Paul Hletko

FEW Spirits


Paul Hletko is the founder and distiller of FEW Spirits in Evanston.

Are you originally from Chicago?

I was born in Chicago and grew up in Michigan, about halfway between here and Detroit, outside of a small town called Kalamazoo. I moved back to Chicago in ‘93. I went to Loyola, I’ve lived in Chicago more of my life than anywhere else, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Cubs fan.

What motivated you to open the FEW distillery?

First off was the opportunity to create. I was a homebrewer for twenty-plus years, and always liked to create things. FEW is certainly an act of art as well as technology. At the same time, back in the day my grandfather’s family owned a major brewery in what is now the Czech Republic. The Nazis invaded, took the brewery away, and although my grandfather survived in the camps the rest of the family was wiped out.

After the war he never got the brewery back, and when he died it really struck me that if I didn’t do something about that family legacy it was gonna be gone forever. So I was able to combine the passion for creation, love of family, and intense personal motivation to build and create FEW.

Given your history, why did you decide to open a distillery instead of a brewery?

Realistically, at this point there’s a lot of really good beer on the market already, and I didn’t want to stand in the shadow of a major multinational brewery. I wanted to try and do something that was mine rather than somebody else’s. Doing beer didn’t really make sense to me, somebody else has already done that.

What was the transition between brewing and distilling like?

Certainly the first part is very similar, if you can mash and ferment for beer you can mash and ferment for spirits. But the recipes are totally different and the techniques are totally different. There’s a lot of folks that get confused by that, but making liquor is extremely difficult and very dangerous. I’d be slow to recommend to anybody that they should try it. Aside from the fact that making liquor at home is a felony, you’re gonna blow your stuff up and injure yourself. Do not make liquor at home.

Why did you decide to incorporate imagery from the 1893 World’s Fair in your packaging?

We’re really proud of being from Chicago. And so by using the World’s Fair imagery it’s our kind way of saying “Hey Chicago” without beating you over the head with it. You can look at the labels and you don’t have to understand that it’s a Chicago image to like the image. But folks from Chicago pretty quickly recognize that. It’s our way of giving everybody a little bit of respect, you can be intelligent enough where you either know it or learn about it, and I think that’s kind of cool.

It’s also a way to help tie FEW not just to Chicago but also to Evanston. Evanston was originally the home of the Prohibition movement. It was founded as a dry town. I’ve got a long spiel on that--- but the end result is that when we fired up the stills for the first time it was the first alcohol ever made in Evanston. Legally, at least. [laughs] It’s an important distinction.

One of the really famous residents of Evanston was a woman named Francis Elizabeth Willard. She was probably the most famous woman in the United States, and possibly the world, at the time. She was one of the featured speakers at the 1893 World’s Fair. Using the World’s Fair iconography is a way to tie us all together to where we’re from, and illustrate what we’re all about. It’s got Evanston, it’s got Chicago.

The iconography is also similar to playing cards and I love playing poker. Everything ties in together as a unified whole, the same way we take a great deal of care in trying to make sure our products are top notch and world-class. The products are a unified whole, balanced, and appealing--- we wanted to make sure the packaging received that same level of care.

You couldn’t buy a drink in Evanston until the 1970s, right?

Yeah. It was the early seventies. Evanston was dry until Holiday Inn came to town. They wanted to build a hotel with a bar and the city said, “No, we don’t have bars in town.” So Holiday Inn threatened to build the hotel in Skokie instead. They ended up coming to an agreement that the city would treat the hotel as your second home for the night, since you could have alcohol in your home at that time.

They could sell you your beer so long as you had a full meal. They wanted to make sure it stayed in check, so it was primarily a restaurant not a bar. Holiday Inn said that was fine, and they moved their plate of French fries off the side dish menu and onto the entrée menu so that if you wanted to get a second drink all you had to do was order some French fries and you were good to go.

But I live two blocks from here, and so when I opened the distillery I wanted to put it in my home, not somewhere else.

So you decided to open the distillery in Evanston knowing the legal hurdles involved?

Absolutely. My kids go to school two blocks from here, I live two blocks from here. I’m starting a business and I want to put it in the community where I live and where I participate. I was the vice-president of the PTA, on the board of the Chamber of Commerce, I coached tee-ball--- or I used to when my kids were small. I coach AYSO soccer. I’m part of the community, and there’s no reason to take my business and put it somewhere else. It’s just a coincidence that Evanston happens to be the home of Prohibition. It led to some challenges in opening, but I’ve got some friends and the city’s been fantastic to work with from day one.

Was the legal challenge something you enjoyed dealing with?

Yeah, there’s always adventures, it keeps something interesting. You know, if it was easy everybody would do it. The fact that something’s hard isn’t necessarily bad, it just means that no one else is gonna be able to do it, because a lot of folks like things easy.

