Get in the Spirit: Everything You Need to Know About Chicago Distilleries
Although they’ve had a pretty rocky history, Chicago distilleries are here to stay and they’re thriving more than ever. After Prohibition laws forced the industry underground in the 1920s—and saw the rise of Chicago’s most notorious gangsters and organized crime—it took another 70 years for Chicago to reassert itself as a key player in the sector. Now, it’s one of the best drinking cities in America for hard liquor. Here’s everything you need to know about Chicago’s booming distillery scene.

What’s the deal with distilleries?

For those who don’t know, a distillery is any place where liquor is distilled or manufactured. Distilleries make hard alcohol—that means no wine, no beer and no cocktails. There are generally strict rules and laws for operating distilleries in each state. For example, it wasn’t until 2010 that small distilleries in Illinois could get a special craft distiller’s license that allowed them to open tasting rooms to sell directly to the public. In Illinois, distilleries aren't allowed to sell any alcohol they don't make, but there are ways around this. For example, CH Distillery is Chicago’s only distillery making grain-to-bottle vodka, but it also has a cocktail bar and restaurant. If vodka leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, sample their whiskey or rum—all made in-house, of course.

Prohibition blues

Chicago wouldn’t be Chicago without alcohol, but it also wouldn’t be Chicago without Prohibition. From 1920 to 1933, alcohol was illegal in the United States (can you imagine? Dark times, my friend). Drinking culture had always been strong in the city of Chicago; before Prohibition, Illinois was one of the biggest whiskey-producing states. It even paid the second-highest federal tax on whiskey to the federal government in the country. Considering its rich history of drinking, you can imagine why these new laws didn’t stop Chicagoans. Gangsters, like Bugs Moran in the northside and Al Capone in the south side, created their illicit empires by establishing secret speakeasies. Since alcohol was not illegal in Canada, these gangsters bootlegged liquor across the border to sell it. Needless to say, bootlegging and speakeasies were a lucrative business. When Prohibition was lifted, Chicago bounced back to its strong drinking culture, despite the fact that plenty of laws were put in place to restrict the powers of breweries and limitations for another 60 years.

The resurgence of distilleries


According to the American Distilling Institute (yeah, it’s a thing), there were only 70 distilleries in the United States in the early 2000s. None of them were in Illinois. Today there are over 600 distilleries, approximately 25 of which are in Illinois. The distillery resurgence in Chicago began when two D.C. professionals decided to launch a distillery in Chicago in 2009. In fact, Koval Distillery (the distillery in question) was the first established distillery within Chicago city limits since Prohibition. To establish Koval,the distillery’s owners Sonat Birnecker Hart and Robert Birnecker lobbied to change a 1934 Illinois law, which prevented distilleries from giving tours or on-site samples to customers. In an article by Good Food on Every Table, Hart commented that the legal change “caused a huge boom in distilleries opening up in Illinois.” We reap the fruits of their labor today. Today, there are plenty of distilleries within Chicago’s city limits. Dedicated drinkers can go on tours in the city at CH Distillery, Chicago Distilling and Rhine Hall or can venture to Riverside for a tour of Quincy Street Distillery. While you no longer need to sneak into a speakeasy to enjoy Chicago’s storied distillery scene, there are plenty of establishments to visit that are rich both in history and in the wide selection of drinks they offer customers.

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