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In Good Spirits with Vodka Cocktails

Vodka varietals inspire cocktails across Chicagoland

It may be clear in color and often labeled as “plain” and “flavorless,” though vodka is anything but—particularly when it’s made in small batches at a local distiller. And while this versatile spirit seems to be the perfect canvas for any cocktail, it’s only lately returned to the spotlight.

According to Beverage Dynamics, a publication that tracks trends in spirits of all stripes, imported vodka was practically the only “premium” version of the spirit for decades. But the resurgence of craft brewing and distilling in the U.S. has turned that on its head; now, regions, cities, and even neighborhoods boast their own craft labels—with vodka front and center.

Photo via CH Distillery

THE MASTER DISTILLERS

Marketing Director, Ali Schwartz of CH Distillery {564 West Randolph Street; 312.707.8780}

What is the provenance of CH Distillery?

CH Distillery was founded in Chicago five years ago by Tremaine Atkinson (Co-Founder and Head Distiller) and Mark Lucas (Co-Founder and Managing Sales Director). The two set out to make only vodka from local organic Illinois grain from scratch, but Tremaine and Mark love more than just vodka, and decided to build a portfolio that today includes over 20 products. Opening in August 2013 in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, CH Distillery remains the city’s only working distillery, bar, and restaurant. The name CH refers to the great city of Chicago and the fundamental compounds in alcohol—Carbon and Hydrogen.

Photo via CH Distillery

What makes your vodka stand out from the crowd?

CH sources its grains 50 miles west of Chicago in Kane County (Kaneville Seed) and its vodka is the only certified organic vodka made from Illinois grain. CH Vodka has notes of vanilla and pepper on the nose, a delicate sweetness from the winter wheat on the palate, and a finish of pepper and rye. People who taste it for the first time are pleasantly surprised at how approachable the spirit is. What makes CH stand out is that we make all of our products from scratch from only the best ingredients. Turns out they also taste great and make an affordable product.

Photo via Koval Distillery

Co-Founder/Owner, Sonat Birnecker of KOVAL {5121 North Ravenswood Avenue; 312.878.7988}

What is the provenance of KOVAL?

My great-grandfather earned Koval as his nickname when he emigrated from Vienna to Chicago in the early 1900s to start a business. In Yiddish, it means “blacksmith” but also someone who forges ahead or does something out of the ordinary. We chose the name KOVAL because it captured the spirit of what we were doing, while also serving as an homage to Robert’s grandfather, whose family name is “blacksmith” in German. KOVAL began as a means for Robert and me to honor the distilling traditions of his family (he comes from three generations of distillers), while also affording us an opportunity to work together, live in the city we love, and create something of which we could be proud—Chicago’s first distillery since the mid-1800s. We are now one of the largest artisan independent distilleries in the U.S., our products have won over 50 international awards, and this year, KOVAL was named Illinois Exporter of the Year and Robert and I were named Small Business Person(s) of the Year for Illinois.

Photo via Koval Distillery

What makes your vodka unique?

It’s made from 100-percent rye and triple-filtered. The grain is sourced from local farmers and milled onsite for a complete grain-to-bottle product. As they used to say in Russia: “Rye is for the Czars.” It is also certified Kosher–L’Chiam! It has an award-winning label, is made grain-to-bottle onsite in Chicago using local organic grain, and is tasty! The label, quite literally, says it all.

Photo via Kit Kat Lounge & Supper Club

Co-Founder/Owner, Edward Gisiger of Kit Kat Club Vodka {3700 North Halsted Street; 773.525.1111}

What is the provenance Kit Kat Club Vodka?

Our house label vodka is Kit Kat Club—and it’s world class. This label is produced exclusively for us by a local award-winning distillery.

What makes your vodka stand out from the crowd?

Our vodka is produced by CelloVia, Inc., a local family-operated facility that has been handcrafting high-end citrus liqueurs from all-natural ingredients under their own label since 2011. In CelloVia’s first official month of operation, Beverage Testing Institute (BTI) awarded their initial three products a Silver Medal with ratings ranging from 87 to 89. In 2015, Wine Enthusiast rated their entire product line and awarded each of the flavors a Gold Medal.

Photo via Carnivale

WHERE TO DRINK

Carnivale {702 West Fulton Street; 312.850.5005}

Carnivale’s bar program rotates monthly to include special themes and seasonal craft cocktails with the goal of the vibrant restaurant’s program being to showcase creativity through signature cocktails like their Cotton Candy Martini and crafty Carnivale concoctions like the Vesper or Side Car. The bar is stocked with a variety of vodkas (from Ketel One to Tito’s, Grey Goose, Stoli, and more), but the signature spirit is its Carnivale Vodka made right here in Chicago.

Photo via Siena Tavern

Siena Tavern {51 West Kinzie Street; 312.595.1322}

With an unfailing “from scratch” ethos dominating both the kitchen and the bar at Siena Tavern, it’s little wonder that their cocktail program shines. Ten spin-off cocktails don the beverage menu, all of which are based on classics. Italian ingredients serve as the inspiration for most, with delectable Prosecco, Campari, and amaro frequently showcased. And the “names” are as inventive as the cocktails—each is given a number for a name, and numbers are never repeated. And while vodka appears in several, it does so with several jiggers of uniqueness. Case in point: The recently added No. 29, blending Belvedere vodka, Prosecco, grapefruit, lemon, mint, and strawberry.

Presidio {1749 North Damen Avenue; 773.697.3315}

The bar program at Presidio centers around ideas of The Bay and California, so there’s an emphasis on agave, pisco, and Fernet—but there’s plenty of room for vodka, too. From bubbly, hibiscus-focused cocktails; to pear-infused, citrus cocktails; to a recent vodka, passionfruit, and Sherry cocktail; and finally. a chicory-infused, vodka-based Vietnamese coffee brunch cocktail, Presidio is always looking for a way to creatively infuse vodka into its seasonally focused cocktail menu.

By Rebecca Taras