We took the fortuitous opportunity to visit our Boys, and their Howard family hosts, during the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) Annual Meeting in Chicago this year. Our first night in town, we even caught my folks in a guest appearance with Locked Into Vacancy’s vintage radio show.
Fall was magical as always in Chicago, from the patchwork of autumn leaves in my family’s Irving Park neighborhood, to the creeping sunset across the landmarks of Michigan Avenue. I was impressed how Jaume Plensa’s massive installations continue to transform Millennium Park, his newest, 39-foot sculpture Looking Into My Dreams, Awilda casting a dramatic shadow over his multi-media Crown Fountain. It’s hard to believe how different the area was when I left for college just before the millennium.
Chicago proved a prime location to pursue another, newfound fascination. Having toured a few old-world distilleries (Alsace, Sweden) this summer, we were interested to learn more about the craft spirits movement gaining so much traction back in the States. Of course, the City of the Big Shoulders was a major whiskey producer through the early 20th century, sending more liquor tax to the federal government than any other city but Peoria. Recovery was slow after Prohibition, and the first legitimate Illinois distillery didn’t open until 2004; but as of January of this year, Chicagoist identified twelve new operations in the city and surroundings alone. A 2010 State law enabled small-scale distillers to apply for liquor licenses—allowing them to sell their products on-site, and promoting the growth of tasting rooms throughout the region.
So on our last night in town, we made it to the weekly Witness the Science of Alcohol tour at CH Distillery, just northwest of Chicago’s downtown Loop. Distiller/Director Tremaine Atkinson, who co-founded CH in 2013, led twenty-odd explorers through the facility, dressed in a starched white lab coat. The urban operation was densely packed with fermenting tacks and massive, gleaming Carl GmbH stills, the hefty big brothers to Rikk’s back in Norrtälje. The tour finished with a Russian-style vodka tasting, accented with pickles and rye bread.
Marketing itself as Chicago’s first combination distillery and cocktail bar, CH’s still room peeks through pane windows to a warmly lit lounge serving General Manager Cassie Levy-Roseroot’s tempting array of drinks. Due to licensing restrictions, the bar can only serve liquor made in-house, but Atkinson described it as a welcome challenge to keep up with the ever-expanding cocktail menu. Although they remain focused on vodka—made almost entirely from Illinois grain—more recent additions include their own amaro, limoncello, and Fernet derivatives.
A notable theme of both the impressive CH and Norrtälje facilities has been their founders’ financial industry backgrounds, belying the hefty investment of resources and management skill required to get a modern distillery off the ground. We’ll be interested to see how this trend evolves with the increasing demand, and regulatory flexibility, around artisanal alcohol.