At a glance, it’d be easy to assume that the folks at FEW Spirits take their whiskey very, very seriously. The Evanston, Illinois distillery produces every ounce of their product in-house, and their efforts have paid off with plenty of awards and critical acclaim. It’s everything the craft spirits movement trumpets: local, small-batch, made by hand and crafted with care. But spend an hour or so with founder Paul Hletko, and you’ll come to realize that while FEW is serious about their spirits, they never take themselves too seriously. (Their deep-dish pizza whiskey offers sufficient proof… but more on that later.)
In the midst of all the smoke and mirrors surrounding so-called “handcrafted” whiskies, FEW proudly asserts itself as the genuine article. “We’re proud of what we do, and we don’t worry so much about what other people do,” says Paul. “We don’t source any liquid, we don’t even buy a neutral grain spirit for our gin… we actually make our own gin base, which is effectively unheard of and financially irresponsible,” he adds with a laugh. “If we sourced our whiskey, our cost per bottle would drop by three quarters, if not more. On our gin, if we sourced our grain neutral spirit, our cost per bottle would drop roughly 90-95%,” he says. In short: these guys are more about the scenic route than taking shortcuts.
Luckily, FEW’s customers get it. “The consumer today wants to acknowledge that they’re not simply a consumer,” Paul says. “You’re not just a cog in the machine, or a number. People enjoy the fact that they’re supporting a small business, that it’s an authentic business, that there’s someone on the other end who’s dedicated their life to creating this – that matters to a lot of people.”
As for the people on the other end, FEW employs a team of 14, and while they work hard crafting top-notch spirits, they aren’t afraid to have a little fun with it from time to time. Paul tells us that everyone at FEW’s distillery is tasked with inventing new recipes each year, and they don’t necessarily have to be groundbreakingly great. “It’s expected that half of your creations will suck, for lack of a better word, so you don’t end up being stressed out about whether it’s going to be good or not,” Paul explains, adding that the “experiments” are, in a way, the whole reason they’re all showing up to work each day. “Everyone gets to create, because that’s actually why we’re here,” he says. “We’re not asking how many cases you’d be able to sell, or what the focus group is going to say, or whether we’ll be able to get penetration in a particular market or how it’d look to a key influencer demographic. The success of the experiments is not measured on quality of the product.” Case in point: one recent experiment that involved suspending a Chicago deep-dish pizza over the whiskey still, pechuga-style. But… why? “Liquor is supposed to be fun,” Paul says. Perhaps he’s stating the obvious, but these days, it’s a truth that seems easy to forget.
Of course, every now and then, one of those just-for-fun experiments does lead to a true eureka moment. The most recent example? Breakfast Gin. With bergamot at the front and center of the gin’s botanicals, FEW’s Breakfast Gin was something that started as a joke and took off, to the surprise of everyone at the distillery. “We originally did it for shits and giggles,” Paul says. “We thought it’d be really fun to sell a product called Breakfast Gin, but we didn’t think anyone would actually want to buy a product called Breakfast Gin. We were a little wrong on that.” After a distillery-only release, word began to spread—and the phones began to ring, with FEW’s distributors asking how they could get the stuff into their markets ASAP. What started as little more than distillery horseplay soon turned into a legitimate product (which will hopefully roll out to select markets over the course of the next few months).
Whether Breakfast Gin is an overnight smash hit or not, Paul seems pretty content with his station in life. “We’re pretty lucky,” he says. “There’s nothing else I want to do other than make whiskey and gin. That’s what I like to do. And I get to have a life that’s pretty fun. Hopefully that rubs off a little bit as part of the experience that our consumers have – hopefully they can taste it and be a part of that passion.”