Seventy-five years after Prohibition ended, a distillery opened in Chicago — legally. Koval has now been in business for a decade, making Chicago-style bourbon and liqueurs. Sonat Birnecker heads this family-owned business with her husband, Robert, located on the city’s Northwest Side. Her path to creating an increasingly popular whiskey wasn’t typical for a distiller: she was a model, then a college professor.
A family tradition
Sonat and Robert decided to leave their academic careers to come home to Chicago, where Sonat’s great-grandfather had settled in the early 1900s. Starting a distillery became a family affair: Robert came from three generations of master distillers and he used that expertise to develop Koval’s rich and mellow taste. The company name, which means “blacksmith,” came from both sides of their families. Robert’s grandfather was named Schmid, meaning “smith.” Sonat’s great-grandfather was referred to as Koval, a “black sheep” because of his very independent decision, at age 17, to leave Vienna, Austria, to make his life in Chicago.
- Sonat Birnecker’s great grandfather, Emmanuel Loewenherz (nicknamed “Koval” when he emigrated from Vienna to Chicago). | Provided
- Sonat Birnecker’s maternal great grandmother, Ida Ganzoff, who passed down the stewed prunes recipe. | Provided
- The late Susan Loewenherz, one of several relatives who inspire the Koval founders. | Provided
- Sonat Birnecker’s aunt, Susan Loewenherz. | Provided
Sonat and Robert are making their own history because of the way their bourbon is crafted. If you don’t know how it works (I didn’t!) there are three parts to the distillate: the head, heart and tail. During the process, the head contains elements that can be toxic, so it’s discarded. Most large companies buy pre-made distillate containing the other two parts. But Sonat and Robert only use the “heart” because unpleasant flavors in the “tail” affect the taste of the final product. Koval also focuses on making organic spirits from scratch using grains from Midwestern farms. (You can learn more about the unique Koval process by taking a tour of their Ravenswood distillery, 5121 N. Ravenswood.)
- Ingredients for a dessert and cocktail recipes by Koval Distillery. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
- Great-Grandmother Ida’s Stewed Prunes and Mascarpone, by Koval Distillery. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
- The “Up with Fun Cocktail” by Koval Distillery. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
- Spirits by Koval Distillery in Chicago. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
- Star anise and cinnamon are among the ingredients for a dessert recipe from Koval Distillery. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Using some of her handcrafted spirits, Sonat created a bourbon cocktail for us, as well as a stewed prune and marscarpone dessert from her great-grandmother, Ida Ganzoff. In the video, she walks us through the process, and answers my question about why one type of Koval is called “Susan for President.” Plus, you’ll meet some of my Sun-Times colleagues, the lucky panel who tasted the cocktail and dessert. I hope you’ll watch and share the video to find out more about this interesting family history, which inspired one of Chicago’s most popular spirits brands.
Great-Grandmother Ida's Stewed Prunes and Mascarpone
- Servings: 6-8
- 2 cups dried prunes
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 cup Koval Bourbon
- 1 1/2- cup dry red wine
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 star anise
- 8-ounces mascarpone cheese
- 2 tbsps. Koval Susan for President Prune Brandy (optional)
Butter cookies or gingersnaps, for garnish
- In medium pot, combine prunes, sugar, bourbon, wine, cinnamon stick and star anise. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer 30-45 minutes (until liquid is reduced to syrup). Remove from heat. Let stand a minimum of 15 minutes before serving.
- Spoon stewed plums over mascarpone cheese. Drizzle with prune brandy. Garnish with cookie.
Up with Fun Cocktail
- Servings: One cocktail
- 2-ounces Koval Bourbon
- ½-ounce dry vermouth
- ½-ounce Koval Rose Hip Liqueur
- 3-4 dashes Angostura bitters
- In mixing glass, stir ingredients with ice. Strain and serve in coupe glass. Garnish with stewed prune (recipe above) or brandied cherry. Enjoy!
We hope you enjoyed learning about the family inspiration behind Koval Distillery and these two yummy recipes. You can see more “Food We Love” videos and recipes on the Sun-Times website.
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