Interviewed April 19th, 2016
At Chicago Distilling Co. – Chicago

It’s no secret that the Second City loves to imbibe. Yet as popular as craft beer and artisan cocktails have become, it’s surprising how few distilleries have rebounded within Chicago since Prohibition. And while there are over 1,000 craft distilleries across the U.S., there’s only a handful who’ve managed to set up shop in Chicago.

One such operation calls a very popular stretch of Milwaukee Avenue home; Logan Square’s Chicago Distilling Company. We caught up with one of the three founders, Jay DiPrizio, to discuss artisan spirits in a city that takes its booze seriously. And, we converse over how a family history inspired him to pursue the craft, how he was able to develop a line of beer-inspired whiskey and how brewing beer might be in their future.

Jay, we understand that some family history helped spawn the beginnings of Chicago Distilling Company.

Historically, all of this is influenced by my wife’s family. They’re from northern Wisconsin, and the family has a long history of moonshining. That’s where I was first exposed to it. And then my brother and I started garage distilling five or six years ago, it having piqued our interest.

So the founders here are myself, my brother Vic [DiPrizio], and my wife, Noelle [DiPrizio]. We have a fourth guy who helps with production. And there’s Noah, who’s our Beverage Director. He’s the genius making the cocktails and creating…all kinds of crazy shit.

Unlike homebrewing, isn’t home distilling still illegal?

Yeah. You “can’t” do that–which is why things are much slower progressing in the distilling industry. Another major difference with distillation and brewing, is there is an actual place for brewing where you can go for entry level work. That’s the great incubator, as breweries. But there really isn’t anything like that in distilling. There are a few large craft distilleries, but outside of that, our operation is a two-man team. New Holland is one that a lot of beer guys are familiar with, and I’m pretty sure they’re only two or three guys also.

Was it well documented in your wife’s family that they were distillers?

It was well known, there are photos in the family of it also. My wife’s cousin–I’m not going to say where he lives–he has a functioning still in his garage in one of the ‘burbs.

What pushed you to take it from intrigue to pushing for a commercial space?

I don’t remember the exact instance, actually. But, I went to college in Colorado, and played soccer out there. One of my teammates was from the Canary Islands off Spain, and after college I went to go visit him. There was a 115-year-old rum distillery out there–he knew the family, so we toured the place and I remember thinking how cool I thought that was.

Back in the early 2000’s, the game was imported brands, especially vodka. My buddy and I were looking into importing this rum, but that fell apart. I was 25 at the time and trying to put that together and get a couple million bucks. Everyone was like, “Good try.”

Then I stumbled onto craft distilling online somewhere and started doing more research. I saw that there was this whole little movement behind it, and I understood craft brewing from going to college in Colorado. I thought, “We can make booze instead of beer, I know the gist of it.” And then we started paying more and more attention and meeting people in the industry. And reading more books.

We didn’t have whiskey coming out until a couple months ago. So all the money we’d made and put in here…sat for two years.

Before you purchased your own still, was your only practical experience moonshining?

Yeah. When we came to the part we knew it was feasible, we took a class at another local distillery. We were trying to figure out what they were doing differently than what we were doing in the garage. The main thing was scale. The general process we had down. When we went from garage to actual distillery we brought in a consultant for a week. He came in and really cleaned up our process and efficiency, going from a 10-gallon batch up to 300 gallons.

Things kind of aligned and we had a great landlord who put us in this building and everything just started clicking. The first two and a half years of this business was proving the concept. Can it work? Is there a market for it? So far, there is. We’ll see where that goes, but we can definitely grow and are trying to grow to that next stage.

We see a lot of knowledge sharing between brewers in their world. Do you see the same in the distilling community?

No, it’s much different than the brewing world actually. Brewing seems to be much more collegial, you have people who came up together in similar places. It seems much more of a fraternal type thing. I get along with other distillers, but that is a weird aspect.

In your geographical area, you’re much less likely to share information. We didn’t have whiskey coming out until a couple months ago. So all the money we’d made and put in here just fucking sat for two years.

It’s like anything. If you excel at something–you’re doing well–and then someone comes along is like, “Oh yeah, I want to do this too,” you’re thinking, “Why do you want to do this?” Their response is, “It sounds cool and I have a bunch of money.” You’re starting to see a lot of that, and it is kind of bullshit. They’re just buying intelligence and whatever is already out there.

Is your preference to have more product on the shelf at a bar or the shelf in a shop?

Ideally used in a cocktail at a bar. If you can put it in a cocktail, then the product moves better. You’re talking about a list of six to ten drink options to choose from instead of the entire back bar. It’s great to be on the back bar for visibility in the spirits world. People will give their bottle away just so people see it on the bar.

There is also a lot of pay to play in the spirits game. It’s illegal, but it happens all the time. I’ll go into spots and I’ve had people ask me, “What can you do to support us?” I’ll ask them to define that. I’ll come in and hang out and have a drink, I can do that as an individual. But if you want me to come in and buy $500 worth of drinks on a Friday night, and give them out to people. Fuck that, I’m out of there. There are big reputable spots that do it. There are whole consulting companies that do that. There’re all types of weird shit that goes on. I can’t keep our customers here with enough booze, so why would I pay you to pour my own product?…

Where’s the education process with spirits? Why is someone going to pick up your bottle compared to someone else’s?

