an excellent bourbon.

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Fast forward to the pre-Prohibition era, and you’ll find that Illinois was home to over 100 distilleries! But then came those dark days… Prohibition hit hard and nearly wiped out all distilling activity. Only a handful managed to survive by producing medicinal alcohol or industrial products.

Here’s a little snapshot:

Pre-Prohibition Era Post-Prohibition Era
Over 100 distilleries Handful survived

When Prohibition finally ended (let’s raise our glass to that), it took quite some time for things to pick up again. Post-prohibition laws were strict and stifled growth. However, change was on its way.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of craft distilling across America, and guess what? Yep! You’re right! Illinois hasn’t been left behind. Thanks to new legislation passed in 2014 which allowed craft distillers greater freedom, there’s been an explosion of unique and exciting local brands popping up.

Here are just a few examples:

  • FEW Spirits – Founded in Evanston (ironically a dry city until 1972) by Paul Hletko.
  • Koval Distillery – Chicago based, it became the city’s first distillery since the mid-1800s!
  • Whiskey Acres Distilling Co – Situated on a farm-field at DeKalb where they grow their own grains!

So there you have it – from humble beginnings through tough times and onto an exciting future. The story of Illinois’ distilleries is far from over; who knows what spirited tales are yet to be told?

Understanding the Distillation Process

So, you’re intrigued by the world of spirits and want to learn more about how it all works? Well, let’s start with the distillation process – a magic trick that turns ordinary grains into extraordinary drinks. The process is quite fascinating and involves heat, evaporation, cooling, and collection.

First off, everything starts with fermentation. This is where producers take grains like barley or corn and mix them with water to create what’s known as ‘mash’. The mash sits for a while until yeast is added – which might sound odd but bear with me here. That yeast eats up all the sugar in the mash and basically poops out alcohol (Don’t worry! It’s not as gross as it sounds). What you’re left with at this point is essentially beer without any hops added.

Next comes the actual distillation part. Now this might remind you of your high school chemistry class because that’s exactly what’s happening on a much larger scale. The fermented mash (beer) gets heated in a still – an apparatus that looks like something out of an old science movie – until it starts to evaporate.

Here’s where things get interesting: Alcohol evaporates faster than water due to its lower boiling point. So when they crank up the heat on our ‘hopless’ beer, guess what rises first? Yep! Our beloved alcohol does its best ghost impression and floats away from all those non-alcoholic liquids.

Once aloft in vapor form inside of these tall copper columns called stills, it then cools down and condenses back into liquid form – only now it’s much stronger than before due to having left most of its watery buddies behind during evaporation.

This newly minted spirit isn’t quite ready for your Old Fashioned or Martini just yet though; there’s one last step – aging. This is where time plays its part as those clear liquids mature inside wooden barrels soaking up flavors along their way until they’re finally ready for bottling.

All these stages work together to create our favorite tipples like whiskey, rum or gin each boasting unique characteristics depending on ingredients used or length of aging period among other factors.

Phew! You’ve made it through Distilling 101! Now that you understand how spirits are born let’s dive deeper into some fantastic distilleries right here in Illinois.

Top Craft Distilleries in Illinois

Hey there, whiskey aficionado! Let’s explore some of the best craft distilleries that the Prairie State has to offer. When you think of Illinois, you might picture deep-dish pizza or The Windy City, but it’s also home to a burgeoning scene of exceptional distilleries.

First up on our list is FEW Spirits, nestled in Evanston. This gem prides itself on being a grain-to-glass establishment. They’re not only producing award-winning whiskeys but also gins and bourbons that are making waves nationally. It’s fascinating how they blend tradition with inventive techniques to create their unique spirits.

Next stop on our journey takes us to Chicago with KOVAL Distillery. As one of the leaders in small batch whiskey production, KOVAL doesn’t disappoint. Their organic grains sourced from local farmers add an extra touch to their range of whiskeys, brandies and liqueurs. Oh, and did you know? KOVAL means “blacksmith” in various Eastern European languages, but for many it also implies “black sheep” – fitting for a distillery that loves doing things its own way!

Not too far away is Rhine Hall Distillery, another family-owned marvel based in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood. They have a unique focus on fruit brandies and grappas made from locally sourced ingredients – definitely worth a visit!

Over at North Shore is North Shore Distillery, Illinois’ first craft distillery since Prohibition era! Here’s what’s cool about them: they not only make amazing spirits like gin and vodka, but also offer cocktail classes – talk about interactive fun!

