FEW: A Spirited Jolt to Prohibition


Formerly home to the vehement Temperance Movement of the 1900s, Evanston now serves as the headquarters of FEW Spirits, a remarkable distillery founded by Paul Hletko in 2008. Tucked in a passageway off of Chicago Avenue, the distillery specializes in handcrafted, small-batched spirits, including rye whiskey, bourbon, and American and barrel gins.

Hletko moved to Chicago in 1993 and got involved in the city’s music scene. After a brief stint as manager of a house music record label, he played guitar in a rock band that received recognition from local outlets such as the Chicago Reader and WXRT-FM.

“I was always passionate about trying to create new things,” said Hletko.

FEW was also an endeavor in preserving family legacy; Before World War II, Hletko’s grandfather owned a successful brewery in what is now the Czech Republic. During the Nazi occupation, his brewery was destroyed and the family was deported to concentration camps. After surviving the war, Hletko’s grandfather attempted to restore his brewery business, but was unsuccessful.

“When he died I was inspired to try and recapture a little bit of that family history,” said Hletko. “And to try and rebuild what was once ours. I wanted to do something that was a little bit different, something that was positive, and I didn’t really want to be in beer.”

He focused on whiskeys and gins instead, taking advantage of the grains readily available in the region.“The bourbon and rye are our primary products now,” said Hletko. “What really sets the FEW bourbon apart is the cinnamon notes, and we use a relatively traditional high rye mash bill. … You get all the sweetness you want in bourbon but it’s really backed up by an awful lot of cinnamon and pepper spice.”

The rye whiskey also boasts a distinctive flavor thanks to a special wine yeast blend, and in 2013 Whiskey Advocate selected it as Craft Whiskey of the Year.

Hletko ensures the quality of his spirits by sourcing his ingredients locally.

“We get all of our grains and all of our ingredients as close to home as possible, and since we’re in the American Midwest, getting grains from nearby isn’t particularly difficult. … We use a little bit of cascade hops in one of our recipes, and we grow them right outside our front door. You won’t get much closer than that,” said Hletko.

Firmly committed to working with fellow small-business partners, Hletko eschews the standard practice of relying on large-scale industrial suppliers, making FEW a true farm-to-bottle distillery.

“We know a lot of our suppliers, we’re good friends with them,” said Hletko. “It’s easy to go out there and outsource things, but I wanted to have my hands in something. I do this to create, and I’m super motivated by the opportunity to create something.”

All of the distillery’s production takes place at their Evanston location, which is staffed by a team of 13 employees each working to ensure that every batch meets FEW standards.

“We taste every barrel to make sure that it tastes how we want it,” said Hletko. “When it does, then it’s ready for bottling.”

Each bottle of FEW spirits acknowledges the distillery’s heritage with a scene from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. From the world’s first Ferris wheel to Daniel Chester French's Statue of the Republic, the elegant paper labels spotlight images immediately recognizable by Chicagoans.

“It’s our way of saying ‘Chicago’ without using the word,” said Hletko. “A lot of people from Chicago get it instantly. But people around the world don’t necessarily get it, and they can just see it and just like the way it looks.”

FEW Spirits are currently sold in 18 states domestically and 25 countries worldwide. Their rye whiskey is on the bar at Artesian in London, which has been named World’s Best Bar for three consecutive years.

While streaming The Temptations on a Gramovox Bluetooth Gramophone we brought to the distillery, we asked Hletko how he usually enjoys FEW products.

“I’m currently still obsessed with the Negroni,” he said. “I like making them with either the barrel gin or the American gin. … It really all depends on my mood and where I’m at. If I’m at home at the end of a long day, I just pour myself a whiskey, neat. If I’m out with friends or out at a bar or restaurant, I usually tend towards cocktails.”

Allison Mouratis, the distillery’s in-house cocktail expert, provided some original recipes so our readers can celebrate Mixology Month with FEW Spirits.

Come On-A My House

2oz Few American Gin

2oz Pear Juice

.75oz Simple Syrup

.75oz Fresh Lemon Juice

2 sprigs Fresh Rosemary

Shake all ingredients over ice in a cocktail shaker. Double strain over ice into a Collins glass to remove the bits of herb. Garnish with a freshly burned sprig of rosemary and a couple dashes of Angostura Bitters.

Sage Advice

2oz Few American Gin

1oz Carrot Juice

.75oz Simple Syrup

.75oz Fresh Lemon Juice

4-5 Fresh Sage Leaves

Walnut Bitters

Shake all ingredients over ice in a cocktail shaker. Strain into a chilled coup. Garnish with two dashes of Fee Brothers Black Walnut Bitters and a floating sage leaf.

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