Distilling it with Dr. Sonat Birnecker

BY Taylor Rebhan

“For me there’s no such concept as a work/life balance. My life is everything that I do — I throw myself into all of it, and I’m doing it all, all the time,” says Dr. Sonat Birnecker. Eight years ago, Sonat and her husband Dr. Robert Birnecker left their academic careers in Washington D.C., and moved to Chicago to embark on a new business venture. Today, they are the proud owners of Koval — Chicago’s first distillery to open since before the Prohibition.

The liquor industry does not often get associated with highly educated women who are both a multitasking mom and executive, but Sonat is exactly that.

After receiving an MSt from Oxford and a PhD from the University of London, Sonat spent over a decade teaching and lecturing in the United States and Germany. In 2008, she gave up tenure in hopes of a different quality of life — one that would afford an opportunity for her to work with her husband and return to the city she loved: Chicago.

“I had not been a distiller before, but my husband grew up distilling in Austria on his grandfather’s distillery and winery,” President of Koval Dr. Sonat says. “It was something he did his whole life — he comes from three generations of distillers.”

Robert’s experience gave them one step ahead of the game, but the couple still had a lot of work ahead of them to launch the business.  

“We would stay up until 2 a.m.,” Sonat says. “‘What are the eco-requirements?’, ‘What are the actual financial requirements?’, ‘What are the real estate requirements?’ — every single aspect of it became a very interesting topic of research that we would do after we got back from work.”


Koval’s gin was the most awarded gin in America in 2015, both for design and taste. Sonat’s sister designs Koval’s branding.

Over the years, Sonat spearheaded much of the product development, distribution and marketing, all while being pregnant and a new mom during the formative years. 

“A lot of times people think that the liquor industry is very dominated by men, but in my role, I speak with numerous distribution companies around the globe, and quite of a few of them are run and owned by women,” Sonat says. “I would say the business side of the liquor industry has a very strong involvement by women.”

Embracing a grain-to-bottle mentality, each step of Koval’s spirit-making process is thoughtfully monitored — beginning with contracting local farmers to grow the grain, to on-site milling and mashing, then to distilling, bottling, and packaging.

Koval has grown to be one of America’s leading small batch, independent spirit manufacturers. The brand has won numerous awards and their distribution spreads across the U.S., as well as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Japan, Canada, Australia and many more. 


The name Koval means “blacksmith,” in numerous Eastern European languages, but the word in Yiddish also refers to a “black sheep” or someone who forges ahead and does something new.

The line consists of: rye whiskeymillet whiskeyfour grain whiskeybourbon whiskeylimited edition collectionsliqueurs and a wide range of spirits.

Today, Sonat and Robert continue to teach after all — in the last few years alone, they have consulted more than 1000 people through workshops they host for distilling hopefuls at their distillery in Chicago. They also run a distillery startup consulting firm. 

Hear more from Sonat on what it took to break industry barriers and bring the craft of distilling back to Chicago, below.


What did you teach prior to starting Koval?

I taught German cultural history, Jewish studies and women’s studies, so focusing on Germany and Austria from the 1890s until the present day.

How did your knowledge of German culture help you grow Koval into the succesful business it is today?

I think having a lot of knowledge of Kafka helped me figure out all the different turns of the bureaucratic involvement in licensing a distillery. I definitely drew from it in the experience I had with bureaucracy as well as the legal system. We really had to negotiate with the city’s building department to make this project come to life. 

Where is your distillery located?

We actually have two locations. One is the original location, which is where we do all of our tours and that’s our experimental distillery now because it’s so much smaller. Then, we have a main production facility that’s five blocks up the street, and they’re both on Ravenswood Avenue. One is in the Andersonville/Ravenswood neighborhood, and then the other one is in Lake View.


Koval distills with a custom-built potstill handcrafted in Germany by Kothe Destillationstechnik.

What spirits did you start with?

We started with a rye, oat, a wheat, a spelt and a millet. We had so much fun working with the individual grains and seeing what they tasted like on their own — we had this sort of academic approach of looking at it in many different ways. We then did an age diversion of rye, oat, wheat, spelt and millet in a toasted barrel, and a charred barrel — which is the very traditional kind of barrel that American whiskey makers use, so that people could really see the difference of what the spirit tastes like on its own as a white spirit, what it tastes like when it is aged in a toasted barrel, and then what it tastes like when it is aged in a charred barrel.

Then, little by little we realized that that approach was insane because we had 15 different whiskey products, and it was not manageable. We had way too many products, so in the beginning we had a lot of learning moments, and then we had to cut down the line to what it is today.


A bottle of Koval whiskey getting filled before moving on to the labeler.

What is your best advice for other women looking to start their own distillery or business?

My advice for success is — there’s always someone who’s going to be working harder than you are, so at least work harder than you would normally work yourself. I feel like a lot of this is real hard work and grit and not worrying about a social life, to be honest. It has to be a path that you want and it’s not for everybody. One has to realize what one gives up and what one gains by really truly throwing oneself into creating a company. If that’s something that somebody wants to do, then that’s going to be their everything, and they should be aware of that and they should really just go for it.  

A lot of people say it’s so much work raising your kids or being with your kids, and homeschooling, and then running a company and doing this. Ultimately, it just is what it is. You accept to do it and do it well, or you decide that it’s not for you and that maybe you need to do something different. 

What other advice do you have specifically for other working moms?

My children are now six and eight years old. I’ve really enjoyed having the opportunity as the president of a liquor company to show people that it’s possible to be a mom and be an entrepreneur at the exact same time. I remember so visibly that I went to a liquor conference where I was on a panel, and my youngest son was still nursing and very little. I wore him in a Moby wrap, while I was on the panel with other people. A lot of people would never think to do that, but I feel like, ‘why not?’  

This is me, this is how I do business, and because it’s my business, I can do it however I want. If that means I’m going to have my infant on me at a sales meeting or at a conference, or if that means that I’m going to have to tell a distributor while I’m on the phone if he can hold on one second, so that I can give my kid a drink box, it’s fine. I’ve actually found that it’s been helpful in business because it creates a human element to who I am to my business partners who have never met me. It gives them an opportunity to talk about their kids and their families.

I feel that a lot of times women have achieved a great deal, but they have to leave their womanhood or their motherhood at home. Or they have to just leave it when they enter the workplace, and at least what I’ve been able to do, and of course very few women can do this, but I have been able to be a woman in the workplace as well as a mother.


Shinola partners with Koval for our Chicago store events.

Get directions to our Chicago store, here.

Get updates on products,
people and places we love.

Follow Us On Social