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Discovering FEW Spirits

At first glance, Evanston, Illinois, doesn’t seem like a great place to put a distillery. This close-in suburb just north of Chicago was the birthplace of the temperance movement, the 19th century American political and social movement that called for the abolition of alcohol.

Here, Prohibition started early and ended late. From 1858 to 1972—that’s about 60 years before the official start of nationwide Prohibition, and 40 years after its repeal—Evanston was a dry town. That’s right—no booze was sold here for almost 115 years. And things didn’t change overnight. In 1972, the city council voted to allow hotels and restaurants to serve alcohol, but the first liquor store in Evanston didn’t open until 1984.

But Paul Hletko, founder and president of FEW Spirits, wasn’t going to let a pesky little thing like more than a century of teetotaling get in the way of his whiskey-making dreams. Paul founded FEW in 2011, taking its tongue in cheek name from the initials of Francis Elizabeth Willard, the founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and one of Evanston’s most enthusiastic temperance advocates.

Despite Evanston’s history as a dry town, Paul says the city council was actually delighted to have a craft distillery in the neighborhood, and was very supportive as he searched for a place where his dream could come to life.

After looking at dozens of potential buildings, he finally stumbled upon an old mechanic’s shop in the heart of downtown Evanston. It had plenty of space, the right zoning, and a pretty cool entrance tucked away down a hidden alley. “When you start walking down that alley, you start thinking, ‘It can’t be down here,’ but oh yes, it is.” Says Paul. “It feels like you’re going on a voyage of discovery, and that’s what whiskey is about, the delight of surprise and discovery.”

FEW uses two different kinds of stills: a pot still equipped with four plates for making whiskey, and a taller column still for producing higher-proof, more neutral spirits that serve as a base for FEW’s award-winning gin. While rye and bourbon are FEW’s best-selling whiskeys, their creative spirit has led them to tinker with other projects, including single malt, barrel-aged gin, and their playful Breakfast Gin, which pairs classic gin botanicals with Earl Grey tea.

These offbeat products—including a to-be-released American whiskey—often stem from the experimental projects FEW encourages all its employees to do. “We all like to try something new,” says Paul. “We have more experimental whiskeys down than I care to count, but that’s the core of who we are. We’re creators, and that’s awesome.”

From the beginning, FEW Spirits has always been a grain-to-glass distillery, which means they mash, ferment, and distill all of their products themselves at their own distillery. An artist at heart, Paul sees the process of creating as the ultimate goal, not simply a means to an end. “FEW just came out of this drive to create, and it’s something that everybody at the distillery really thrives on,” says Paul.

Early on, that mission was tested when a broker offered to sell him large volumes of rye whiskey he could bottle and sell right away, rather than wait for his whiskey to age. Even though the sample tasted pretty good, Paul turned them down. “That’s not what I wanted to do,” he explains. “FEW exists to create liquid art in a bottle. We are here to make whiskey, not to make money,” he laughs.

That DIY approach has paid off. Today, FEW’s rye whiskey is a benchmark in the craft spirits industry, winning Craft Whiskey of the Year from Whisky Advocate magazine a few years back and picking up accolades from virtually every magazine, website, and blog that has anything to do with American whiskey.

So when we got the chance to partner with FEW Spirits this winter to pick out a few of our favorite casks of FEW Rye for an exclusive small-batch release, we couldn’t have been more stoked. Paul says the feeling was mutual. “The people at Taster’s Club are passionate advocates for customers and quality,” says Paul. “Getting picked to be a monthly release is a fantastic honor for us, so we’re very excited to be part of it.”

Tasting through dozens of casks of FEW Rye, we settled on a few that tasted just right to us. The result is a rye whiskey that’s approachable yet full-flavored, perfect for seasoned drinkers and newbies alike. New charred oak casks give it a sweet flavor, while rye lends its signature spicy note and corn adds a touch of fruitness. It’s also got this lovely poached pear-inflected finish, a little like biting into a fruit and custard tart drizzled with spiced honey. We have no idea where that comes from, but we can’t stop thinking about it.

Paul says his favorite way to drink FEW Rye is neat, but he’s not a purist; over ice, in cocktails, or even sipped alongside a mixer are all fair game. “I don’t think anyone should tell you how to drink your whiskey,” says Paul. “There is no right or wrong way to drink FEW, except not to drink it at all or to drink it to excess. Drink it how you like it.”

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