To be a woman in the Chicago culinary world means you must stand your ground, and represent your brand, every step of the way. For Sonat Birnecker-Hart, getting to be a part of one of “the most vibrant culinary scenes in the world” makes that an easy task. Partnering with her husband as the President and Co-Founder of KOVAL Distillery, Sonat has brought the first distillery to Chicago since the mid-1800s, and she’s sharing that story with us.
YOU MADE A BIG LEAP WHEN STARTING KOVAL. TELL US HOW THAT CAME ABOUT.
After receiving an MSt from Oxford and a PhD from the University of London, I spent over a decade teaching and lecturing in the United States and Germany. There came a point in my life that I asked myself: Do I want to buy a house and settle down in a city that did not feel like my true home, or should I give up my career to be where I wanted to be?
I thought about the prospect of giving it all up to start something of my own, and after many late night conversations my husband and I decided to go for it! In 2008, I gave up tenure to find a different quality of life — one that would afford me an opportunity to work with my husband, Robert, and move to Chicago, the city I love. We then set up KOVAL, the first distillery in Chicago since the mid-1800s and that has made all the difference.
WHAT ATTRACTED YOU SPECIFICALLY TO SPIRITS?
Robert [her husband] comes from three generations of distillers and grew up distilling. It was an industry we knew and understood. After researching what it took to start a distillery, we decided that we were no longer daunted by the idea and we were ready to give up everything to make a run for our dreams.
WHY IS USING ORGANIC MATERIALS SO IMPORTANT TO YOUR PROCESS?
Organic is important to us because it is an expression of our commitment to sustainable agriculture. Maintaining an organic certification is also about accountability. We can trace back each bottle to where the grain was grown.
The entire process for our whiskey (and every product we create) is monitored from start to finish. Unlike some distillers who purchase or bottle pre-made spirits, KOVAL makes its organic spirits from scratch. The grain is certified organic and sourced from the Midwest Organic Farmers Cooperative. The water is from Lake Michigan using a natural charcoal purification method. All our products are certified Kosher by the oldest and most trusted certification body and Organic by the Midwest Organic Services Association.
WHY IS HAVING BEAUTIFUL BRANDING IMPORTANT IN RETAIL?
All of the designs are created by Dando Projects; they get it…and us. It’s important to have a design that expresses the same thoughtfulness that’s put into the product itself but I am all for bring more beauty into this world any way possible.
HOW HAVE YOUR GROWN YOUR BUSINESS INTO SUCH A FORCE?
We have a great overview of what is going on in the industry, which certainly helps. Soon after starting KOVAL, my husband and I also started a consulting company for distilling called Kothe Distilling Technologies. Through Kothe, we have educated over 3,500 in the art of distilling and how to start a distillery. Moreover, we have set up over 150 distilleries from scratch for others in the US and Canada. This has not only been a beneficial vertical business model, it has also provided us with constant opportunities to problem solve, and quite frankly, live and breathe the industry. This has made us very efficient.
WHAT’S THE BEST PART OF YOUR JOB?
There are numerous “best parts” to my job. I am doing something that I love with people I love, in the city I love most in the world: Chicago. That is already quite good. But there is more: as a woman, and more to the point, a mother of two boys, starting KOVAL afforded me the freedom to be a mother in the workplace. […] It has allowed me to adjust how I do my work and even where, which has made it possible to home school them and work on the go as I take them to their classes and do my work from various educational venues around Chicago.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE SPIRIT ON THE ROSTER?
This is a tricky question. I think that spirits are like perfume. They help mark occasions and add to the mood. I find that I tend to order less for what I am eating and more for what I am thinking.
Am I up for my evening to extend wildly after the kids get to bed? Cocktails, and likely two! Do I want to discuss business strategy with Robert? Whiskey on ice. If I am chatting with friends at home after a nice dinner and it is late but no one is ready to leave, the vestiges of the meal around the kitchen and plates piled in the sink, the last crumbs of dessert on the table? Liqueurs all around for sure.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE INCREASING PRESENCE OF WOMEN IN THE FOOD INDUSTRY?
I think that women have been there all along; they just did not always get the recognition they are getting today. Women have been involved in spirits since the beginning…the very beginning: after all the first pot still was invented by a Jewish woman in ancient Egypt. I am all for more women being involved in this industry, as with all industries; and I am happy to see that it is happening.