Hidden away in a repurposed automotive repair shop in an ally off of Chicago Avenue in Evanston, Ill., FEW Spirits LLC faced one major hurdle upon its founding. Evanston is known to many as the birthplace of the Temperance Movement, and, until the founding of FEW Spirits in 2011, no alcohol had been produced within the city limits.
“Why Evanston? It’s because I live here, my kids go to school here, my kids grew up here, I have my friends here, this is where my kids are, this is where life is — it’s family — and that’s why here. I think it’s a sheer coincidence that it happens to be the birthplace of prohibition, but certainly that doesn’t hurt in the marketing either,” explains Paul Hletko, FEW Spirits founder and master distiller.
Although it might seem to be a difficult task to establish a distillery in the birthplace of prohibition, Hletko says that his idea was met with excitement and encouragement from the city. It just took some patience to get through the process.
“It was hard, but it was great. Again, we were working with the city, and it’s been fantastic. The city has been nothing but supportive. Nobody had ever thought of it,” he explains. “… It was over a year of work. I lost track of how many city hearings I went to after 15, but I never took a single ‘No’ vote. … Every vote was seven-zero, nine-zero, or whatever it was, but always unanimously in my favor. It was a lot of work, but it really was only possible with the strong assistance of the city and that kind of sharing a little bit of a vision for a bigger economy and manufacturing and artisan jobs and doing something neat in a city.”
Although he had the city’s support, in order to establish the distillery in Evanston, several changes had to be made. The founding of FEW impacted not only zoning rules, but also the heath code and alcohol laws in the city, Hletko explains.
With the start of his new business, Hletko felt a need to be a part of a larger community with shared concerns. As such, FEW Spirits was one of the founding distilleries in the Louisville, Ky.-based American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA), for which Hletko, now ex-officio, has also served in several leadership positions, including president.
“I think that craft spirits, it’s a real industry and it’s a real business, and when we got together to start the ACSA that was a real driving factor that we needed to have a real nonprofit that represented all of us together. All of us together are way stronger than any one of us alone, and so working together with all of us to get all of us better, it’s good for business, which has helped all of us,” Hletko says.
Not only has the ACSA provided craft distillers with a community of support, but it also has recently impacted significant change. Through the ACSA, craft distillers played a significant role in the recent passage of the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act, which lowers the federal excise tax for alcohol producers, within the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which passed in both Houses of Congress in December.
“The fact that we were able to work together with our friends from the larger spirits suppliers, and our friends from the wineries, and our friends from the breweries to put together a package that made it through the federal legislative process, that’s amazing and none of us could have tried to do that by ourselves because it wouldn’t work, it wouldn’t be effective, but together we made something happen that has fundamentally helped all of us,” Hletko explains. “It’s a difference of almost $11 a case. That’s a big deal for us. It’s a big deal for all of us. It’s great.
“I think that it means a lot to me to have a real true nonprofit trade association for distilleries,” he continues. “That was the motivation behind founding it, that’s the motivation for being involved. I started off as a board member, I was elected by my peers. My peers around the country think there’s something about me and all our other board members that’s enough that I can represent their interests, and then I was even elected president. That’s pretty cool, and again, that’s a strength of the ACSA is it’s led by elected officials.”
Hletko also works with the Washington, D.C.-based Distilled Spirits Council to help see and bring different perspectives to the discussion.
“I think it always helps to see different perspectives and see different issues, so you can have your eyes opened up a little bit wider, and by having a role in both associations, it helps to have both heard,” he says. “The big suppliers are actually not evil, they’re good people and they have concerns, and they’re different than our concerns, and so the ability to go back and forth between big and small and work together with them, I think that’s amazing, and again, that’s one of the things that helped us get [federal excise tax] relief through was working with them to have a package that is perhaps a little bit more palatable.”