A new Midwesterner has just entered the market with FEW Spirits out of Evanston, Ill. If you know anything about Evanston, you might recognize a little bit of irony in that development, since the suburb just north of Chicago is known as the headquarters of The Woman's Christian Temperance Union. When I went to summer school at Northwestern University in Evanston in the '80s, we used to have to take a suitcase on the "Skokie Flyer" and get off at every stop until we could find a place that would sell us beer. Then we'd load up our luggage and schlep it back to campus. My, how things have changed.
FEW Spirits has previously only been available in Illinois, Washington and Oregon, so we're fortunate that Boonedocks Distribution has brought them on locally. Their next target markets are in Canada, so we might be the only new folks to learn about FEW for awhile.
FEW distills two kinds of gin and three varieties of whiskey in very small batches. I'm talking like 5-gallon barrel batches, so you can imagine what that does to their production costs. They estimate that the cost of the cooperage alone represents about $5 in the cost of each bottle. But the result of this expenditure is that they can impart so much more character and color into their spirits in a short period than the larger producers.
They're also not afraid of high-proof levels at FEW.Their "Standard Issue Gin" is bottled at 114 proof and will peel the paint off the roof of your mouth if you try to drink it straight. Instead, this is a nice starter for a proper Gin & Tonic. With six botanicals added to what is essentially their white whiskey as a base spirit, the aromas are more subtle than in more commercial gins like Bombay Sapphire.
FEW's other gin product is their American Gin, which they suggest for martini drinkers. Actually more of an old-school Genever style, American Gin also has a more subtle character of juniper and lemon citrus than most gin aficionados are probably accustomed to. At a more humane 80 proof, this would be the choice for martinis or gimlets.
I have to admit that FEWs White Whiskey was probably my least favorite of their offerings, but then again I'm kinda burned out on the influx of unoaked whiskeys that seem to be flooding the market. The addition of 20 percent wheat and 10 percent barley to the 70 percent corn base was intended to add a little bite to the well, corniness, of the whiskey. But in my opinion, the nose was pretty unappealing, and the experience was like drinking a Triscuit. Maybe in the right cocktail it might work a little better, but in my tasting I quickly passed on. Then again, this product did win a double gold at the NY Wine and Spirits competition, so there's no accounting for taste ... especially mine.
FEW's Bourbon Whiskey was more successful with the substitution of 20 percent rye for the wheat of the White Whiskey. The spiciness of the rye in combination with the mellowing characteristics of the spirit's (albeit brief) repose in oak contributed a complexity to this whiskey that made it worth a try at your favorite high-end bar or liquor store.
Best of all in my opinion was FEW's Rye Whiskey, made with a 70/20/10 ratio of rye/corn/barley. Rye whiskey has long been more popular along the Rust Belt than in Southern states, so it's no surprise that some good Midwesterners have come up with a very nice version of this spicy spirit. In a Perfect Manhattan with both sweet and dry vermouth, I think that this would make a fine cocktail, and I'll be seeking some out soon.
If you find yourself in the Chicago area, FEW Spirits offers tours of their small distillery, which is located in a converted auto garage. These tours cost $10 per person and include tastings of their products at the end of the lesson. You can find out more about their schedule and reserve at spot for a tour at the company's website. Until then, search the shelves for their distinctive labels, which feature vintage scenes of the Chicago area.