Koval Distillery is a Kosher-certified distillery in northern Chicago founded by two former university professors from the Washington DC area. Koval is Yiddish for “black sheep,” a reminder of the Jewish side of the family. Meet Koval Founder Sonat Birnecker Hart and learn what drove her to start a distillery with her husband in Chicago and how she uses her education background to educate new distillers.
BW: When you left higher education to open a distillery, what was it that really solidified that decision for you?
SBH: Our decision was driven primarily by what we really wanted out of life. We wanted to live in a city that we loved: Chicago, work together, be close to family, and do something that we thought we would enjoy. Robert comes from three generations of distillers and grew up distilling, and after doing lots of research on what we needed to do to get the business side of things going, we were ready to make a run for our dreams. For me in particular, it was also a way to be able to work without checking my motherhood at the door. I could nurse on demand, the kids could be with us at work… I was even once the only woman on a panel discussion about whiskey, and did it with my youngest attached to me the whole time.
BW: Yours is one of a small but growing percentage of Kosher-certified distilleries in the USA. What does the certification process look like?
SBH: We use only organic ingredients and do not have any additives, so it is pretty easy to gain kosher certification. The process is similar to getting organic certified: there needs to be complete transparency regarding suppliers and ingredients, all of which need to be kosher certified so that there is an unbroken chain. In addition to all of the paperwork, there are also inspections to make sure that there are not any non-kosher ingredients in our products (for instance, some colorings are made from bugs, which would not be kosher).
BW: You have a strong background in educating craft distillers. What are some of your biggest success stories there?
SBH: Wow, there are so many. We have gotten the first distillery in Jerusalem up and running, the largest rum distillery in Uganda, some very successful distilleries in Europe, Canada, Japan, and the USA; yet in some ways, it is nice to see how we have helped the distilling industry close to home. We are so proud of all of the amazing Midwestern distilleries that have come through our classes and consulting, including FEW, Journeyman, Mississippi River, and so many more. We now have a veritable whiskey trail in the Midwest, and it has been a joy being a part of its development.
BW: What advice do you have for women who want to work in the distilled spirits industry?
SBH: Do not let anything get in your way; this can be your industry. It has certainly become mine. It is not an easy business for sure, but few things worth working for are easy. Success in this industry is all within your grasp. I managed to change laws, increased my distribution to over 55 export markets, mitigated risk by creating vertical business models, and did so while homeschooling my children at the distillery. Have I experienced sexism? Sure, sometimes. Has it affected my success? No.
BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in Chicago.
SBH: My perfect whiskey weekend in Chicago would involve friends and family meeting me at my soon-to-open distillery bar for some cocktails and a private tour. We would then walk to a Cubs game and then, in celebration of a win, meander through the streets of Wrigleyville, talking about old friends who moved away, and others who had been far from our minds until we walked past a place that reminded us of when…and we would laugh. Onward to the lake, where it would be warm enough to walk along the beach and watch the sunset. We would then dust off and walk back to my home for dinner and drinks — a Sazarac with cherries for me!
Photos Courtesy of Koval Distillery