Established in 2008 by husband and wife team Dr. Robert and Dr. Sonat Birnecker, Koval Distillery in Chicago, IL, is one of the largest independent and female-owned craft distilleries in the US and produces organic whiskey, liqueurs and specialty spirits. Leaving behind careers as academics, the Birneckers decided to combine Robert’s skills as a 3rd generation distiller, his love for traditional craft spirits, and his reputation as one of America’s top distilling experts into setting up a world-class craft distillery. As Chicago’s first distillery since prohibition, Koval quickly gained attention for their diverse range of award-winning spirits and unique production approach of producing all organic and kosher spirits from scratch using only the “heart” cut of the distillate. The name Koval is derived from the Yiddish word for ‘black sheep’ and is exemplified in Koval’s grain-to-bottle approach which involves contracting local farmers to grow the grain, milling and mashing the grain on-site, and finally distilling, bottling, and packaging. All of Koval’s whiskies are single barrel expressions, produced using a custom-built Kothe potstill, and aged in 30-gallon charred barrels (113.55 L). Koval claims that using these small barrels ensures that the distillate can develop its unique flavour from the grains. Another interesting fact is that all Koval spirits can be traced back to their barrel, and even the specific shipments of raw materials that come from their organic farmers. Koval’s current portfolio consts of vodkas, fruit brandies, a range of whiskies, gins, and interesting liqueurs. On the whiskey front Koval produce a rye, bourbon, 4 grain bourbon, oat whiskey, and millet whiskey, as well as numerous limited edition offerings.
Produced as a straight single barrel product that has been aged for 2-4 years in 30-gallon barrels, Koval Bourbon is one of two bourbons in Koval’s core range. Featuring a mash bill of 51% corn, and 49% millet, Koval exclusively use un-malted, organic, and locally sourced grains when producing their whiskey products. As a result of using un-malted grains Koval rely on the addition of industrial enzymes for fermentation and claim these maintain better control and conversion of the grains’ sugar into alcohol, whilst also preserving the grains’ individual influences. Boasting complete control over their process from grain to glass, Koval have embraced traditional craft methods and have married these with innovation from distiller Rob Birnecker’s extensive experience as a distillery consultant and 3rd generation distiller. Today I’ll be taking a look at this standard release of bourbon.
Name: Koval Bourbon
Age: NAS (around 2 – 4 years old)
Proof: 94 Proof (42% abv)
Type: Straight single barrel bourbon
Mashbill: 51% corn and 49% millet
Producer: Koval Distillery
Nose: The nose opens sweet at first with notes of buttery corn and slightly earthy grains followed by bright caramel, faint red fruit, a touch of baking spices, and a hint of vegetal charred oak.
Palate: The palate is viscous and buttery opening with sweet light brown sugar before notes of fresh red fruit, earthy spices, and a vegetal funk develops with some peppery oak chips developing in the background.
Finish: The finish echoes the sweetness of the palate but with a more pronounced toasted oak edge that brings a peppery spice alongside it and leads into an aftertaste dominated by tannic oak that dries the tongue and builds in spiciness with each sip.
This is a really nice craft bourbon that has maneuvered past the ‘small barrel craft whiskey’ stereotype of being a dark, grain forward, and oak-driven affair. Instead it’s light yet peppery with sweet and spicy notes whilst the flavours of a small barrel bourbon still echo in the background. There is also a very nice viscosity on the palate which gives it a soft light start before it develops a complexity that’s balanced between grain and barrel notes. My only critique of this whiskey is that a peppery oak-driven spice develops on the finish that builds with every sip to become distracting from the overall experience. However, as this whiskey has aged in a small barrel where the surface to liquid contact ratio is much higher this is to be expected as the young oak exerts its influence. Personally, I would mix this whiskey into my favourite whiskey-based cocktail to use the spice from the oak and elevate the overall flavours of the finished product, however this whiskey could also just as easily be enjoyed neat.
Try or Buy?
At around £50 for a 500ml bottle in the UK Koval is in some dangerous territory. It’s up against strong competition from major producers whose products are similarly priced (or cheaper) and come as a 700ml product. However, being a craft producer it’s easy to see why Koval’s pricing couldn’t match larger producers and being a craft product from a single barrel also means you’d expect there to have been a greater amount of care and passion put into the finished product. For me Koval is a unique and interesting craft whiskey that is worth the price to have, however, I’d recommend anyone who is dubious of craft whiskies to seek out a pour first. Typically I’d recommend a decent whiskey bar, but with times being what they are there are, numerous retailers that offer drinks by the dram are the way to go!