Founder Profile: Sonat Birnecker Hart, Co-Owner of KOVAL Distillery - Chicago
Hi Sonat! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Sonat Birnecker Hart, and I’m the Co-owner and President of KOVAL Distillery in Chicago. Prior to opening KOVAL Distillery, one of the largest independent and woman-owned craft distilleries in the US, I spent over a decade as a full professor in both the United States and Germany. In 2008, I gave up tenure in hopes of a different quality of life; one that would afford an opportunity to work with my husband, give up commuting, and return to the city I love: Chicago. Among many, many things, I have spearheaded product development, distribution, and marketing, turning my family business into an international presence with availability in over 55 export markets. I’m also involved in a number of philanthropic organizations, was recently named Illinois Business Person of the Year by the National Small Business Association, and have also been inducted into the Disciples d’Escoffier.
What is your background (i.e. education, previous jobs, experiences that led you to create)?
I have had a number of previous jobs, both paid and volunteer, including being a waitress, and also a cantor in synagogues in Richmond, Indiana and Vienna, Austria. I have been in a movie with Klaus Maria Brandauer (albeit a small part), and have modeled in Europe for brands including Emporio Armani and Piazza Simpione.
I have also written academic articles, book reviews, and published a number of academic books and edited a translation of Friedrich Torberg's Tante Jolesch. I was a professor for over 10 years, both in the US and Germany, and was the Walter Benjamin Chair of German Jewish Cultural History at Humboldt Universität in Berlin. I also serve on a number of Boards, including the Illinois DEC, the MPEA Board (Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority for the City of Chicago), and I am the President of the Diplomatic Corps of the World Jewish Congress. I come from a family of artists and so creation was always part of life at home.
Coming from an academic background, what led you to start KOVAL?
Academia often leads people to alcohol… but in truth, it was a lifestyle decision. I was pregnant with my first son and we were house hunting throughout the DC area. After seeing all of the homes in our price range, which were often of the "as-is" variety, we started thinking about what we really wanted out of life. Did we really want to invest everything into a home? Did we really want to stay in DC? In thinking through these things honestly, we realized that we wanted other things more. We prioritized living close to family more than staying in our secure jobs. We wanted to work together more than working exclusively on our own career paths. We wanted to live in a city we loved, not one that was “fine” but did not speak to our hearts. So we decided to start a family business in Chicago -- the city we love -- which is very close to my family. Robert came from three generations of distillers in Austria, so we knew how to distill...learning the business and legal side was the real adventure.
From your start in 2008, what went into growing KOVAL into a leading small-batch distillery?
The beginning was difficult, but a fun kind of difficult. We did absolutely everything ourselves, so we learned a great deal. Aside from the overall challenges of growing our business, we were also confronted with things we could not have imagined having to deal with, such as the need to change the laws in Illinois. I lobbied and worked to update the Illinois liquor laws, and ultimately changed the laws to establish a Craft Distiller’s License, making it possible to have a small retail component and tasting room on-site, conduct tours, and reduce licensing fees. This has revolutionized the liquor industry in Illinois and has paved the way for a number of other local distillery businesses.
The liquor industry is very expensive, and we started with only $30,000. Finding ways to finance our growth was a challenge, particularly when we needed to put away enough whiskey for what we estimated we would sell three, four, five years into the future. We were determined to remain independent and thus needed to find ways to finance everything without taking on investors. We decided to use our intellectual capital — particularly our distilling knowledge and experience — in creative ways. To this end, we grew our business by educating others in the art of distilling through another company we set up: Kothe Distilling Technologies. We found that sharing our knowledge not only helped others find the information and assistance they needed to reach their dreams, it also helped us grow our business through a complimentary vertical business model. This helped us grow in the beginning, and it has made it possible to be one of the few completely independent family-owned-and-operated artisan distilleries in the United States, with 55 export markets and growing. Since we started, we have educated over 3,500 people in the art of distilling and set up over 180 distilleries, in addition to white label projects for well-known and small craft distilleries.
Could you walk us through a bit of your Grain-to-Bottle distilling process?
First and foremost, we are committed to using only the best ingredients. We believe this starts with using organic grains, not only because the rye, corn, millet and other grains we use are grown without pesticides, but also because being organic affords us a way for us to support sustainable agriculture. In making everything from scratch, we are able to monitor the entire process from start-to-finish, and we can trace every bottle back to where and when the grain was harvested.
Secondly, our process focuses on only the “heart cut” (just the best 60%) of the distillate. Our focus on using only the “heart cut” is in contrast to the common industry practice of mixing ‘tails’ (the last 30% of the distillate) with the ‘heart cut’ and then aging in a heavily charred barrel. Tails on their own taste and smell like a wet dog and contain Propanol, Butanol, Amyl and fusel oils, which tend to muddy the pure character of the ‘hearts.’ KOVAL’s approach came from a desire to use the same strict cuts that brandy makers use for fruit distillates in Austria, but apply them to grain. We knew this would allow us to develop a clean, bright style of whiskey. After teaching this approach for nine years in our classes and through our consulting, many artisan and craft distilleries have also adopted this approach, and proudly promote their adherence to KOVAL’s new school of American whiskey making.
