At its most basic, a brewery or distillery is a house of transformation. Grain, fruit and spices mix, break down, and reconstitute into beer, bourbon or gin. Store the product in a particular type of vessel – say, a whiskey barrel – and its characteristics change yet again.
Craft alcoholic beverages are a growing business in Illinois, where some 83 craft breweries and 18 craft distilleries operate. Before these inventive beers and spirits became a reality, the brewery and distillery owners had to undergo a transformation of their own. For some, it meant a career change; for others, the fruition of a long-held dream. How these establishments came into being is almost as impressive as their products.
Copper Fiddle Distillery, Lake Zurich
The story of Copper Fiddle Distillery, 532 W. IL Route 22 in Lake Zurich, cannot be told without generous use of the word “serendipity.” For owners Fred Robinson and Jose Hernandez, everything about their bold adventure of becoming one of the first distilleries in Illinois – from the building to the bottle – seemed ordained by fate.
One summer day in 2012, Hernandez, an architect, approached his neighbor Robinson, a golf professional, and asked if he wanted to go in together on a still. Robinson agreed. After a few vodka recipes ended in disaster, the duo hit on a tasty bourbon recipe. Taste tests confirmed they were onto something special. That’s when things got interesting.
“To get federal, state and local permission for a distillery, you actually have to sign a lease, commit to a space and buy all of your equipment before you get approval,” says Robinson. “That’s a pretty big roll of the dice. We looked at the process. We looked at the money involved. One night over a couple of bottles of red wine we decided to do it. We were going into the distilling business. It’s crazy!”
Even crazier were the lucky breaks that kept coming their way, like when they came up with the name.“We liked the word copper, but we didn’t know what to use for the second word,” says Robinson. “We had a whole list of words, but nothing worked. Then Jose told me about the story of his wife Nancy’s violin.”
The neglected family heirloom was about to be tossed, but when their daughter expressed an interest in playing violin, they instead took it to be restored. “Turns out, it was a registered violin that had been made by hand in Chicago in 1906,” says Hernandez. “It was worth a lot of money.”
That’s when the light bulbs went off. “I’m listening to this story, and they’re saying violin, but I’m a Southern boy,” says Robinson. “I’m hearing fiddle in my head. That’s what we call them in the South. Then, we all make this connection that our product is handmade in Chicago, and gets better with age. Whiskey and music – man, that’s a pretty good combination. Copper Fiddle, Copper Fiddle. It just hit.”
But before they could start selling their special blends of Bourbon Whiskey, Fiddle Gin and Tom Gin, the pair needed labels, bottles and a building. Again, fate stepped in.
One day, Hernandez was talking with the owner of a car repair shop, lamenting about his hassles finding a distillery location. The owner tossed Hernandez the keys to his storage facility next door. An inspection verified it had high ceilings, good drainage and good water. Located on Route 22 near the intersection with Route 12 in Lake Zurich’s central business district, it was an ideal location for their retail-forward business. It was a perfect fit.
When they chose a bottle, the bottling company told them they were the only producer in North America using that unique bottle shape. When they needed a unique label to fit the bottle, it turned out Hernandez’s daughter was dating a superb graphic artist, who offered to design it. Serendipity, indeed.
But all the luck in the universe would not lead to success if the bourbon and gin weren’t good. It was customer reaction that transformed a budding Copper Fiddle into a profitable business which, Hernandez says, has been in the black since its opening day.
“Go on our Facebook page, and you’ll see we have almost 50 reviews and they’re all five stars,” says Hernandez. “The reason for that kind of response is that Fred and I are here. We greet people at the door. We recognize customers have a choice. They could go to another distiller, or they could do something else. They don’t have to come here. But when they walk in to enjoy a drink, we listen to their story. We tell them our story. They taste our product, we walk them through a tour and we respond to them on a personal level.”
All Copper Fiddle products are handmade, grain to bottle, on location. Hernandez says 70 percent of their bourbon whiskey and gin is sold retail on site, while another 30 percent is distributed through wholesalers. Hernandez and Robinson, both of whom still retain their full-time jobs, say their business model is working out better than planned, just like everything else related to their distillery. What started as a whim has turned into a reality.
“The best part is the satisfaction of taking an idea to the end and completing the idea,” says Robinson. “Everybody comes up with ideas, but nobody finishes them off. We finished this idea off and we brought a brand-new product to the marketplace that had never been here before. Jose and I are really proud of that. We did it.”
For the full article, click here: http://northwestchicagoland.northwestquarterly.com/2014/09/masters-of-their-craft-fox-valley-brewing-distilling/
By Nino Marchetti on March 10, 2014
A new distillery set for its public debut this weekend near Chicago, Illinois will have ready when its doors open a young bourbon that’s been mashed, fermented, distilled, bottled and labeled in house. The operation is named Copper Fiddle Distillery.
