By / 16th April, 2015 / Newspaper Articles / Off

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.”

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