Lastly we have Whiskey Acres Distilling Co., located amidst cornfields in DeKalb. This farm-to-bottle operation is set right where they grow their grains – now that’s fresh produce!

  • FEW Spirits
  • KOVAL Distillery
  • Rhine Hall Distillery
  • North Shore Distillery
  • Whiskey Acres Distilling Co.

Each one brings something unique to the table (or should we say glass?), so no matter what type of spirit tickles your fancy; rest assured there’s something for everyone at these top craft distilleries in Illinois.

Award-Winning Spirits from Illinois

Illinois is not just a place of towering skyscrapers and deep-dish pizza. It’s also home to some incredible distilleries that have been recognized for their top-notch spirits. Let’s dive in and take a closer look at these award-winning gems.

First off, we’ve got FEW Spirits located in Evanston. They’re an absolute favorite among spirit enthusiasts and critics alike, bagging numerous awards over the years. Their Bourbon Whiskey took home the prestigious gold medal at the World Whiskies Awards in 2020. Trust us, you don’t want to miss out on this one.

Next up is Koval Distillery from Chicago. Not only do they produce organic grain-to-bottle whiskeys but they also knocked it out of the park with their Single Barrel Millet Whiskey – it was awarded a gold medal at the International Whisky Competition in 2016.

Then there’s Quincy Street Distillery in Riverside. This small craft distillery has made big waves with its Laughton Bros. Illinois Straight Bourbon, which won Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition (one of the booze industry’s most respected prize-giving bodies) – now that’s something!

And let’s not forget about Blaum Bros Distilling Co., nestled in Galena country side. Their Knotter Bourbon has become quite popular and has received several accolades including silver medals at both New York International Spirits Competition and American Craft Spirits Association Awards.

Lastly, we’ll mention Rhine Hall located right in Chicago’s Fulton Market district which specializes in fruit brandies using locally sourced fruits – their Apple Brandy was titled ‘Best In Show’ by American Craft Spirit Association.

  • FEW Spirits – Gold Medal for Bourbon Whiskey (World Whiskies Awards 2020)
  • Koval Distillery – Gold Medal for Single Barrel Millet Whiskey (International Whisky Competition 2016)
  • Quincy Street Distillery – Double Gold for Laughton Bros Illinois Straight Bourbon (San Francisco World Spirits Competition)
  • Blaum Bros Distilling Co – Silver Medals for Knotter Bourbon (New York International Spirits & American Craft Spirits Association Awards)
  • Rhine Hall– Best In Show for Apple Brandy (American Craft Spirit Association)

In all honesty, you can’t go wrong with any of these fantastic options when exploring Illinois’ spirit scene!

The Role of Local Ingredients in Distilleries

Your distillery tour won’t be complete without chatting about the role of local ingredients. Right from the grains to the fruits, local ingredients form the heart and soul of Illinois’ top-notch spirits. You’ll find that these local components not only drive the flavor profile but also tell a story – a tale of heritage, tradition, and community ties.

Let’s take whiskey as an example. It’s a spirit that demands quality grains. For many Illinois distilleries, sourcing locally means they can personally select each crop for its unique character traits. Take FEW Spirits located in Evanston, they’ve made a name for themselves using Midwestern grains which are then distilled on-site into award-winning spirits.

Then there are botanicals – herbs, spices, fruit peels – playing key roles in gin production. At North Shore Distillery in Green Oaks, you’ll find gins infused with handpicked local botanicals creating flavors that truly capture Illinois’ spirit.

And it’s not just about taste! Going local has eco-friendly perks too! Shorter transportation distances mean lower carbon emissions – now isn’t that something we all can toast to?

But here’s the kicker: when distilleries support local agriculture, they’re injecting money back into their communities and fostering relationships with farmers who share their passion for quality produce. It’s this commitment to locality that helps elevate Illinois’ status on the global spirits stage.

So next time you’re sipping on your favorite spirit from one of Illinois’ fine distilleries remember – it’s more than just a drink – it’s an expression of our state’s diverse agricultural richness and pioneering spirit (pun intended).

Visiting Guidelines for Illinois Distilleries

Planning a trip to the Land of Lincoln and looking to add a few distillery tours on your itinerary? Here are some handy guidelines to help you make the most of your visits to Illinois’ finest distilleries.

