Tremaine Atkinson

CH Distillery


Tremaine Atkinson is the co-founder and distiller at CH Distillery in the West Loop.

How did you end up in this line of work?

I’m a brewer originally, from way back, and so I’ve always loved beer making. I started brewing beer in San Francisco, back in the early 90’s, when the whole microbrew, craft brew revolution really was starting off. I was an amateur part of that, and a huge fan of beer, so I learned a lot about fermentation, just experimenting with different things, and then started distilling at home--- I probably shouldn’t say that, that’s not allowed [laughs]--- doing a little experimental distillation and that really lead to a hunger to build a distillery.

It was a natural progression, because the first part of making all of our spirits involves making a beer of sorts, and then we distill that in order to produce vodka, or rum, or whiskey, or whatever we’re making. And I really like distillation from the science standpoint, I’m a huge vodka fanatic, so yeah, I had to make vodka.

CH Distillery occupies an interesting place in the Chicago food and beverage landscape.

We are all about making vodka from local ingredients, so we make vodka from wheat and rye that’s grown in Illinois, we’re the only ones doing that here in the city. We make a whole bunch of other spirits, and we have a cocktail bar, so there’s a complete grain to cocktail glass experience here at the distillery. From a spirits standpoint we’re very much about experimentation, local collaboration, and using local ingredients.

How would you describe your distilling philosophy?

There are a lot of winemakers out there, for example, who believe in the ethos of letting the grape make the wine, staying out of the way of it, and we have a similar approach with making spirits. For example, when we got our hands on a thousand pounds of chestnut flour this summer, nobody had ever made a spirit from chestnuts before, just pure chestnuts. We fermented them, we tasted them, and then we just let that underlying flavor of the chestnuts come through in the final product.

We’ve also done similar things with fruit. At the end of this summer, we got cherries from Michigan, we got peaches, plums, pears, and we fermented all of those. Distillation is all about concentrating flavors. If we can get our hands on something that is either fermentable or is already alcohol we can do something with it, so the trick is to be able to source some starch or sugar that is the right quantity, and economically reasonable to do.

Can you explain the distillation process in more detail?

We start with whole wheat and whole rye, in seed form. There are starches locked up in those grains, so the first thing we do is convert the starches to sugars, basically the same process that beer brewers use, it’s called mashing. It involves crushing the grains and then heating them, and that converts the starches into sugars, and you want sugars because you need something to feed to yeast; yeast eats sugar and makes alcohol.

So we mash the grains until we get a nice sugary porridge, and then we cool it down and add yeast and ferment for about four days. And we end up with a beer of sorts, a wheat and rye beer, the big difference is that we ferment on the grain, so the grain is still part of that beer, then once we have the beer, the wheat rye beer, it’s about 10% alcohol, then essentially everything else from there is distillation, which is the process of separating one liquid from another.

So in this case we’re going to separate the 10% alcohol from the 90% everything else, mostly water, and that’s what a still does. We’re going to take out the 10% alcohol first, and then we’re going to further refine that so we only get the very best flavored alcohols out of there, which is primarily ethanol. We also leave in some beautiful sort of soft, fruity esters, they give our vodka a little bit of character, but essentially what we’re doing is making alcohol from the grain and then extracting out just the best parts of that alcohol.

What has been the most rewarding part of the experience so far?

Bringing our local grains to life. There are a lot of vodkas out there that are made from industrial ethanol, the big brands are made from industrial ethanol, the same ethanol that goes in your fuel tank, it’s just diluted in water and ends up in your glass. We wanted to make something that is entirely different from that, a truly handmade from scratch vodka, that expresses our local character. It’s incredibly rewarding to bring in just raw grain and end up with a glass of delicious vodka.

And all your raw grain comes from Illinois?

Kane County, so just fifty miles west of here, we know the farmers. You can’t get more local than that.

How did those relationships develop?

We just started searching around for farmers who were producing the type of wheat and rye we were interested in, and who could also deliver enough in the right format for us to be able to process it. Because we’re dealing with two-thousand pounds of grain at a time, it will turn into about fifty cases of vodka. So it takes a lot of grain to make a little vodka.

You mentioned local collaboration earlier; why is that worth your time?

Really, the best reason to do a collaboration is to get to work with interesting people. And usually when you work with interesting people you know, good things happen. So we’ve done collaborations with a couple of restaurants, where we’ve developed custom spirits for them for their cocktail program. For example, we also worked with Charles Joly, making a custom gin for his line of bottled cocktails called Crafthouse. And it’s a real pleasure to work with people who are at the top of their craft or of their field.

When it came to Ale Syndicate, being an old brewer myself I was fascinated by the idea of taking a beer and distilling it, a few people have done that but you don’t see it a lot, and as soon as I tasted their beer I knew it was going to be the right kind of profile because they’re straightforward beers, they’re not overly hopped but they have a really nice balance of flavors. I could sort of imagine what the spirit might taste like. And they’re just great people, we love getting to know them. They got so excited about the idea of doing something together that it just became a complete natural to do it.

Are there ever opportunities to collaborate with people in other disciplines?

We made a special vodka which we call “Center 100”. It’s the heart of the distillation run, so it’s super rich and super smooth, it’s the best possible vodka you could make. We can only get a little bit out of a big batch, because once you take out the center, then the rest of it falls out of balance. So it’s super premium. And it’s a hundred-proof instead of our normal eighty-proof.

So that’s the vodka that’s inside and we’re like, “We have a really small quantity, let’s do something cool with the packaging.” So we asked ten Chicago artists to take twenty of the bottles each and hand-decorate them. They could do anything they wanted to them. And when we sell them a big portion of the proceeds go to a charity called Un86’d, which helps restaurant industry people when they have health problems and they don’t have health insurance. A hundred and fifty bucks a piece, the idea is you get a beautiful piece of art, and you get this amazing vodka, and it raises money for charity.

Why is your audience in Chicago so receptive to the spirits you make?

I think there’s a lot of interest in knowing where the drinks that you’re drinking or the food that you’re eating, where those things came from; who made them, from what ingredients, and how they are made. So we get a really strong reaction from people who love the idea that we’re showing them literally where everything is made, and we tell everyone exactly how we do it. So we get people who really are interested in the process part as well as just the taste and flavor components of it.

Last question: what does the CH stand for?

Carbon and hydrogen. From the molecular formula for alcohol.

CH Distillery

CH Distillery

564 West Randolph Street
Chicago, Illinois 60661


Interviewed by Vincent Labriola

Photos by Kelly Leahy and Arturo Valle

Colored by Peilin Tan