Enthusiasts are enthusiasts. I think right now it’s about an experience that you can give somebody as opposed to, “Hey, Blind Tiger is our bourbon, this is the best bourbon brand you will ever buy!” Because that’s a lie, that’s not true. Someone may like it, someone may not like it. It’s more about when someone comes in. Are we having a good impact on that person–are they having a good time here?

When we do tours, I’ll take them through and break down exactly how we make the alcohol. Our tours are more about how we make the product, and then the majority of the time people are thrilled. They have a great time because they’re learning something they don’t know. It’s more about education on how spirits are made, versus claiming mine is better than theirs, and telling them they should by mine because it’s made in Chicago.

How would you describe the Chicago distilling scene?

Pocketed. There aren’t that many. It’s interesting because if you came to an Illinois Craft Distillers event and looked at the different producers, there’s a very wide range of who these people are and where they’re coming from. One gentleman is a physicist, another is an investment banker, another’s from the education world. I used to be in sales, and my brother was in HR. It’s very random like that.

Why I don’t think it is as collegial as the brewing world is because I feel when brewers come in or learn somewhere, they have all had a similar experience. They all worked at a brewery or had homebrewing. For distilling it is usually like someone had it in their family history, but everyone comes from different areas and has different takes on it. Everyone has a different endgame in mind.

What’s your goal with Chicago Distilling Company?

I want to build something where we can continue to work. My brother, my wife, and one day my kids will work it too. Other guys want to build a brand up and sell it off. Even though beer has a ton of acquisitions lately, the spirits game is much more acquisitions-focused, because brands can grow so quickly. In two and a half years, we’re already getting interest for our gin in Australia, and our single malts in Japan.

I don’t want to say the word cliquey, because it’s not. It’s not a “We’re cooler than you” mentality, but nobody really has time to hang out. We have less tasting events and festivals because spirits are regulated very differently than wine and beer. So we don’t have the opportunity to get to know each other as much. Like anything, you have your friends, and your friends do different things. It will be interesting to see in the next five years how things pan out.

…This is the best bourbon brand you will ever buy…that’s a lie, that’s not true. Someone may like it, someone may not like it. It’s more about when someone comes in…are they having a good time here?

Is distilling growing faster in other parts of Illinois compared to Chicago?

Chicago has some new regulations around it. Distilleries were under an audit for the last year and half. The city came and asked what is “craft distilling?” They really didn’t know because it was so new.

We just got done with it, and we have some building permits we need to do–and they rezoned all of us. There will be new constraints on where distilleries can operate in the city of Chicago. There will be a much higher barrier to open within the city limits. The rest of Illinois it mostly comes down to your local municipality.

With your growth, is there a chance of a second facility?

Well the good thing is, we’re in a unique spot in our process as one of the younger facilities in Chicago. Equipment-wise, I can’t produce more than I did last year–we’re maxed out. I can never have more than I currently have, so the city is working with us.

We’re at the right spot. If we’re lucky enough to grow and open a second facility then we would have to make other constraints with the building and be in a certain spot of the city. That is easy for us to change, but some of the other guys who are more established and have been around longer, they may have a harder time.

There will be new constraints on where distilleries can operate in the city of Chicago.

Can you tell us more about your beer-inspired whiskeys?

We call them American Single Malt Whiskeys. They’re essentially malt whiskeys. We started messing around to see if we distilled one of our beer recipes would it come across and retain that flavor profile? It’s something fun, something different.

There are close to 1,000 distilleries now in the U.S. As a craft distillery, how do you do something different? Yeah, we can all tweak our bourbons and our rye and make really abstract spirits or botanical-based spirits, etcetera. But our thought process was to look around and ask, “What’re my regional influencers, what’s popular here?” Obviously beer is exploding and has over the last four years. The thought is, we have a lot of people who are into craft beer and off the wall flavor profiles. So we started laying some of that stuff down and it came out and retained–or at least leaned on–that style.

They’ve been a hit, then.

We started bringing them out here into the bar and people were loving them. I then invited some different beer focused groups in to taste them, and they were digging them and asking to make this beer style and that beer style.

Is the grain bill the exact same as if you were making that beer style?

We do have to tweak it, but I don’t rule out any of the malts that are in those traditional beer styles we were making. We do the Dunkel, the Stout, a Rauchbier, and Belgian Dark Strong ale. Some of those malts really come out.

It’s something fun and it caught on, so let’s keep on doing it. The thought is to do a different style every year, or try every quarter. And if they mature and are coming out then we’ll release them seasonally like beer does. Another way to bring the two together.

Is there any benefit of adding hops at any point in the distilling process with these?

We did that early and it didn’t come out right. I’m sure there is a market for anything and everything. There’s been dry-hopped stuff before. But during the distillation process, at least the couple we messed around with, we didn’t like it as much.

