Move over craft beer. A harder form of craft liquor is mixing things up on the local bar scene. As WGN’s Nancy Loo reports in tonight’s Cover Story, there’s a major Illinois boom in craft distilling, because a growing number of local connoisseurs are drinking it up.
“How’s this looking? This is looking ready to distill.” Architect Jose Hernandez and Golf Pro Fred Robinson are not moonlighting in moonshine. The three types of liquor they produce from the state’s newest craft distillery in suburban Lake Zurich, are carefully concocted with premium ingredients. Copper Fiddle distillery opened just a few months ago. “It’s all done by hand and people appreciate it, because our business model is different, our business model is to be hyper local,” says Hernandezl. Co-owner Robinson adds, “We think we’re where microbreweries were back in the late 70’s early 80’s.” The Illinois Craft Distillers Association says there were just five companies in the entire state doing this just two years ago. Now, there are over 25. And, like Copper Fiddle, the majority opened within the past year. It’s because there are simply more discerning drinkers willing to pay more for bourbons, gins, and vodkas. Forty to sixty dollars a bottle is pretty common “The demand for it is at an all-time high,” says liquor industry expert Brian Rosen. “And really at this point, there seems to be no ceiling to that.” He says more and more drinkers are learning to appreciate a higher end product that is hand crafted. And there’s a certain cache in consuming a craft cocktail made with one-of-a-kind formulas that can include citrus, chili peppers, and chocolates. “It’s a designer drink. You can very easily buy a commoditized spirit anywhere. But artisanal spirits are at your boutique retailers and they’re special.” It was North Shore distiller in Lake Bluff that got the Illinois craft distilling rolling a decade ago. Steady growth has allowed master distiller Derek Kassebaum to quit his day job. “The idea of having something on the shelf that I actually made was really appealing. And I have a chemical engineering degree. So, I understand what distilling was.” Kassebaum operates North Shore with his wife Sonja, a self-confessed cocktail nerd. The attention to detail at North Shore includes personally signed and numbered bottles. They welcome the state’s newest distillers since each produce uniquely tailored products. “You don’t mind the competition?” “No. The more people know about craft spirits, the better off we are.” “The better the product, the better the end result,” says bartender Whitney Morrow. She is often seen pouring locally distilled spirits at Chicago’s trendy rooftop watering hole, Drumbar. Mixologists confirm a growing buzz among consumers, who aren’t necessarily drink snobs. “We like to call them enthusiasts. It’s just creating more awareness, more education across the board. So, the more people that are jumping on board and trying new things, the better.” Back in the northern suburbs, things are getting better every day at Copper Fiddle. It has the guys distilling more bottles, and clearly in good spirits. “It’s really unbelievable,” says Jose Hernandez. “From the day we opened, we’ve been in the black. We literally see the traffic going up every week and you can’t ask for anything more than that.” “Cheers- Cheers to you.” In Lake Zurich, Nancy Loo, WGN News.”
Some believe the industry may be growing too fast. But as with most things, the good ones will last and the not-so-good will fade away. You can share this story and find our craft distilleries by clicking these links.
Producer Pam Grimes, and Photojournalists Steve Scheuer and Marty Nutley contributed to this report.