Not only did we want to offer a new style of American whiskey, we also wanted to expand the whiskey category by using unique grains such as millet and oat. Our Bourbon for example is made with corn and millet, creating an unexpected flavor profile that further develops the Bourbon canon in a way that has appealed to those who are not normally drawn to Bourbon. Using oat in in our Four Grain whiskey adds a lovely creaminess to the mouth feel that we could not have achieved with the other grains in it (malted barley, rye, wheat) alone. One thing that we are very proud of is that when we say a product is a Rye whiskey, it is 100% rye. This is not always the case for American Rye whiskey, as it is only required that they have 51% rye to call it a Rye. All of our whiskeys are single barrel.
What are the values that shape KOVAL?
We value the land, our family and heritage, our community, as well as transparency and education. All of these things drive KOVAL forward. For example, we make a point of donating to and supporting over 365 charitable events a year because we believe in the Jewish principle of Tzdaka, which translates as “charity” on one level, but really means “justice.” We believe that our business has a responsibility to give back to our community and we also want to educate our children on the importance of this through showing them. We also draw from our family for inspiration, such as our line of Brandy, which is an homage to my Aunt Susan, a bon vivant Italian expat from Winnetka who carved marble and ran for “President of the World” as part of her artistic persona. We believe strongly in education and are pleased to have another business devoted to educating others in the art of distilling and getting a distillery up-and-running. These are only a few examples.
Over time, how did you develop your different spirits and liqueurs?
Many of our product development discussions take place at around 2 am when we cannot sleep and start talking about how to improve the business.
We enjoy trying to do things differently, adding our own twist to a product or category, such as a Bourbon mash bill with corn and millet, or the way we make our gin. Most gins on the market begin with a neutral grain spirit. We start our gin with an in-house white rye whiskey base, which brings a natural spiciness and floral component to the gin before we even add any botanicals. Some of the main botanicals used in the gin aside from juniper berries are rose hips, grains of paradise, angelica root and coriander. Before we distill the botanicals we macerate them in the rye white whiskey and then we distill them for a double extraction and extra flavor.
How does your city and community play a role in your business?
As I mentioned before, helping out our community is an essential part of our business. We would not have it any other way. We have immense pride in our city. Every bottle says “Made in Chicago”, and we love that!
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you face?
International growth involves a lot of moving parts. We have over 25 sets of labels so that we can do business around the world where label requirements are all different. There is also a lot of uncertainty surrounding Brexit as well as trade tariffs, but we just look at it all as if it is a puzzle, and try to find the best solution for each problem.
What are your some of your short/long term goals?
Short: We are doing a gut rehab of our building to consolidate our store and tasting room into our main production facility (about a mile south of our current public space). This is a big project and we will be so excited when everything is finally in one place.
Long: We are working on new markets such as China, and in general we hope for long term growth in Asia
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
I have enjoyed being a mentor to both men and women throughout my life. In general, I think women need to support each other because there is still a lot of ingrained sexism in the workplace. I see it not just as a reaction to a negative but also as a desire for the positive -- I appreciate the business perspectives of other women and find myself truly inspired by them.
We have a series called Purchase from Women - what women owned businesses are you encouraging with your dollars?
So many, but here are a few (clearly, I have a sweet tooth)
Lucila's Homemade Alfajores
What are you trying to learn right now or what is something that you are wanting to learn?
I homeschool my boys, so I am always learning about how to help them with their education. I do not have much time to study things outside of work or for my family, with the exception of the weekly Torah portion, which I am happy to have as part of my continuing education and personal enrichment.
What are some of your favorite places in Chicago?
Lincoln Park Conservatory has always been a favorite for its quiet warmth and beauty. Nevertheless, I love so much about the city and enjoy exploring different neighborhoods from the old pubs in Bridgeport to Saree shops on Devon, and wherever there is a flaming Saganaki in Greektown (I am still mourning the loss of The Parthenon). I am a huge fan of Chicago's museums, and I try to get to The Art Institute as much as possible. Chicago Theater is also part of my monthly rotation.
Having grown up in Chicago, I am also haunted (in a good way) by the places of my Chicago past which no longer exist, such as Medusas and The Alley, where I spent my teenage years. As much as I try to get out and take advantage of all our amazing city has to offer, I am often quite content to walk around my Andersonville neighborhood.
What's coming up for you?
I hope to be moving forward on all of our projects and spending as much time together as a family as possible.