Paul Hletko has spent his life pursuing creative endeavors ranging from music to home brewing. At one point, he even ran a record label. But his family has roots in the alcohol business. “Our history in distilling begins with me, but the alcohol history extends back to my grandfather’s family,” says Hletko, founder of Few Spirits, one of the most lauded craft whiskey producers in the country.
Before World War II broke out, Hletko’s family owned a major brewery in what is now the Czech Republic. After the Nazi invasion, they no longer had ownership of the business. “The brewery in the Czech Republic made pilsner beer rather than liquor,” says Hletko. Currently, it’s owned by a large multi-national.
“Although my grandfather survived the concentration camps, the rest of his family was wiped out, and after the war, he never regained the brewery,” says Hletko, who was inspired by his family history to open Few Spirits in Evanston, Illinois even though the family made beer instead of spirits.
When his grandfather died in 2008, Hletko felt like he needed to do something to regain touch with that family tradition. “But, rather than raise a fist to the sky, I want to do something positive and rebuild.”
The distillery is located in Evanston, Illinois because that’s where Hletko grew up. The city is famous for completely banning alcohol until the 1970’s and still doesn’t even contain a single bar. Even with all of this anti-booze sentiment, Hletko still wanted to open his business there. “I felt like my home town was where I wanted to build my distillery.”
Hletko inside Few
Few is situated in a warehouse beneath the El Train tracks. At one point, the space was used by an auto mechanic and Hletko has heard rumblings that it might have also been used as a chop shop. He can’t verify this, but he likes the story because it adds to the mystique of the distillery. In the beginning, they kept all the barrels in the distillery, but as they grew they added an aging facility about a mile away.
Although Few has built up a pretty good reputation at this point, including being named “craft whiskey of the year” by Whiskey Advocate, the company was only opened three years ago. “I think it’s safe to say we’re still getting our start,” Hletko says.
After he received his permit for Few Spirits, Hletko worked with and learned from several expert distillers, including Robert Birnecker, the founder of Koval Distillery in Chicago, and David Pickerell, who was the master distiller for Maker’s Mark for many years and now consults in the craft-spirits industry. “We are trying to get more whiskey and grow our ability to supply our demand,” Hletko says. “We continue to experiment and create new products.”
Few produces grain-to-glass whiskies and gins by hand. Their primary products are: Bourbon, Rye, American Gin, and Barrel Gin. According to Hletko, each is crafted to be unique and different from other brands on the market. “The joy of making our own products is that we can make them differently than others, since we get to control every step of the process.”