Whiskey Is an Art: A conversation with FEW Spirits Founder, Paul Hletko
The FEW Spirits distillery is tucked down an alleyway in an old, refurbished garage. Rumor has it that the garage was once a chop-shop. It’s a good legend for a distillery that practically demands one, even though its true story is impressive all on its own.
You’ve heard this story almost as many times as you’ve had a dram. Young professional (a patent attorney in this case) tires of spending his days toiling in service of someone else’s profit and pursues his dream of working with great spirits. The challenges are immense. How do you whet prospective buyers’ interest when the bourbon takes so long to mature? How do you get the word out once you have? How do you remain relevant once you’ve made your first big splash in a market that’s always looking for the next big thing?
But in starting FEW, founder Paul Hletko faced challenges unique to his chosen home. He wanted to place the distillery in his hometown of Evanston, Illinois. A town that was dry until 1972, despite the presence of the Big Ten’s Northwestern University. A university which employed, as a dean, Francis Elizabeth Willard, who also happened to be the founder of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union, a leading voice behind the push for prohibition. And despite the nearly forty years that had passed from Evanston dipping its toe into the waters of alcohol supply (spurred by the departure of restaurants for towns that allowed you to have a drink), when Hletko had his idea, there were very few bars and no distilleries or breweries.
Because Evanston law forbade distilling and brewing. As in, it was against the law. As in, distilling spirits was punishable by a trip to the hoosegow.
So why, in the name of Heavenston, would you insist on putting your hopes and dreams in the North Shore town?
“Because it’s my home,” Hletko said with a short laugh. We were chatting in the distillery’s compact and well-appointed show room. “It’s where my roots are. I’m part of the community. It never made any sense to put it anywhere else.”
And staying local was a key component to the early branding success. Hletko found a local artist to design the bottles. The distillery grows its own hops. Its roots, so to speak, are deeply entrenched in the Evanston community. But once he made his line in the sand, I’m doing this HERE, come hell or high water, how did Hletko actually make it happen?
That’s where Hletko’s legal training came in handy. He approached the City of Evanston to discuss changing the city’s zoning and liquor laws to allow for the creation of spirits. A life-long Illinois resident, I’d always assumed that the City resisted his idea, or at the very least, that more than one palm reached out for the greasing.
“The city was great,” Hletko said. “They couldn’t have been more supportive.”
Hletko worked with the city to change the zoning laws and regulations to allow for distilling, work that has since seen three breweries open in the city limits; Francis Willard is rolling in her bone-dry grave. Hletko has said that not once in any of the public hearings dealing with the zoning changes, did anyone vote against his proposals. And once the laws were changed, well, it was just a matter of getting some MGPI juice, dumping it into aged barrels and waiting for the money to roll in, right?
Yeah, not so much.
“We started off making brown and started selling the white,” Hletko explained to Baldo and me. Once Hletko had the bourbon and rye distilling, he used his own juice to make a superb white whiskey and at the same time created some of the best, most interesting gins you’ll ever taste. He then took those gins to the purveyors and buyers. A liquid calling card, if you will. And getting good product to the “influencers,” as Hletko calls them, was a crucial part of the development strategy.
“When you’re starting, you tackle the influencers,” he said. “And it all starts with the juice.”
According to Hletko, it’s whisk(e)y aficionados, bartenders, writers who influence both the public and specific buyers. So if you’re gonna start that way, your product needs to be sublime.
And it was. Within first three months of opening, FEW won the New York Wine & Spirits Competition Double Gold Medal for the white whiskey. Other accolades followed, including winning Whisky Advocate’s 2013 Craft Whiskey of the Year for the Rye Whiskey. Which happens to be my favorite FEW spirit (although the American Gin comes close), with a superb palate of rye, mint, tarragon, and oak and a finish that carries you warmly to bed.
The focus on what’s in the bottle has paid off in spades. At a recent FEW seminar in London, a buyer for a department store asked about putting FEW on the shelves. The store? London’s venerable Marks & Spencer, where FEW will be one of only two non-in-house products on the shelves. In four and a half years, FEW has landed on the shelves of 5 continents. And Hletko told us that he hears of FEW in bars in countries where the distillery doesn’t (currently) distribute. And to top it all off, FEW recently opened a new warehouse in Evanston, which has doubled their capacity in just six months.
So, all that’s left is for them to keep growing, right?
“It’s not physically possible to keep growing,” Hletko told us. “It takes us two weeks to make what Beam spills on the floor every day.”
Instead, the distillery plans on focusing on what Hletko sees as being the two main challenges: meeting demand and continued relevancy in a fast-changing marketplace. The warehouse will help with the former. And as for the latter, Hletko thinks he may have figured it out.
“We view the liquid as art,” Hletko said. We’re here to create art.”
That view seeps into every step of the process and Hletko came alive in talking about. FEW recently came out with a breakfast gin, which started off as a bit of an in-joke. According to Hletko, a friend jokingly demanded to know why, given the glut of so called “breakfast whiskies,” there were no breakfast gins. Seeing a challenge, Hletko decided to craft a breakfast gin, solely for purchase through the distillery, but the ensuing response was so enthusiastic, he decided to distribute it through stores as well.
The joy of the process continues to drive him. Although FEW doesn’t do regular cask strength versions of their rye and bourbon (no need, he says, when you’re already at 47.5 ABV), they’re bringing one to Chicago-land Binny’s this December. They’re working on potentially new products in the bourbon and rye lines. And they continue to produce “one-off” whiskies that tweak the formula for certain, select buyers, including a recent release named Miscreant, “because he’s a bit of a bad boy.”
And he doesn’t seem likely to let up soon.
“I only feel pressure about what goes in the glass. I remain captivated by the art in the glass.”
For fans of this particular art, there can’t be many sweeter words. -TM