Last year Spiritus Mundi Ltd began importing hand crafted spirits from some of the top US grain to glass producers. New Zealand drinkers had already embraced boutique wines, artisanal juices and craft beers enthusiastically in the past few years, so Spiritus was founded to fill an obvious scarcity of similar distilled spirits in New Zealand.

Just as with other drinks, a distinct class of modern spirits is being made lovingly in small batches with carefully selected ingredients by a combination of traditional and innovative methods. Spiritus started by importing US makers since they were early pioneers who have rather quickly achieved remarkable results in the field.

We talked to two of these pioneers about where they fit in the spirits industry. Not only have they achieved great results in their own companies, but they have also been heavily involved in the development of the industry.

Robert Birnecker and his wife and Sonat Birnecker Hart of Koval Distilling were the first Chicago producers since prohibition and have won countless awards for their fine spirits. Robert has also helped set up numerous small distillers across the US through his still importing business.

Paul Hletko of FEW Spirits in nearby Evanston, began distilling not long after and FEW has also won the highest accolades in the industry. As an active leader of the American Craft Spirits Association, Paul has endeavored to establish standards and recognition for America’s new wave of producers.

Paul and Sonat talk about modern craft spirits.

What does “craft” mean to you? Do you prefer any other term?

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Paul Hletko, FEW Spirits

Paul: I don’t much like the term craft. There’s a huge difference in the liquor world than other craft worlds because the big corporations make good quality spirits. So craft sort of feels like an insult to the big guys. I prefer renegade, maverick, micro. That said, I am on the board of the American Craft Spirits Association, and we have craft right in the name.

So what does it mean? I think rather than quality, it’s about intention – Why? Are you product or money driven? Craft means intent- it is about product rather than the books every day of the week.

Sonat: The term has gotten a bit muddled in the past few years due to companies using it as a marketing term to seem homemade when they were really purchasing finished product from another distillery and bottling it as their own.

The intention behind the term, in the beginning, was to express a sense of independence, grain to bottle practice, and creativity unique to the movement of smaller distilleries founded in the US about 8 years ago. I think that the term still conveys it to some degree but we like to make sure people know that we do indeed make everything from the grain itself (we even mill it on site) and are completely independent, family owned and operated.

How does the craft spirit movement compare to others like beer, or fit into the general trend toward artisanal?

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Sonat Birnecker Hart, Koval Distilling

Sonat: I think it is pretty much the same. The spirits industry was controlled, like the beer industry, by a few large companies and over time, this structure was upset by a number of independent, creative, exceptional artisans. Very little can hold back creativity and great taste.

Paul: Liquor fits really well in the whole movement toward artisanal. People across the world are developing the case for hand crafted products. You want to feel a part of something, you want your money to go to a person. A lot of getting in touch with small makers.

Who is your customer? Are they the same internationally as in the US?

Paul: I think our customers are uniform across the US, across the world. They are looking for a connection. Like Jason Montreal at Revelry in Auckland, he came here and saw that I have a 2700 sq foot production floor. That’s smaller than a lot of restaurants, but I am sending stuff all over the world.

So we are looking for people who are looking for a new movement, people who care about what happens with their dollar. They don’t want their money going to a faceless company, to be just some rounding error. It doesn’t matter if it’s Melbourne or Hong Kong or London or Chicago. They might have different accents but they are the same all over.

Sonat: Our customer is someone looking for a more modern take on whiskey: one that involves alternative grains, a true “heart cut” of the distillate which makes it truly clean and surprisingly grain forward. And of course someone looking for a company that uses all organic grains, green technology, and submits to outside certifying agencies, such as USDA and OU Kosher to attest to the fact that we do not use anything artificial.

What excites you about the future of the industry?

Sonat: We love the revival of local and independent spirits – they make the entire category richer and a lot more fun for people who enjoy alcohol in its many manifestations, like us! We do a lot of very small runs of unique products that delight those seeking interesting spirits: my personal favorite of the limited editions we have done so far is a Sunchoke Brandy.

Paul: I get excited by all the creativity that’s out there. Us little guys are all friends. We joke around and tease each other, but the level of talent is fun to watch and be a part of. I love all the different takes on gin and whiskey. What is gin? What is whiskey? There’s really cool stuff out there. We aren’t really competing with each other – it takes me two weeks to make what Beam spills in a day.

Can you tell us about a “secret project” – something new in your company?

Paul: Yeah, creativity is what I get excited about. We are making some stuff co-branded with bands (we are about to sign with one of our favorite bands, but I can’t say who yet). We just co-branded with a local liquor label.

And we are doing some cool barrel finishes. Some of our barrels are with local coffee roasters. They will age coffee beans in them, then we’ll get them back and put bourbon in them. It might work, it might not, but we’ll give it a shot.

Oh, and we are releasing a Breakfast Gin! With lots of early grey tea in it. Just think of any place that does brunch. Why have a mimosa when you can have a Breakfast Gin?!

Sonat: We have just recently entered the gin market and our gin has received numerous Gold medals, including a Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits; so we are going to focus on that for now, but I am sure there will be more interesting spirits in our future.