An Intoxicating Interview with Boutique Distillery Starter, Sonat Birnecker

8 04 2010

By Matthew Bentel

It is 5:00 pm. You get up from the desk in your cubicle. You make your way to the elevator down to the parking lot and to your car. You arrive home nearly an hour after quitting time and pour yourself a whiskey on the rocks. You sit down and try to soak in the end of the day. That is your life now. But what if this “end of the day” routine wasn’t saved for the night hours, but rather was a daily practice? For Sonat and Robert Birnecker, it is.

Sonat and Robert, a married couple, established and now run Chicago’s first boutique distillery, Koval, located at 5121

Koval Distillery owners Sonat and Robert Birnecker, image provided by Sonat Birnecker.

N. Ravenswood in Chicago. As opposed to a brewery, which brews beer, or a vineyard, which produces wine, distilleries make spirits, otherwise known as liquor.

As Sonat explains in this interview, owning your own distillery offers more than simply being your own boss; creative freedom, unordinary business ventures, and atypical work days are all intoxicating benefits.

Koval seems like the metaphorical love child of your husband and you. How did it originate?

We were living in D.C. and we were trying to figure out how we were going to continue our lives after we gave birth to my son. We decided we did not want to live in the Baltimore/D.C. area anymore. I did not want to commute to my job in Baltimore.

What were you doing in Baltimore?

I was a tenured professor of German [Literature] and Jewish Studies. And my husband was the deputy press secretary at the Austrian Embassy, and it still took him around 45 minutes to get to work every day – even though we were very close to downtown D.C.

We decided that we wanted to live in a city close to family and friends, and we wanted to work together.  We decided we’d give up our jobs and follow his [Robert’s] family’s tradition of distilling and start a distillery in Chicago. This way, we could be where we wanted to be, work together, and be with our son.

As a husband and wife operation, it may be a bit different than your normal distillery, but run me through a typical day distilling spirits.

There is no typical day. Every day is completely different because every day involves either distilling or mashing or bottling, so that’s on the manufacturing side. But then there are hundreds of other things we have to deal with.

We’re trying to change the laws in Illinois that allow us to sell on premise of the distillery, which is something that is granted as a right to winemakers and breweries, but not to distilleries. We are always trying to reach out to different restaurants, to do some PR, and to deal with our other distributors, because we’re getting distributed now in California, Indiana, we will be in Wisconsin very soon, and [now] we’re dealing with Florida, which we may decide not to be in. There are a hundred things that go on: the distribution, the marketing, the PR, then we do a lot with non-profit organizations, so (we) speak with non-profits and find out how we can partner with them. And all these things happen in various combinations on a daily basis, in addition to chasing our son all over the place.

What are some of the basic tools, equipments, etc. you need to start distilling your own spirits?

Koval operates one still that ferments all their liquors

Well, you need a still and fermenters, the most basic operation you could have. We, at the very beginning, could not afford a mash tank. So we would mash inside the fermenters, as Mark [one of our two staff members] remembers…the bad days [laughs]. Very loud, very noisy, very, very heavy, difficult, because we’d have to stand on palettes, and then reach over into the fermenters with a glorified cement mixer. We went through about three of them because we ran out the motors.

Luckily that is in our past. So now we actually have a mash tank. Which while not completely necessary, in our mind it’s somewhat necessary. If you can afford it, then it’s completely necessary [laughs].

Especially when you’re doing things from scratch.

Yes, absolutely. It’s really awesome to have. You also need a bottle filler. We also started out with one-bottle filler, which means every single bottle was filled up one at a time. Now we have a four-bottle filler – which makes such a difference.  It makes absolutely the biggest difference. Because, you know, then you can get things done four times as fast.

Then you need collection tanks, which you also need in a very basic operation. So yeah, those are some of the things you need… then obviously boxes, labels, you need inserts in your boxes to separate the bottles so they don’t break, and blending tanks. we’ve got…

Are blending tanks used for more flavorful products?

Yes, for some of our liqueurs. They are basically like the stainless steel holding tanks, but we use some of them for blending. Some of them serve the function of blending, some of them serve the function just of collection.

Are there certain educational requirements, either formal or informal, that must be met to start your own distillery?

Formal: no, not in the United States. Informal: I would say absolutely and that probably ranges for some people that have family that have been in the business or were in the business at one time and passed down how to do things. Other people go and learn from other distillers, sort of like an old-school apprenticeship. And then there are courses that people can take. We teach people how to distill all the time. We actually do consulting. So we go around teaching people. Robert grew up with distilling because his grandparents have had a distillery since before he was born.

So when you say consulting, is that something you advertise?

We have a separate company called Kothe Distilling Technologies where we represent a still manufacturer and then we go around consulting and helping people get other distillers up off the ground. So we’ve already set up two in Virginia and one in Ohio. We’re setting up one in Seattle, two in Oregon and we’re going to be setting one up in Brooklyn in a few weeks. It’s going to be one of the first distilleries in New York City.

Was that something you were planning to do all along?

It wasn’t an afterthought. We wanted to do this from the beginning, in addition to our own distillery.

What type of financial expectations and prospects should people have when starting a distillery?

[Expect] to be in debt for a while.  People think they’ll get into this and make tons of money [laughs]. Yeah, maybe some day.

