Rare is the professor who, deeply entrenched in academia, decides to give it all up for a career in distilling. In fact, there are only two well-known examples, and they are the professors-turned-master distillers behind Koval, who provide a lineup of award-winning whiskeys and gin from Chicago. Tulsa-based brokerage Artisan Fine Wine and Spirits brought the brand to Oklahoma, and it became available for sale in April.
Dr. Robert Birnecker and Dr. Sonat Birnecker-Hart—husband and wife—named their distillery in honor of a great-grandfather on her side and a grandfather on his. The word has various meanings, but in Yiddish, according to Sonat (pronounced like sonnet), it means "black sheep" or "one who forges her own path." She is a fourth-generation distiller from an Austrian family famous for brandy and wine, and she came to distilling when she just was becoming a new mother.
"I was the Walter Benjamin professor of German-Jewish History at Humboldt University when we first had the idea to own a distillery," Sonat said. "My Ph.D. is in German, and I taught just about anything having to do with German culture, including the history of cabaret, fashion, German-Jewish history, development of ready-to-wear clothing and how it revolutionized women in the workplace—and I was an international expert on German-Austrian coffee house society."
There is a story in the Bible about a guy who’s given ten talents while two other guys get five and one. The talents are really coins in the biblical context, but it’s a portable idea; some people just get more talents than others. The biblical story is a morality lesson about doing the best with what we have; this couple’s story is a humbling lesson in maximizing drive and potential.
The idea of the distillery came about during a family conversation: Robert was explaining the process of making great brandy, and a family member simply asked why the couple didn’t do it, too. Chicago wasn’t exactly friendly with distillery laws, so Sonat said they enlisted the help of an alderman and a state senator, who helped them get the laws changed.
Those efforts are indirectly behind the products now offered here, as well. Artisan represented another Illinois distillery, Few, whose owner was a protégé of the Birneckers before beginning his distillery. Sonat said she and her husband have trained approximately 3,500 people in the art of setting up and running a distillery. So far, Koval has launched 175 distilleries on three continents. Few is only one of them.
Tracia Forrest, the owner of Artisan, said they started researching Koval right after Few was purchased by a large national distributor.
"We reached out about the possibility of partnering in Oklahoma with Artisan," Forrest said, "and Sonat actually called me back and took the time to find out who we are and our philosophy. She then sent us some samples, and we were sold. Sonat understood our concerns about building a brand in Oklahoma only to have it suddenly leave us for the big corporate guys."
The brand is, in fact, easy to love. Their list of awards would take a couple of columns, and it doesn’t seem to matter what they make—it’s always stellar. Take their gin, for example, a double-gold-medal winner at the 2015 San Francisco World Spirits competition. Both Sonat and Robert hate gin, but they decided to make one.
"It was a challenge," Sonat said. "Robert and I do like various botanical spirits, but a lot of gins are made with ‘tail’ flavors to them, so we wanted to make something incredibly clean and bright, something you can drink neat at room temperature."
The success of the dry gin, like the whiskeys, relies on what Sonat insists is a new school of distilling, which she and Robert pioneered. The school is really a methodology based on the "hearts versus tails" philosophy that is the core of Koval’s distillation method.
Without diving deep in booze chemistry, here are the basics: The distillation process produces three kinds of distillate, referred to as head, heart, and tail. The head is the first part produced, and it’s the only one that contains methyl alcohol, which, as Sonat points out, can cause blindness or even death. The process of removing it is called rectification, and it must be thorough. The heart is the best of the distillate, and it’s what brandy producers like the Birneckers use for distillation.
"In Austria, when Robert’s family submits brandy for a competition, if the judges detect any tail notes, it’s considered a flaw in the brandy," Sonat said. "Most big-batch whiskey distillers put hearts and tails in a barrel to soften the tail notes, which include vinegar and the smell and taste of wet dog."
When Sonat and Robert started Koval, they agreed that they would make all their whiskey using only the hearts, and that commitment has led to the production of multiple-award-winning whiskeys that are smooth, bright, balanced, and approachable. Some of the quality and distinctiveness are also related to how Koval approaches the grains.
"We have two distillation philosophies that distinguished us in the beginning, and they are part of the classes we teach now," Sonat said. "Use the best ingredients, sourced as locally as possible, and provide traceability of those ingredients. Second,
give grain the same respect that fruit gets."
In other words, craft products that allow the natural variations in the flavors and terroir of grain to speak for itself. Koval’s bourbon is still an anomaly in this respect. Most bourbon manufacturers include the requisite 51 percent corn the style requires, but they then use rye or wheat or a combination for the remainder. Sonat and Robert tasted several different grain combinations and opted for 51 percent corn and 49 percent millet.
"We wanted to create a bourbon that pushed the envelope," Sonat said. "Bourbon is a polarizing spirit. Some love it; some don’t. And then bourbon drinkers argue about style and mash. We wanted a new flavor profile, one that appealed to new bourbon drinkers."
The experiment worked. Koval bourbon has all the fruit, caramel, and tobacco you expect from bourbon, but there is a soft, spicy note that runs through it as well—that’s the millet. The profile is hard to describe because it’s unique, so there is no opportunity for "this tastes like that," but it is delicious and remarkably balanced. The Four Grain might be the best thing in the line: creamy, spicy, tropical, and incredibly smooth.
Koval makes liqueurs and rum, as well, and the couple continues to teach classes. Sonat said they don’t worry about training people who become their competitors.
"Robert says that everyone at the Indy 500 has a fast car, but not everyone wins."
She is phlegmatic about this, as she is about being a female distiller in a world dominated by men. Her professorial side surges to the fore here.
"That’s a post-Prohibition idea," she said. "I see myself as part of an ancient tradition of female distillers. Historically, it was women who brewed beer, made wine, and distilled spirits. I like to think I’m reviving that tradition and passing it on."
WHERE TO FIND KOVAL
Old Village Wine & Spirits
1327 E. 41st St.
Ranch Acres Wine & Spirits
3324 E. 31st St.
122 N. Boston Ave.
Bull in the Alley
11 E. M.B. Brady St., in the alley
Nola’s Creole & Cocktails
1334 E. 15th St.