Copper Fiddle, reported the Lake County News Sun, is opening in Lake Zurich, Illinois, and its founders have been in the process of setting it up for the better part of a year. I reached out to them to learn a little more about their small batch bourbon and found out it has been aged in small charred American white oak barrels for several months after being distilled in an “old style” American made copper pot still from Arkansas.
Bottled at 92 proof and pricing for nearly $50 a bottle, Copper Fiddle Bourbon’s tasting notes, provided to me by the distillery, indicate “distinct notes of vanilla, caramel and an oaky char finish.” To learn more about it, you should contact them directly or attend their grand opening on March 15.
As for the name Copper Fiddle, the distillery’s history web page recounts that it reflects “a family heirloom that was hand-crafted and made in great City of Chicago. In 1907 that violin, or as we like to call it ‘fiddle,’ was made, subsequently cared for, handed down through the Rieger family, and today is the prized family heirloom.” This violin, “now 107 years old, deep in coppery color and sounding better with every passing year of age…represents Copper Fiddle Distillery. When comparing our spirits to an expertly made violin, one must keep in mind that age is always a valued companion.”
When Copper Fiddle Distillery opens its doors in Lake Zurich, its owners expect it to be just the 11th craft spirits distillery in the state. And wading through the unfamiliar territory has proven to be a learning experience for both the town and owner Jose Hernandez.
Even though he was originally planning to open the distillery in early fall, Hernandez said that as he and his partner, Fred Robinson, continue to apply for the necessary permits, he now thinks December would be a best-case scenario.
“It’s a learning process for everybody,” Hernandez said. “Lake Zurich has been very accommodating; they’re learning along with us. Relatively speaking, from what we understand industry-wide, it can take 10, 12, 14 months from inception to when you start applying (for permits) to get everything done.”
Dan Peterson, Lake Zurich’s building and zoning manager, said it’s new ground for the village as well, with some administrative issues relating to the business taking a bit longer than initially expected. But officials are excited for the distillery to open, he said, and things are moving in the right direction.
“It’s just a process that we’ve had to go through,” he said. “It’s always good to have a business take over a vacant space. It’s good to have a destination-type business.”
The Copper Fiddle, which will be located just east of Rand Road at 532 W. Route 22, plans to carry a selection of whiskey, gin and other spirits, Hernandez said. The business can’t start producing the liquor until owners acquire a series of permits.
This month, Copper Fiddle received a federal permit allowing owners to operate a distilled spirits plant, Hernandez said. The next step is to seek approval for the labels that will be covering their liquor bottles.
“We can only go as fast as government allows us,” he said. “You can’t do these things concurrently, unfortunately. You have to do them consecutively.”
Other than a few towns that already have craft distilleries, very few area communities have the correct codes and liquor licenses available to quickly bring in a business like Copper Fiddle, Hernandez said.
Lake Zurich faced this dilemma and is working to amend its liquor laws in a way that would allow craft distilleries to open in town. The village should have all the necessary provisions in place by Sept. 3, Peterson said, explaining that the village had “to create a new class of liquor license, which happens periodically,” to accommodate the Copper Fiddle.
One issue was that Copper Fiddle will not be serving food, which is a general requirement for places in town that serve alcohol. But because the distillery will not offer traditional bar service — the only liquor served will be samples of the products available for purchase — it didn’t fall under the current liquor code.
Despite the longer-than-anticipated time frame, Hernandez said he’s pleased with the way Copper Fiddle is coming along.
“Things are progressing nicely,” he said. “We’re not going to get frustrated over a length of time, because it is what it is. You just can’t change it.”
Hernandez, 58, and Robinson, 61, both of Hawthorn Woods, have been making the rounds to local bars, restaurants and liquor stores to promote their product, Hernandez said.
Though distribution is still a ways off, the response the partners have gotten has been encouraging, he said.
“As we go places now, we’ll go to a bar or somewhere we haven’t been before, and they say, ‘Oh, I heard about you,'” Hernandez said. “We didn’t hear that three months ago. We’re not even open. The word is kind of getting out there.”
Copper Fiddle has also been setting up booths at a handful of local festivals and events, handing out fliers and coupons for discounted tours when the distillery opens.
The distillery plans to sell merchandise like flasks, hats and glassware out of the front of the store, while the actual brewing will take place in the back.
Beyond the whiskey and two types of gin — one of which is aged in a whiskey barrel that Hernandez said was popular before Prohibition — Copper Fiddle also plans to produce bourbon, rye and limoncello down the road.
Hernandez has high hopes for the success of Copper Fiddle. He compared craft distilling with the craft brewing movement that took off in the 1990s. According to the Colorado-based Brewers Association, as of June there were almost 2,500 craft breweries across the country. Hernandez estimated the number was closer to 250 for craft distilleries.
“We feel like we’re at the beginning part of the wave,” he said. “The attitude of a lot of people now over the last couple of years has changed. Consumers seem to be focusing more on local. … That’s creating a lot of interest in having a local distillery.”