As a consultant, we tell people they are crazy all the time. People come to us with the most bizarre ideas of how much vodka they think they’re going to sell in the first year, and we just tell them that they are dreaming. We have very realistic expectations.

So, in very realistic terms, when do profits start to accumulate?

Well, it’s about the same as with breweries – about three years till you can assume things start to turn around. But that really depends on a lot of different factors like how much you grow, what kind of products you’re doing. I mean, if people just want to start a vodka distillery and only make vodka, they also have to keep in mind it’s not just what they make, but about distribution. With the alcohol industry in most states, you’re really dependent on distribution channels.  You have no control over those to a great extent. And if your distributor has 200 vodkas in their portfolio, are they really going to sell 10,000 cases of yours…ever? No.

Well, that leads to my next question. How did you get your product in both local liquor stores and bigger places, such as Binny’s?

We decided to go with Maxwell Street Trading (as our distributor) because they really understand craft distilleries and what it means to work with a small start-up distillery. Because they worked really hard, they were able to get us into these different retail venues.

What is the creative process like for developing a new spirit or liqueur, from the initial idea to the final product?

It depends on what it is. We like to do a lot of seasonal [liqueurs] so we’ve been sort of planning on doing certain seasonals for a while. There are a lot of things one has to keep in mind.

First you need a label, and before you can ever release a product you need the formula and label approved by the U.S. government. And that can take a long time. The formula approval may take a month or two and the label approval may take another month or two. So it’s already taking three months before you can even start making the product. Once you have that, you need to register the product with the state of Illinois. It’s different with every state, but you need to register it, then we can make it, bottle it, and sell it.




5 responses

25 04 2010
Home brewing the easy way part 1 | Keg-o-Beer

[…] An Intoxicating Interview with Boutique Distillery Starter, Sonat Birne… […]

30 03 2011


SANJAY SINGH Phone – +91-9911616244
Objective : To develop the highest efficiency and production of plant to get the production at the lowest Cost.

Working Experience: – 12 years

Production Manager

Jan 2009 – till date. Mohit Distillery Bijnor

• Processing with 40KL AA, 40KL RS, 20 KL ENA, 20 TPD Co2 Plant, And Bio- gas Digester and adjoining second unit Jain Distillery(a concern of Mohit Distillery Bijnor) processing with 40 KLPD wash to ENA Plant.

Current Work Profile

• Entire process right from raw material to finished goods, responsible for production, recovery, efficiency of fermentation and distillation, Application of Dual column GLC for quality of finished goods.

• Dealing state excise & pollution control board.

• Reporting to Managing Director.

Assistant Manager

March 2008 – till Jan 2009. Oudh Sugar Mills ltd. Hargaon Dist Sitapur
(Distillery Unit)
• Processing with 100 KLPD Total Spirit Plant, HI-FERM Praj Fermentation, 30 KLPD ENA, 40+60KLPD AA, forced Circulation Multieffect Evaporator, Slope fired 30 Ton Boiler.

Sr. Chemist (Later Promoted to Asst. Manager)

Aug 2004 -March 2008 Mohit Distillery Bijnor
• Processing with 20 KL ENA, 40KL AA, 40KL RS, 20 TPD Co2 Plant, And Bio- gas Digester.

Shift Chemist.
June 2003 – Aug 2004 The Simbhaoli Sugar Mills Ltd. Simbhaoli
(Distillery Division)

Processing with 30 KL ENA, 60KL AA, 90KL RS.

• Worked as Tr. in The Simbhaoli Sugar Mills Ltd. (Distillery Division) Simbhaoli GZB (U.P). Processing with 30 KL ENA, 60KL AA, and 90 KL RS. Since July 1998 – Aug 2002.

Project Work

• Commissioning of 100 KLPD total spirit plant along with 60+40 KLPD Ethanol Plant.

• Erection and commission 40 KLPD wash to ENA of Jain Distillery (a concern of Mohit Distillery Bijnor)

• Erection and commissioning of Fermentation House for 40 KLPD RS Plant in Mohit Distillery Bijnor.

• Erection and commissioning of 30 KLPD Ethanol Plant In The Simbhaoli Sugar Mills Ltd. (Distillery Division) Simbhaoli GZB (U.P).

Technical Qualification

Post Graduate Diploma in Industrial Fermentation and Alcohol Technology from National Sugar Institute KANPUR in 2002-2003.securing 69% marks and getting space in top 05 candidates

Educational Qualification

Msc. Chemistry specialization in physical chemistry from C.C.S University
Meerut with first division, 64 % marks in 1999-2001.

Bsc (B.Z.C) from C.C.S.University Meerut with first division, 72.4 % marks in 1995-1998.

Computers skills

MS Dos, MS Office and Relative software.

Date of birth – 20-Nov -1977
Present salary – 4.8 Lacks Rs. /annum, Accommodation, other
facility as per company rule.
Salary – Negotiable

Date -24,MAR, 2011 SANJAY SINGH

6 04 2011
Gireesh kumar singh

I wnt to join other distillery for more experience, my profile is:
I hv good working knowledge of ETP& RO(2yrs), DISTILLATIO PLANT(1 yrs) in LORDS DISTILLERY LTD ( A MODI GROUP DISTILLERY).
I hopeful for ur reply.
Thank you.

22 06 2011


16 01 2013

Thanks for sharing your thoughts about drug and alcohol
treatment programs. Regards

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