“If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it…”
Long have I been entranced by the entrapments of brewing and distilling, all the gizmos and whirlygigs, bits of tubing glinting in the light as they curl round and round, shiny metal vats holding the promise of future cocktails, all of it making me reference “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Every single time. But never have the lyrics to my favorite song from the Gene Wilder Willy Wonka movie actually popped into my head while gazing at all the equipment.
Enter CH Distillery. Founders Tremaine Atkinson and Mark Lucas were kind enough to let me come into their shining new distillery, the latest entry into the craft spirits world, and hang about. They are brand spanking new, having only been open for a few months. When you first walk by, you see the giant plate glass windows, with the words “Witness the Science of Alcohol” running along just underneath eyeline. If you look up, to the right you can peer directly at the magical copper and stainless steel vessels lined neatly up against the wall, with Kevin McDonald, one of the two distillers, diligently working amidst the tall stills.
To the left, you will see their plush bar, and you will want to walk in and sink down into a couch to order vodka, straight, with a side of rye bread and pickles. You will. It’s on the menu.
(I should point out this picture of the bar is before they were open for business that day, so the lone figure is Mark, working away.)
On a fine Friday afternoon, well before the onslaught of thirsty people in dire need of one of their delicious cocktails, I entered the bar for CH Distillery, greeted warmly by Mark Lucas. He took me around the space, pointing out a fascinating photograph that shows them putting in the stills. They actually had to hire art riggers to install the stills, because the floor of the building could not take the weight of a forklift. They built structural supports under the floor to hold the weight of the stills one in place.
“Anything you want to, do it. Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it.”
I’m telling you, it’s really Willy Wonka. But for grown-ups.
The stills are so new the shine practically glows. Considering how much effort it takes to keep my few shiny stainless pans spotless, I can only imagine the effort it takes to keep these so utterly beautiful. And they really are beautiful. When I was there, though, it was really about what was on the inside, because as we were all raised to know, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. In this case, vodka and gin.
Kevin, the co-distiller alongside Tremaine Atkinson, was monitoring vodka as it went through the final stages of distilling and poured out into a giant vat, eventually destined for bottling. The gentle sound of the vodka and gin as it came pouring out of the last of the stills was soothing, like a pair of 90 proof babbling brooks.
He kept checking taste, measuring out bits of it to test for quality and density, all these little things that go into making a fine liquor. The sign on the outside windows “Witness the Science of Alcohol” is no joke. Kevin was explaining the basic process of what everything goes through, gesturing to the stills that towered high above us as the vodka vapour rose and fell, condensing away.
I was briefly distracted by the beauty of the stills. These have lights shining into them, so you can see brilliant jeweled splashes as the liquor condenses, then up to the top of the next and back down, increasing in proof with every step.
The copper still right in the very front window had a London Dry Gin was burbling away. The curves of this still were particularly voluptuous. Kevin explained how the shape was actually very purposeful, and in some schools of distilling, you hang all the goodies that flavor your gin up top, and as the liquor vapours move up through them, that is where you get the flavor. If I recall, they don’t do it that way. The flavors are right in the mix, burbling away. There was a steady stream of the final product draining out into a steel vat. I got to swipe a finger underneath the stream really quickly to taste it.
For the record, I am not a huge gin person. Most people have had bad gin experiences. Does it make you think “clear liquid with overtones of turpentine”? It very well might. This… had citrus. A little later on, juniper and cardamom floated magically across my palate. Nary a nasty bite anywhere. There is an obvious joke in here about how I could just sit under the draining tap and drink, but that would cheapen the experience of sipping this, slowly, closing my eyes to let the various notes played around my tongue. And that is just straight up. Imagine what this gin could do in a well-crafted cocktail.
Fortunately, you can. Right there in their bar. They have a simple but intriguing menu of cocktails, including one named “Cease and Desist,” due to a rather humorous story involving them naming the cocktail originally after a certain pharmaceutical drug in a rather tongue in cheek manner (an ode to “Penicillin” as in the classic cocktail, not the antibiotic,) and actually received a cease and desist letter from said pharmaceutical company. So of course they had to name the cocktail after it. You can’t just stop making a great cocktail. That is heresy.
The other founder of CH Distillery, Tremaine Atkinson, another man clearly in love with his work, related the story of the cocktail name debacle to me.
I have to pause here a moment to apologize to someone I have never met. I have been making snarky comments about a man I saw in one of my favorite bars in Andersonville, asking if they had gluten-free vodka. It may have been that he genuinely has celiac disease or a genuine intolerance, but something in his bearing made me think this was just a trendy thing. I of course commented to the bartender afterwards, saying “well isn’t ALL vodka gluten free?” Turns out… it might not all be. (But for the record, I am still maintaining some level of snarkiness, because the gent ordered a vodka and diet Coke. Really. REALLY? So many lovely things to do with vodka, and… sorry… getting off track… back to the real deal here.) Kevin pointed out to me that all of their alcohol starts with grain from Illinois. So yeah. There might be a possibility that there is gluten in there. Maybe. I will concede that grudgingly.
I was hanging out talking to Tremaine next to a desk covered in bottles with handwritten labels, and a microscope. They are not kidding about the science of alcohol. The whiteboard behind the desk was covered in cryptic shorthand, showing what I presumed to be a lot of ingredients, sugars, relative weights in alcohols, many a thing I know little about. I just appreciate the art that comes from the end of this science.
I asked about the microscope, and Tremaine said they used it more in the beginning when they were figuring out distilling in their particular sets of stills so they could do precise yeast counts, but not as much any more. I raised an eyebrow. I know beer involves yeast, but I never considered it in liquor. He said of course! All alcohol starts with yeast and sugar. I know the happy partnership of yeast and sugar from baking my own bread, and we had a little excited moment talking about that magical moment when yeast comes alive, or blooms, eating sugar and releasing that heady delicious smell that only sugar-devouring yeast cells can. So as they develop their recipes, they keep track of precise yeast counts. The London Dry Gin that I had tasted before was actually a slightly new mix, since they decided to make a bigger batch than previously. He showed me how the flavor profile changed as it poured out, the earlier bits having more of the citrus notes, the later bits having more of the herbal. In the end, it will sit for a week and everything will meld together. “Like a good chili,” he said. Except this particular melding will lead to a really damned fine martini.
I was there a little early, before the bar opened, but the list of cocktails and the unfussy sleekness of the bar made me heartily wish that it was a few hours later and I wasn’t in jeans and hiking boots. This place seemed to call for whispering silks and a nice heel. Or at least one of my nicer pairs of sneakers.
“Come with me, and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination.”
These gents have created a little world of pure libation imagination in the West Loop of Chicago. Perchance I will begin with a spin and travel into that world of their creation. And perchance you should, too. And have a cocktail that defies explanation.
(As per usual, I have more photos than I can show here. If you would like to see a bit more, please check them out here.)