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8 Questions for Sonat Birnecker Hart: President of KOVAL Distillery, organic kosher spirits expert and Master in Jewish Studies

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02/17/2015

8 Questions for Sonat Birnecker Hart photo 1

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.

8 Questions for Sonat Birnecker Hart photo 2

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. 

8 Questions for Sonat Birnecker Hart photo 3

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
Ice
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.

All You Can Date

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How online dating has changed, and changed us
02/10/2015

All You Can Date photo

Online dating has evolved at a remarkable rate over the past decade. What was once a taboo “last resort” for singles has come close to the only way to date in your 20s (and as I’m learning, Tinder is becoming quite popular as well with the 30s and 40s crowd). If for some reason you’re single and not on an app, it’s time.

There has been an enormous influx of dating apps in the last three years. Some are notorious for advocating hook-ups (Tinder, Grindr), others base matches on mutual Facebook friends (Hinge), and there are even some that include specific niches (JSwipe for Jews, Bristlr for people with beard fetishes …). The number of apps alone provide more than enough opportunities for everyone to find a date, or two, or three. It’s totally possible to have your entire social life revolve around dates.

Online dating as the “new normal” isn’t the only change in 21st century dating. As our methodology of meeting potential mates has shifted, so has our mentality. Are these new perspectives and behaviors just a natural progression in the direction of the modern social environment? Or are they hindering our ability to find love?

Emphasis on volume, not value

Modern dating is like eating at a Chinese buffet and being uncomfortably full afterward (we’re talking pants-unbuttoning status). If you approach it the wrong way, online dating can be an exhausting experience characterized by overindulgence and burnout.

Imagine it this way: Instead of filling your plate with only your favorite dish – let’s say General Tsao’s Chicken, for example, you feel the need to take a little bit of everything. Dishes you know you probably won’t like still end up on your plate because you know you can always throw it away or eat one of the 50 other options.

As with most Chinese buffets, dating apps offer too many people to date. (Who knew that would ever become an issue?) Any living, breathing human within a 25-mile radius could be a Tinder match (and they might not even be a human —you never know).  Online dating is a numbers game based on dumb luck. For every seven servings of chicken fried rice, Mongolian beef or crab Rangoon,  for example, just one might have be of above-average quality. Similarly, for every seven dates you go on, only one might lead to a second. Dating multiple people simultaneously can quickly become addicting due to the unmatched ego boost, with little risk involved.

The “quantity over quality” mentality does have a downside. As a colleague once confided to me, he was “spread too thin” and was continuing to date people he didn’t even like. This lack of focus can also lead us to do less-than-classy things, like checking a dating app while on another date, or texting the wrong person something that is obviously meant for somebody else.

If the end goal is to date someone exclusively (and I know it isn’t the case for everyone), is blowing through all of your matches really the smartest strategy? Is being wheel-barrowed out of a Chinese buffet worth it? Feeling wanted by so many people has its perks, but it doesn’t last forever.

Continuum of Catfishing

In 2015, phone calls are few and far between, so texting prior to a first date can determine whether the event actually occurs. Texting can be thrilling – your heart beats a little bit faster when their name lights up your phone or their typing bubbles appear. You start to believe the two of you have chemistry and you have a lot to talk about. You laugh at their jokes. You can tell they get your sarcasm. But what you can easily forget is that you are communicating through a computer. You’re basically on Joaquin Phoenix’s level in the movie Her, (okay, so that’s being a little dramatic). You’re not talking to them. You’re typing.

Truthfully, you really don’t know if you’ll have chemistry or be able to hold a conversation with someone until you’ve met them. Even then, chemistry can take time to build. I’ve been super excited to meet somebody based on texting conversations and have had nothing to talk about with them on the actual date.  I’ve also been on dates where I’ve barely spoken to the person beforehand and had a fantastic time. Assumptions are rarely accurate; we’re all merely sketches of ourselves behind our smartphones.

To prevent shellshock, minimize the texting foreplay, get off your phone and just meet up with the person. You’ll have more to talk about anyway, and you’re less likely to find yourself on an episode of Catfish – although, who wouldn’t want to meet Nev Shulman?

Excessive Transparency

Dating apps have provided us with the ability to easily stalk, overanalyze, and ultimately torture ourselves by knowing too much in the early stages of dating. We can see when a person is active, and if they haven’t responded to a text or message since they’ve last logged on. Anxiety ensues. While online dating can be easier for the person being rejected, because information and online activity is so transparent, it’s much easier to get upset over something trivial and meaningless.

Online dating not only provides digital transparency, but also a more liberal platform for discussion about casual dating. For example, there has long been general consensus that online dating (and dating in general) can involve going out with multiple people at the same time. Over the summer, I went out with two guys who separately mentioned to me that they a) had another date that Friday evening or b) were seeing other women. I thought the first guy was just a rude human being, but when it happened a second time, I realized it was part of the new dating phenomenon.

Has dating become so transparent that literally nothing is off limits? If you can know a person’s full name, where they work and what their favorite craft beer is before meeting them, shouldn’t you also be comfortable with knowing about the other people they’re dating?

Regardless of your stage in the game, talking about your upcoming dates while on a date isn’t tasteful. If you and your date have a conversation about becoming monogamous, it’s completely appropriate to discuss if there are additional people in the mix, or if you’re in an open relationship, but otherwise, lips are best zipped.

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The way online dating has affected the way we think is fascinating, but what’s even more interesting is how we behave in response. As the dating game continues to evolve, and our batches of matches continue to grow, my questions still linger: is the grass always greener? Have we cast our nets too wide? Would a prix-fixe menu have been a better choice than the buffet?

Rachel Krasnow photo

Rachel Krasnow is a communications professional working for a global healthcare consulting firm in Washington, D.C. A Midwest native, she graduated from Indiana University-Bloomington in 2012 with a dual degree in Journalism and Spanish. In her free time, Rachel enjoys traveling, eating, dancing, blogging and watching documentaries.  

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