I’m stealing this quote from someone, but I can’t remember who said it, but they said, “Distillation is the essence of…” You are concentrating these flavors into a much higher proof product. If you have a huge IBU and you’re bringing that in, that IBU will change, or the acidity will change for sure. I’m sure it could be dialed in, but I haven’t been into hops for a long time. We would just be chasing our tails, and we don’t get as much time for R&D as I would like.

What do you think of some of the bigger breweries—Dogfish, Ballast Point, New Holland—getting into distilling?

First of all, I think it’s probably out of curiosity. I know, before Lagunitas came here, I met Tony [Magee] and he had mentioned to me that he had messed with distilling back in the day. I think a lot of brewers have messed around with it. It’ll be interesting. For example, some people make good beer, and some people make bad beer. A lot of craft distilleries make good product, a lot make bad product.

There’s room for everyone.

I think the hard thing would not be having one of the categories diminish the other. When you have a whiskey, a bourbon, or rye, that would kind of play well with beer drinkers. Gins and vodkas–there are different applications for those. And the way you market and the way you come to market and keep those brand afloat are incredibly different than beer. Just the uptick and the interest in the spirit side of things is not there like it is with beer. Now, with some of those big guys getting involved, I think it helps the industry in general.

You mentioned breweries relating better to whiskey compared to gin and vodka. Why do you feel that way?

I think brewers would be more in tune with making a product from malted barley. But, if you took Forbidden Root or one of the more chef-driven breweries in town, I feel some of those breweries would be ok tackling other spirits if they tried. Because they’re already leaning more toward seasonal ingredients, or botanicals, herbs, and spices that are in gin. But take New Holland, a more traditional brewery. It’s very different–heavy, barley-focused. I feel that would come out more in their whiskeys.

Is there a wild one-off ingredient you would like to explore with distilling?

Possibly, but here’s the challenge with whiskey. I was at FoBAB pouring and talking to a brewer, and he asked me if I ever used this fruit, Buddha’s hand before. I had to explain to him, I can’t put that in there and then call it whiskey.

You can’t have sugar additives (like if you were making a Belgian beer and adding the candied sugar) and still have it classified as a whiskey or whatever. We have different constraints on what we can do. There probably is a ton of stuff you can do, but you have to classify it differently, like “spirit distilled from X…” It becomes very cumbersome. It’s something that would work better in the pub environment than something that would sit on the shelves at the liquor store.

Do you see any relationships spawning from the breweries in town?

I initially tried early because I know a few guys locally, but I think breweries are challenged with not being able to produce enough beer themselves to keep up. We have had a few guys talk to us about our barrels, but the hard thing is the size of our barrels.

We did a collab with Smylie Brothers up in Evanston ’cause we have friends in common. We did a gin barrel with one of their farmhouse beers.

What kind of beer drinker are you?

It’s interesting, my body has changed a bit. I’ve been consuming booze so long that, when I go back and have a heavier beer or hoppier beer, after a couple drinks the fusel oils and the hop oils get to me. I get very groggy and congested the next day.

I still drink beer, absolutely. But I have to plan for what my next morning is like. I like to party, don’t get me wrong, but I have to be very allocated with how much beer I drink.

Well, we’re obviously beer folk. So, we still have to ask–we’d heard rumblings of some potential brewing beginning here…

Potentially. It would be a house beer. The funny thing with the state of Illinois, is the laws are in flux. Currently in the state of Illinois you cannot brew and distill. You can’t hold those two licenses together. When we first opened up we would have to turn away a couple dozen people a night who were looking for beer. Our permit only allows us to serve what we produce.

In the beginning, I went to the Liquor Control Commission and told them I had a lot of people coming in who wanted beer, and asked if I could get a brewer’s permit as well. They told me if I wanted it, I would have to change the law. Then the Maplewood guys popped up and had both, so I called back! They told me they made an exception for them. I asked for the same exception and they told me, “maybe.” There’s no straight answer from anybody, hah.

…We don’t want to limit the brewers by our actions and vice versa. It’s politics in its purest form.

It’s crazy because these are all Prohibition-era laws that don’t seem to translate to modern times.

We are starting to work more collaboratively with the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild a little more. We have the Illinois Craft Distillers–that’s our guild. My wife was nominated to be in charge of the legislative branch, so we’re working on getting things changed to help distilleries a little more–increase our production, etcetera. But we don’t want to limit the brewers by our actions and vice versa. It’s politics in its purest form.

If you can make it work, what kind of beer would you be making?

It would be a rotating style. Probably two different styles a month. Like classic European pub style–a light and a dark.

Lastly, most important question. When can we expect your Malört-inspired spirit?

Never, man!




Photography by Jack Muldowney.

Cheers to Jay for having us by to discuss Chicago Distilling Company‘s unconventional approach and marriage of whiskey and beer. If you haven’t wandered in their space on Milwaukee Avenue yet, do yourself a favor and get there–in the least to taste a sample of the incredibly intriguing Stouted or Rauch beer-inspired whiskeys.