4 Signature Local Spirits

Craft distilleries are appearing around our region and they’re taking advantage of locally produced grain. Step inside four local distilleries and find out what makes their signature drinks unique.

Move over, craft beer. There’s a (relatively) new player on the market.

Around our region, craft distilleries are popping up, and they’re taking advantage of a major asset in northern Illinois: endless miles of locally produced grain.

The bold and inventive flavors you’ll find at these local distilleries reflect the adventurous personalities of their creators. And, whether tasted alone or in a special cocktail, the smooth, unique flavors in these craft creations stand apart.

Meet the inventive people and distinguished drinks behind four distilleries in northwest Chicagoland. Stop by for a tasting, a tour and a unique take on classic spirits.

Most of these are distributed in limited quantities, so your best shot is to get it straight from the source.

Whiskey Acres Distilling Co., DeKalb

This distillery adds one unique, but very useful ingredient to its bourbon whiskey.

“Our bourbon is made from corn, wheat and malted barley. Wheat as a second ingredient is uncommon for bourbon,” says Nick Nagele, vice president and chief operating officer at Whiskey Acres, 11504 Keslinger Road. “That sweetness and mellowness coming from the wheat – on top of the sweetness from the corn – makes our whiskey very approachable, sippable and easy to enjoy.”

The Straight Bourbon whiskey is a top seller at this distillery, which opened in 2013. The whiskey’s smooth finish has helped it win several medals at various tasting competitions.

“We’re using a path less traveled,” Nagele says. “The wheat gives us a flavor profile that we like, and it allows us to create a high-quality, unique product.”

While you’re visiting the tasting room, try the Bourbon Slush. It starts with the 87-proof Straight Bourbon, mixed in with frozen lemonade, frozen orange juice and black tea – all served frozen with a splash of ginger ale.

Also on the menu are rye whiskey and vodka. These award-winning spirits are made from grains raised right on the Whiskey Acres farm.

“Everything we do at Whiskey Acres starts with the farm,” says Nagele. “We raise distinct varieties of corn to make unique types of whiskey. You never know what you’ll find in our tasting room.”

Copper Fiddle Distillery, Lake Zurich

Around the country, bourbon is rising in popularity. At Copper Fiddle Distillery, 532 W. Illinois Route 22, Ste. 110, it’s a staple.

Customers call the 92-proof bourbon very smooth, a comment that owes a lot to Copper Fiddle’s distillation process.

“The first part, or first liquid that comes off, is called the heads and that comes off at a high proof,” says co-owner Fred Robinson. “The second part collected is called the hearts, and that’s what you want. The third part is the tails, which is harsh and bitter. We don’t use that. So, we sacrifice a little volume for the quality to make it so smooth.”

Copper Fiddle Distillery, which opened in 2014, offers plenty of cocktail choices, including the Fiddle Manhattan, which comes with bourbon, apple juice, cherry juice and bitters. The popular Copper Fiddle Mule combines bourbon with lime juice and ginger beer. It’s served, of course, in a copper mule mug.

“We sell a lot of those, but this bourbon goes well with everything,” Robinson says.

Also on the menu are two kinds of rum and gin, including a “Fyren Gin” that comes with a Serrano pepper in the bottle. The pepper is charred and roasted to provide the perfect balance of flavor and heat.

“We call that our ‘fire engine’ because it’s got a little heat,” Robinson says with a laugh. “That can make a really good bloody mary.”

Rush Creek Distilling, Harvard

The vodka at this relative newcomer is odorless and tasteless – just the way co-owner Mark Stricker likes it.

“We want to take much of the flavor away from it so it’s pure, clean and crisp,” Stricker says. “That’s how vodka is supposed to be.”

The 80-proof vodka at Rush Creek, 1501 W. Diggins St., is crafted clear and smooth through a special filtration process.

“We use active carbon filtration for our vodka, and we’re using it in a very unique way,” says Todd Stricker, Mark’s brother and co-owner. “The process we’re using cleans up our vodka pretty well. A lot of people are used to the burn when they drink vodka; it tastes or smells like rubbing alcohol. We try to eliminate that, and we do it successfully.”

The grains that created this vodka were grown just a few miles up the road by a local farmer.

“Our grains come from the best, most fertile grounds in Illinois,” Mark says. “Our water source comes from the deepest well in Harvard, almost a quarter-mile deep.”

Vodka cocktails at Rush Creek are mostly simple and include choices like the gimlet, mixed with lime juice and a lime garnish.

The distillery, which has been open for a year, also sells gin and two types of whiskey. But no matter what you choose at Rush Creek, you’re tasting something that’s been crafted in a unique and inventive manner.

“We’re here to make our own products, and if we like it and our customers like it, we’re doing just fine,” he says.

Fox River Distilling Co., Geneva

The Bennett Mill Single Barrel Straight Bourbon is the go-to drink at this distillery, and for good reason. It’s so smooth that many people choose to simply enjoy it on the rocks.

“In our whiskey and our bourbon, you should be tasting the flavors common to those products without a noticeable alcohol taste or smell,” says Amy Orlando, vice president of sales and marketing at Fox River Distilling Co., 204 Dearborn Ct., Unit 110. “We make our spirits so they can be poured neat or over a cube of ice.”

This flavorful, 90-proof bourbon is full and well-rounded, with notes of spicy rye, vanilla, maple syrup and toasted nuts – flavors that speak loudly because of Fox River Distilling’s unique approach.

The bourbon is aged in 30-gallon barrels, and when it’s time for bottling, one barrel comprises a single bottling run. So, you’re only tasting the contents of that single barrel. Some distilleries, by contrast, will blend together multiple barrels.

Since each barrel is somewhat unique, you can expect slight variations in flavor from bottle to bottle.

“It just adds to the attraction, as more and more collectors look to fill out their bourbon libraries,” Orlando says.

Bourbon isn’t the only smooth-tasting spirit on the lineup at this four-year-old firm. Smoothness is also a signature quality of the Herrington Premium Vodka.

“Quite frankly, for things like vodka, you shouldn’t have a noticeable taste, but customers tell us that it tastes good compared to others,” Orlando says.