This content was originally published by The Hop Review, a digital magazine that joined the Hop Culture family in March 2020.
This piece was written by Tom White.
LOGAN SQUARE, CHICAGO
It’s been just over seven months since we last stopped into Mercenary Brewery & Distillery. Back in July ’14, founders Adam Cieslak and Ari Megalis, were just getting started on Illinois’ first brewery – distillery combination. At the time, this was a brewery without a production beer and a distillery without a still. Needless to say, there was a long way still to go.
Adam and Ari have been busy since summer. Now half a year later, we’re able walk into bottle shops throughout the city and see their distinctive white labeled bottles of Charlatan Pale Ale or Fat Pug Milk Stout adorning the shelves. They also have a shiny new copper still as the centerpiece of their rapidly expanding Logan Square brewery-distillery combo.
With all of these recent changes, we jumped at the opportunity to stop back into Mercenary, ask about the updates, and sample a few test batches of their latest creations.
Thanks for having us back. So, what’s changed since our last visit?
Adam Cieslak: We just got in our 20 barrel fermenter which effectively doubled the production in one purchase! We’ve been doing a ton more brewing and we’re really starting to see some recognition. We’ve got some good feedback from a lot of people and we’re getting into some key places we really like. Restaurants like Publican, Longman & Eagle, and a lot of other cool bars like Map Room which is a place where we still drink pretty regularly.
The biggest change is probably expansion, as far as production goes. We’re at full production on our system and we’ve been working on new releases for March. It’s a Saison, highly likely to be a ginger Saison. We’re also working toward our taproom, hopefully for this summer.
Ari Megalis: And of course…the still!
That’s hard to miss. What’s the status on the distillery side?
AM: The still is all up, running and ready to go. We’re just waiting for final approval from the Feds. It should be coming down any week now.
AC: Just last week they told us we were in the final approval process so we’re getting close. But it’s all ready to go and the lights are on. If you wanted it to, it could distill water!
THR Update: Since our visit in early February, Adam and Ari have received the official approval from the Federal government. They’ve since filed for state approval which usually takes 2-3 months. You’ll be seeing Mercenary spirits for sale in the very near future!
What will you be distilling on day one?
AC: It will be malt whiskey.
Will we see some white whiskey right out of the gate?
AC: Yea, we’ll fill the barrels, and probably do a smaller release of just the white whiskey coming off of that.
AM: We’ll probably release some whites just for fun…for the whiskey enthusiast. Most of our stuff will be oak aged though.
When can we expect to see those?
AM: Whenever it’s ready – the barrel decides. Initially we have some 15-gallon barrels just to start and then we’re going to move onto 30-gallon barrels. I’d say six months to a year. We’re going to be brewing beer continuously so that should tide us over.
How often are you planning on distilling?
AC: I think that’s a function of how many barrels we can get. There’s a barrel shortage unless you’re a super huge producer. Getting barrels is not easy so we’ll fill them as they come in.
We’re going to run our beer through the barrels as well. So we’ll do a whiskey and then a higher ABV version of our Stout. I’ve even had a great whiskey barrel pale ale, which sounds kind of crazy. But we could put Charlatan in a barrel for a week or so, so that we don’t lose the hop character. We’ll get a lot of those barrel flavors.
AM: We say “barrel-rested.”
Last time we were here you were deciding on packaging. We’ve seen the bombers out in the wild, but any other plans there?
AM: We’re thinking 16oz four-packs of cans. We really like that format so we’re working with some mobile canning guys to start.
AC: We could spend $20-30 grand for a small canning line right now but we really have to make the choice between that and our tasting room.
Speaking of the taproom, where does that stand?
AC: Getting the tasting room by the summer is our number one goal. Let’s go take a look up there….
AM: So we have this little bar area and then have a small retail section on the side. We just built this bar this week so things are coming along.
AC: Our aim is to knock out the back wall and put in a window so you can see the whole brewery and Still. We’ll have a mix of high tops and tables; some longer communal tables and some smaller.
Will folks be able to take a tour of the space?
AM: Oh yea, of course!
So if we revisit in six months, what should we expect to see?
AC: The taproom is definitely priority number one. We should also have two to three more of the 20-barrel fermentors.
And new beers to go in them?
AC: Oh yea, there will be new beers. We’ll have a new in, I’d say…March. We’re very happy with the tests we’ve done on the ginger Saison.
AM: In six months we’ll probably even have some test batches of whiskey for sale in our taproom. Those 5-gallon barrels will be used for experimentation and will be ready in a few months.
AC: Yea, so new beer, whiskey, taproom, and additional fermentation are the main goals for the next few months.
Thanks guys! We’ll be back to check on the latest updates soon.
Photography by Robert Battista and Jack Muldowney