CH Distillery launching in the West Loop this spring
Despite the proliferation of craft spirits, Chicago-proper still has only two functioning distilleries: Koval and Letherbee. Looks like baby will make three this spring, with the launch of CH Distillery in the West Loop. CH's focus is premium vodka, and the facility will also have a bar with small plates from consulting chef (and avec alum) Jesse Katzman (one of TOC's 20 Chefs to Watch). TOC spoke with Tremaine Atkinson, who's opening the distillery with Mark Lucas:
You’re a home brewer. How did that translate into opening a distillery?
As a brewer, I was always interested in the idea of taking beer to the next step, which is distilling it and turning it into something else. I’ve always just been a huge fan of vodka, so it’s kind of a natural progression from being a brewer to becoming a distiller.
Is there a demand for a locally made vodka?
Yeah, I think so. The idea of this is really driven by a passion to do something and do something well. But from the business side, there are obviously a lot of vodkas out there, and there are a lot of craft distillers out there. There aren’t a ton of craft distillers who are focused on vodka as their primary product and also making that vodka from scratch, from actual grain. There’s a fair number of vodkas out there that are made by distilleries while they’re kind of waiting for their whiskey or their bourbon to age in the barrels. And to really make a really high-quality, very clean-tasting vodka takes different equipment and a different approach to distilling. Our passion is with vodka, and there seems to be a bit of an opportunity—maybe—in the market for a really well made, truly hand-crafted vodka that’s also local—that’s made right here in the city, made from Illinois grain and with a focus on Chicago as the market.
What is the different type of equipment that you need to make a high-quality vodka?
There are basically two types of stills: one is a pot still, which is used really for making whiskey. The pot still does not have a lot of ability to sort out and filter out the various different types of alcohols that, when you’re making vodka, you need to remove. To do that, you need a column still, which has a lot more plates, which give you very fine differentiation of temperature as you’re vaporizing and re-condensing the alcohol. You really can’t make a high-quality vodka from scratch on a pot still. Column stills are also more expensive. They also have to be taller, so you need some ceiling height in your space as well to be able to do that.
Will vodka be your only product?
It will be our primary product, but the nice thing about having the equipment that we have is it does give us the ability to make really any spirit that we like. And since we will have a cocktail bar as part of the operation, and by the state craft spirit license, we’re limited to only selling what we make, we’re also going to make some products for the bar. We’ll make a gin [in a style that’s lighter on juniper than most]. We’ll likely make an [unaged] rum and an [unaged] whiskey as well. And we’ll see: If those become popular, that’s something we could make more of.
Where did the idea come from to have a bar attached to the distillery?
It was really born of having visited a lot of smaller distilleries and being a little frustrated by only being able to get a warm, little tiny taste of their product. There are some places where you can actually get a full pour or a cocktail made, and we like those better. We just think it’s cool to be able to actually have a drink! And it seemed to also fit well with the neighborhood. For example, if you’re going to avec for dinner and you want to have a cocktail before, we thought our location would lend itself really well to that. The bar will have room for about 45 people. And we will also serve some small-plate, light appetizers as well. We will not have a full kitchen at all...it’s not the intent to serve dinner or anything like that. It’s more to have some interesting foods that pair really well with the spirits. For example, it might be a glass of very cold vodka (kind of as it’s done in some of the Eastern European traditions) and a small piece of smoked fish and a piece of rye bread with that.
Are you the head distiller?
Yes. Myself and Kevin McDonald, who worked at Koval last summer. Kevin and I will be the day-to-day distilling team, but we’re also working with a consultant, Steve Wright, from Canada, who has worked with some of the big vodka producers for about the last 20 years. He’s sort of our higher-level guru that we’ve developed our recipe with and is sort of helping guide us a little bit. One of the cool things about vodka, versus a higher-flavor-profile spirit, is that vodka, from a distillation standpoint, is a much more technical distillation. It’s more science-based. That’s also where our name was born from: C and H came from carbon and hydrogen, which are the principal atoms in alcohol.