Last summer I was lucky enough to immerse myself in the world of bourbon on my first trip as the Society’s Brand Ambassador. On the final evening of my trip, I found myself in Washington, D.C. at Jack Rose Dining Saloon chatting to owner Bill Thomas. As anyone who’s ever visited Jack Rose will know, there’s rather a lot of whiskey to choose from. I asked Bill to pick a bourbon for me. It didn’t take long for him to choose and before I knew it he was climbing up a ladder and reaching for a bottle of Few’s cask strength bourbon.
When I relayed this to Paul Hletko, the Founder of Few Spirits, over Skype he exclaimed in his cheery manner, “That’s awesome!”
Awesome is just one of the many enthusiastic descriptors that Paul throws out while we chat and it’s clear to see that he’s passionate about what he does.
A lawyer by trade, Paul decided to set up a distillery in honour of his grandfather, who owned a brewery in what is now the Czech Republic. During World War II, when the Nazis invaded they took the brewery. Paul’s grandfather managed to survive the concentration camps but the rest of his family were murdered. After the war, he tried to get the brewery back but sadly never succeeded – it’s now a major multinational. When his grandfather died it struck Paul that he needed to honour him.
“I didn’t want to just raise a fist at the sky and say this is unfair”, he said.
“I wanted to do something positive, something that builds, and something that would make my grandfather proud. Someday it will make my children proud. Currently they’re a bit embarrassed by me, but maybe one day it will be cool!”
Paul didn’t want to feel as though he was in his grandfather’s shadow by making beer. Instead he wanted to create something that was his. According to Paul, he doesn’t like drinking wine all that much so that wasn’t an option. Whiskey on the other hand…
“…I love whiskey, I love drinking whiskey, I love sharing whiskey…and making whiskey is incredibly rewarding. We’re actually just sitting this morning watching the stills going, ‘Holy crap, this is cool!’”
But it’s more than just a connection to family that makes Few so interesting.
For starters it’s located in Evanston, a city in Illinois that’s often referred to as the birthplace of Prohibition. Not only was Evanston a dry county before prohibition began, it was also home to Frances Elizabeth Willard, the national president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The WCTU campaigned for national prohibition, making Evanston an ironic backdrop for Few.
Few prides itself on being a grain to glass distillery, which Paul describes as something that takes the smoke and mirrors away from where a whiskey comes from.
“It’s really important to me to be true to who we are. We make everything ourselves, we say we make it ourselves and we do make it ourselves.
You can go out and buy a £10 bottle of Scotch and there’s going to be as much alcohol in there as there is going to be in a £100 bottle. What’s the difference between the £10 and the £100? The taste is going to be different, but the story and the connection and the heritage and the legacy and everything that goes into that bottle is what people pay for. Especially the Society members. People buy Society bottles because they want that connection to the distillery, that connection to the liquid, that connection to other people. All of those connections ought to be valid and ought to be true.” Paul explained.
“You can like my liquid, you can not like my liquid, that’s okay. But share it with your friends, maybe they’ll like it.
That’s why the grain to glass makes a big difference to us. It’s truth, it’s honesty, it’s being true to who we are. It’s important that the consumer and the purchaser understand, look yeah you pay a bit more for products from us…but we don’t make a lot of product.”
There’s often a lot of confusion surrounding where the distillery’s name came from. The WCTU’s president, Frances Elizabeth Willard, initials may well spell out ‘F.E.W’ but it’s purely a coincidence. As Paul explained, they don’t make a lot of product, just a few.
Few certainly seems to be everywhere you look at the moment, making it one of bourbon’s rising stars. When asked what it is that has made Few stand out among a plethora of craft distilleries across the US, Paul replies, “Honestly, a lot of it is hard work. A lot of it is luck. The harder you work the luckier you get too.”
“You can’t throw stones at the big producers of whiskey, they make good stuff. You realistically can’t beat them in quality. But you can compete with them by offering something that is their quality and tastes different. A lot of the small so called craft distillers, just buy their whiskies from the big boys, so it all tastes the same as everybody else’s. It’s hard to make a name for yourself that way. How do we stand out? I think we out-work everybody.”
Looking forward to the future, Paul believes it’s time to allow the company’s infrastructure a chance to catch up with its rapid growth.
“Four years ago it was me alone in a room. Currently we’re putting down the same amount of whiskey every day as we did every month when we started up.”
He’s quick to add, “That said, it still takes us two weeks to make what Jack Daniels spills in a day!”
It’s impossible not to be pleased for Paul when he talks about his brand. In his quest to connect with history and regain something that was lost, Paul has created his own legacy. One he should be very proud of.
To find out more about Few Spirits, visit: fewspirits.com
All photography courtesy of Few Spirits.