Do you see the Chicago distilling industry continuing to grow?

The state of Illinois is an extraordinarily difficult place to do business as an alcohol manufacturer, so the future of Illinois spirits is probably challenging at best, and most likely tenuous. There are a lot of other states out there that are quite a bit more welcoming of entrepreneurs and business in general.

FEW sponsors the digital publication In Good Spirits. How did that collaboration develop?

We’ve been good friends with those guys and they’ve been strong supporters of ours. We’re all on that same wavelength: trying to get more substance into the art of spirits and cocktails. Those guys have a whole bunch of stuff they’re always working on, and we’re working on stuff, and they tend to overlap a little bit. It’s been a really nice partnership between us as well as them.

They’ve got their awesome space in downtown Los Angeles, and last year we brought a whole bunch of bar staff from all over LA there for an event. Being part of this drinks community is great because it combines a lot of folks who have a passion for art. You get everybody in the same room and cool stuff happens.

You’re a lawyer, an engineer, a musician, and a distiller. Where does all that creative energy come from?

I’ve always liked being a creative person. What gets me excited is trying to do something that’s new and different. We’ve all got our own personal defects, one of my defects-slash-advantages is raging ADD. I’m always flitting back and forth, and I’ve got a varied background. I’ve done all sorts of stuff in my life, ranging from being a pro guitar player to running a record label, but at the end of the day I like to create and make things. That’s what gets me up out of bed: the opportunity to make stuff. I don’t like pushing paper. I’m lucky in that I get to structure a lot of what I do to play to my strengths.

How do you reconcile your restless creativity with making a product that often needs to sit and age for years at a time?

There’s always a challenge there. That’s another reason why I think we end up making a lot of different gins. It’s a way to give an outlet to the strong desire to create new things. We just released a product called Breakfast Gin in the last week. It’s a way to capitalize on our strengths for creativity while continuing to put product down for some ageing.

The Breakfast Gin is not actually my recipe, it was one of our distillers Steven Kaplan’s recipe. The concept there was a reaction to everybody thinking that gin’s just a breakfast drink. Everybody thinks the only time of day you can drink gin is breakfast. So we decided to make fun of that and bring out a gin that’s just for breakfast. The spirit itself is delicious, it’s got a lot of juniper and Earl Grey tea, a little bit of citrus. It’s a very bright gin and fantastic first thing in the morning with your cup of tea.

Where do you source your ingredients?

We get as close to home as possible. Some of the ingredients we use we actually grow ourselves, right outside the front door here. One of the ingredients in our American Gin is Cascade hops, and when you walked in here you walked right by the hop yard. Stuff we can’t grow ourselves we buy from friends, if we know someone that’s growing something we’ll buy it from them, after that we go as close to home as we can.

We’re always looking for the finest-quality ingredients and so quality takes a priority over distance, but we are located in the American Midwest so finding quality grains close to home is not super challenging. There’s plenty of good-quality grain grown within a couple hundred miles of here.

How did you reconcile your creative vision for the distillery with the realities of running a small business?

With anything you want to do there’s always challenges. The spirits business perhaps has more challenges than others, but that’s how it goes. All of our products start off as a concept: what do we want it to taste like? What do we want to put in our mouths? Everything that we do is based on the spirit in the glass at the end rather than up front. We work backwards, using the science to create the art. Start off with what you want it to look like, and then design and build everything up to that. Make it taste right.

We’re lucky: at this point it’s no longer just me, we’ve got really an amazing team. People tend to focus on me because I’m the founder and what have you, but FEW is not Paul, FEW is the team. I’m really lucky that I get to divine and create that, but it’s a team effort.

Do you hope that this becomes a family institution?

I don’t have any expectation of that, I’d rather it be a family inspiration than a family institution. I want my kids to recognize that they should chase whatever it is that they want, whatever it takes. To love what you want to do. To me, being a good parent is partially illustrating what you want your kids to do: if you go to work every day and you’re unhappy, going to sit and push paper for ten hours… maybe instead I can illustrate for my kids: chase something, do something positive. Whatever you do, do it because you want to do it, and because you get excited in the morning. Not because somebody’s gonna give you some green pieces of paper to do it.

My oldest is twelve. They’re all pretty embarrassed by me because they think it smells bad in here. They don’t understand what it is about alcohol, they’re very confused because it’s gross and it smells bad but all their friend’s parents just think I’m so cool. [laughs] A lot of people grow up and alcohol is this big forbidden fruit, but there’s so much alcohol around me. It’s so ubiquitous, I don’t think that they care. [laughs] My daughter approached me about a month ago and said that she thought we had too much alcohol in the house, because she’s going to start high school soon. Lovely. [laughs] Time to get a locked room.

FEW Spirits

FEW Spirits

918 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, Illinois 60202


Interviewed by Vincent Labriola

Photos by Vincent Labriola