I chat about FEW Spirits Whiskey with Paul Hletko, founder and master distillery of FEW Spirits in Evanston, Illinois, on creativity, family and state history, and passion for people.
A mile and a half north of Chicago, FEW Spirits distillery is located in a grungy alley; a fitting location for salt-of-the-earth rocker, founder Paul Hletko. A real character, Paul’s desire to create FEW came from artistic passion and determination to reconnect with his family history in a positive way. His grandfather’s family owned a brewery in what was Czechoslovakia prior to the Second World War. After the Nazis invaded in 1939, confiscating the brewery while his family were murdered in the camps, Paul’s grandfather survived and spent the rest of his life trying to get the brewery back – sadly, he never did. When his grandfather died, Paul realised without the brewery, his family legacy and history was lost. By creating FEW, Paul not only was able to reconnect to his family, but to bring families and communities together in the present, for the future. As Paul says, ‘Whisky is important – but it pales in importance compared to family.’ A musician himself, Paul brings in live bands to FEW all summer long, bringing the community together with live music, cocktails and food. It is touchingly important the magic of bringing people together for FEW, sharing drinks, celebrations, commiserations. FEW is not just a distillery, but a social hub, which takes seriously its responsibility.
The FEW story is rich in all kinds of history. Evanston was where the entirety of US prohibition started, as the women who led the movement lived there. The city had a proud 170 year history of being dry, alcohol never being produced there before. Which is why Paul was so surprised that the local government were so receptive to his dream, especially as he had to lobby to get the license to distill, essentially changing the law.
Before FEW, Paul worked as a lawyer in Chicago – a job he desperately hated. As a self-described creative, pushing paper around his desk was not fulfilling for him. He is strikingly honest when describing his dissatisfaction in his life at the time, his anger building throughout the day, snapping at his family, before sinking a six pack of beers and a bottle of whisky before getting up the next day to do it all over again. So many people don’t like their job and don’t want to do it any more, says Paul, there’s a support group for people like that – it’s the bar.
Always a creative, Paul was a pro guitar player and had owned a record label for a while, and felt the urge to make and create. He implores to find something you want to do so badly you will crawl through broken glass and fire to do it; he would do all of that to make whisky. It is clear to see the intensity and passion behind FEW, which makes it such an excellent product.
With their strong presence internationally, it is surprising that FEW is relatively small, producing just eight barrels a day with a small crew of dedicated, ‘insanely talented’ men and women. The distillery itself is small, just under 900 square metres. The work is hard, but worth it. The team individually hand pour 4000 pounds of grain per day into the mash tanks, fifty pounds at a time. Paul lauds his crew as passionate, creative people – the kind of you would want to sit down at the bar and share a dram with.
Paul learned distilling ‘the old-fashioned way’ – by distilling. Not adept at books, he would make mistakes in real time, and learn from them. The process of distilling is a creative one – Paul compares it to playing guitar, once you get good enough, your hands do the work automatically. Learning how to distill, you have a flavor in your head, your hands don’t know how to make that flavour.
He started off by buying every bottle of Kentucky bourbon he could find, laying them out on the dining room table, grabbing a notebook and pen and taking notes. What did he like? What did he not like? Although an effective and simple research method, Paul warns of having your wife come home to find fifty open bottles of bourbon on the table.
It takes time, hard work and money but FEW is proud of the product they put on the market, lauding it as some of the best whisky out there with its bold, uniquely American flavours. They use a wine yeast from the Loire Valley in France, and as creative experimenters, FEW finishes with all sorts of casks – from Sauternes to Spanish wine casks.. They have a single malt coming out, of which they released a limited amount of every year. Although Scotch and Irish whisky have a hold on the single malt, Paul enjoys the difference of flavours in his American single malt. His go-to of his range is the bourbon, depending on his mood, but he will drink anything he produces. If there is something he doesn’t like, they don’t make it again. ‘I have to talk about that product every day for many years. If I don’t get excited, how can I expect you to?’ Fair point.
The success of FEW has led to a lot of fun opportunities for Paul – including collaborating with rock band Flaming Lips, of which they have mutual friends. The band, one of Paul’s favourites, approached him looking for a deal to put a whisky on the market. Twenty years ago, Paul’s band almost opened at one of their gigs, so it feels satisfying cyclical for this collaboration to happen. Paul doesn’t see much of a difference between musical art and the art of distilling whisky, both fundamentally creative processes. It is fitting that FEW thrives in a town with its rich history surrounding alcohol and music, a great place to be.
Although Paul is pretty modest whenever he sees his whisky sold in a bar, whether it be in London, Italy, LA, San Francisco, New York or Seattle, there was one occasion where he couldn’t resist a cheeky pic of his bottles behind a bar in Florence. Paul’s family legacy crossed the Atlantic and back again, reconnecting and reliving history of creating premium products, hopefully for generations to come.
I cannot wait to get back to Chicago to visit the plethora of music venues and enjoy a few glasses of FEW with Paul.
Interview by David Pearce
Written by Annie Bowles.