8 Questions for Sonat Birnecker Hart: President of KOVAL Distillery, organic kosher spirits expert and Master in Jewish Studies
Dr. Robert Birnecker & Dr. Sonat Birnecker Hart, Koval Founders
In 2008, Sonat Birnecker Hart, an esteemed teacher, lecturer and writer on Jewish Studies and German Jewish Cultural History, gave up her tenure and started making whiskey.
While traveling and teaching in Europe and the U.S. was, for Hart, a “joyful way to keep the world of my grandparents and great grandparents alive,” when it came time to start her own family, she decided she wanted a lifestyle where she could work with her children close at hand. So, she and her husband, Robert Birnecker, moved back to Hart’s hometown of Chicago and opened KOVAL, Chicago’s first distillery since the 1800s. Robert, an Austrian native, grew up helping his grandparents at their award-winning distillery and eventually became one of Europe’s leading experts on distilling technology.
KOVAL, which means blacksmith, but in Yiddish means “black sheep,” makes spirits from only heart cuts of the distillate to ensure the absolute smoothest whiskey, rye, gin and more. It’s also organic, local and, yes – kosher certified.
In addition to launching KOVAL’s line of nationally and internationally award-winning whiskeys, liqueurs and specialty spirits, Robert and Sonat co-founded Kothe Distilling Technologies, which over the last few years alone has helped more than 1,000 people starting their own distilleries through local workshops.
Hart heads up product development, distribution and marketing for KOVAL and works alongside her two boys, just as she planned. With this list of impressive accomplishments – on top of helping us get our kosher drink on – Sonat Birnecker Hart is definitely a Jew You Should Know.
1. Other than it being part of Robert’s family history, what intrigued you about distilling and the spirits business?
If we were going to leave our careers, we wanted to do something we could be proud of that would allow for the lifestyle of an old fashioned family business. I was also excited about having a business that would allow me the freedom to work with my husband and have my children close at hand. For instance, I was able to nurse two children on demand, while increasing our distribution network. This could not have happened outside of a family business. Our children now have their own office at the distillery and understand what it means to work. We also enjoyed being able to make something of high quality from scratch, and helping to educate a new generation of distillers through our Kothe Distilling Workshops and consulting.
2. What inspired you to have your spirits certified kosher?
We would not want to make a product that would leave anyone out when it came time for a “L’chaim.” Certifying our products kosher is also a representation of our identity as a Jewish owned company.
3. In what ways have the skills and experiences you gained from your studies or career in academics prepared you or been an asset in your present work?
One never “throws anything away” when it comes to knowledge. There have been countless times that I thought of my studies and the subjects I have taught while growing our business. It was amusing how often Kafka came to mind as I worked to get the liquor laws changed in Illinois. Moreover, we use a lot of academic skills: a lot of research when developing products, consulting and teaching, and Robert especially, has educated himself as to how to help further engineer pot stills. We have educated over 2,000 people in the art of distilling and starting a distillery and set up over 75 distilleries for other in the U.S. and Canada in the last six years. We have continued our academic lives in a new way, which has been very rewarding: www.kothedistilling.com
4. Have your boys taken an interest in the family business? If so, how have you involved them? Any related funny stories?
They have taken a sense of ownership for KOVAL. I am often talking to people about business when they are around, and from time to time, they have sat with me in meetings or have listened to me on the phone in the car. I am always surprised by how much they pick up about the business by being around us. Recently my eldest son told me: “We need more billboards! It would give us more impressions!” Perhaps he will be head of marketing someday. He has also been known to check the whiskey section of every grocery store we go to and has from time to time, given a pitch to an unsuspecting shopper: “That whiskey you are looking at. Well, it’s our whiskey, we make it here in Chicago. It is organic and kosher and made from grain to bottle at our distillery up the street and if you buy it, it would significantly help my toy budget.”
Sometimes when we go to the distillery at night to check something, they will say, “Where is everyone, why isn’t anyone working? There are bottles to be packaged.” They are around a lot and know how our products are made, how they are sold, the nature of a distributor, marketing, and even social media. I have heard, “You should tweet that, Mom,” more than once. At times having your kids at work can have unforeseen consequences though: once our eldest decided to take my husband’s cell phone to play Angry Birds: Star Wars and accidentally tweeted his game onto our KOVAL Twitter account. Some thought we were engaging in some strange co-marketing with Angry Birds when they saw on our feed, “The time has come Luke Skysquaker.” “Hide your eggs well Hans Cherplo,” on our Twitter feed.
5. What’s your favorite cocktail (using one of your spirits, of course) for pairing with a Jewish holiday? Bonus points if you have ideas that are kosher for Passover …
We did a feature on our blog about the “8 cocktails of Hanukkah,” which had a lot of fun Hanukkah-inspired cocktails, though my favorite of the bunch was:
"No, this is not our biggest holiday" Cocktail
3 oz. Rye
An exasperated sigh
I tend to drink our spirits straight, so that “cocktail” was a particular favorite. Our brandy is made only from fruit but it is not kosher for Passover because we have not had a chance to close our facility to make only kosher for Passover products for a few weeks. We hope to someday.
6. What do you love most about what you do?
I can be a mom and a working-woman at the same time. I can answer emails at Kids Science Labs or Goldfish Swim School and still have lunch with my kids. Sometimes things take a little longer to get done, but that is fine. I am working with my husband and an amazing team of people who make building our business a real joy. It is a lot of hard work, but so worth it.
7. If there were to ever be another prohibition (G-d forbid) and you couldn’t distill, what would you do?
Well, I could dust off my PhD and teach Jewish Studies, but at this stage of my life, I would probably go into politics; most likely Jewish politics, perhaps with the World Jewish Congress, for which I am already a volunteer.
8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do (or how do you Jew?) in Chicago?
We have Shabbat with my parents most weeks, which is wonderful. As for Chicago, we are obsessed with Milts BBQ! Talk about amazing food, and kosher too! Pretty keen on their KOVAL cocktails as well.