First, let’s talk about WHEN TO VISIT. While many distilleries operate year-round, they can get particularly busy during weekends and holidays. If you’re hoping for a more intimate experience, consider visiting on weekdays or during off-peak seasons.

Next up is BOOKING TOURS. It’s always wise to book in advance as tours can fill up fast. Some distilleries even offer online booking options – how convenient is that?

Safety should always be your top priority when visiting any distillery. That means keeping an eye out for posted safety signs and following all GUIDELINES set by the staff. Remember, you’ll be around heavy machinery and high-proof spirits – it’s better safe than sorry!

Here are some general etiquette tips:

  • Dress comfortably – you’ll likely be doing plenty of walking.
  • Ask questions! Distillers love sharing their knowledge.
  • Tipping isn’t mandatory but is appreciated.
  • Don’t forget: if you’re partaking in tastings, designate a sober driver.

Finally, keep in mind that each DISTILLERY IS UNIQUE with its own rules and features. Make sure you check out their individual websites or call ahead for specific information relevant to your visit.

Visiting Illinois’ distilleries can be an exciting adventure filled with rich flavors, fascinating processes, and warm hospitality – so go out there, explore responsibly and have fun!

Influential People Behind the Best Distilleries

Who’s stirring up the spirits in Illinois’ distillery scene? Let’s take a closer look at some of the influential personalities that are crafting your favorite libations.

First on our list is Fred Robinson, master distiller at Whiskey Acres. This family-owned operation prides itself on being a seed-to-spirit establishment – every ingredient used comes from their own farm! Fred’s decades of farming experience and his inventive spirit have been instrumental in putting Whiskey Acres on the map.

Next, we can’t forget about Sonat Birnecker Hart and Robert Birnecker of Koval Distillery fame. Trading academic careers for copper stills may seem like an odd choice to some, but this daring duo has proven it was worth it with their award-winning whiskies and liqueurs. Their commitment to grain-to-bottle production using organic grains shows us why they’re considered pioneers in Chicago’s craft spirits industry.

Over at FEW Spirits, you’ll find Paul Hletko rewriting rules with his innovative blends. After fighting hard to change prohibition-era laws restricting distilleries in Evanston, Paul started making his own booze. His dedication led to FEW becoming one of Illinois’ most prominent craft distilleries today.

Lastly but not leastly is Jenny Solberg Katzman, co-founder of Rhine Hall Distillery. Her passion for fruit brandy all started from her father’s hobby turned obsession while living abroad in Austria. Today, Rhine Hall stands as a testament to Jenny’s persistence and love for artisanal fruit brandies.

These trailblazers are just a few examples of folks shaking things up:

  • Fred Robinson – Master Distiller at Whiskey Acres
  • Sonat Birnecker Hart & Robert Birnecker – Founders of Koval Distillery
  • Paul Hletko – Founder of FEW Spirits
  • Jenny Solberg Katzman – Co-founder of Rhine Hall Distillery

Their stories remind us how personal passion combined with creativity can cultivate something extraordinary – especially when it comes to crafting exceptional spirits!

Conclusion: The Future of Distilling in Illinois

So you’ve made it to the end of our journey through the best distilleries in Illinois. We’ve explored their histories, sampled their spirits and pondered over their processes. Now let’s take a moment to look towards the future.

Illinois’ distilling industry has shown remarkable resilience and innovation in recent years. Despite challenges such as restrictive legislation and stiff competition, these distilleries continue to thrive, innovating with new techniques and exciting flavor profiles.

You might be wondering what’s next for these spirited businesses? Well, we’re seeing more sustainable practices on the rise, including sourcing local grains and reducing water waste. This isn’t just good for the environment – it also gives each spirit a unique taste that truly reflects its Illinois roots.

Remember how we mentioned craft cocktails earlier? You can expect those to become even more popular as distilleries experiment with different infusions and combinations to create something truly special.

And let’s not forget about bourbon! With corn being so abundant in Illinois, many distillers are turning their attention towards this classic American spirit.

  • More sustainable practices
  • Increasing popularity of craft cocktails
  • Focus on bourbon production

All things considered, there’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to the future of distilling in Illinois. So whether you’re a whiskey connoisseur or simply enjoy a good cocktail now and then, keep an eye out for these local gems – they’re sure going places!

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of everything happening in the world of Illinois spirits but hopefully it’s given you some food for thought (or should that be drink?). Keep exploring, keep tasting and here’s hoping your glass is always half full!

Cheers to your next delicious discovery!

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