Evanston, Illinois is probably best known as a launch pad for prohibition and as the home of Northwestern University, and often these associations go hand-in-hand. Northwestern instituted a dry policy in their first year of enrollment in 1855 and Evanston followed suit within a year of their founding in 1857. Frances Elizabeth Willard, the first Dean of Women at Northwestern, was a leader of the temperance movement. Eventually, both institutions would repeal their policies in the 1970s but distilling liquor within city limits remained illegal until last year when F.E.W. Spirits on Chicago Avenue opened doors. They soon turned to Northwestern’s Master of Engineering Management department to help create the best and most effective operation for their new distillery.
Paul Hletko, the owner and master distiller of F.E.W. Spirits, was formerly a lawyer and well-disposed to reverse long-standing Evanston laws that made distilling liquor illegal. His background in home beer brewing provided the skills necessary to craft interesting new spirits like rye whiskey and gin flavored with lemon, vanilla, cinnamon and hops. However, in order to establish a “best practices” operation, he turned to the expertise of the Master of Engineering Management department and gave students a chance to take on the project.
“My industry has a rather small number of players, most of whom are rather secretive…so there is far less information readily available than would be generally expected,” Hletko explains. “We worked with MEM to help compile best practices and learn from them to improve on the business.” Hletko worked with a small group of students and gave them a project with a small scope to make the issue easy to address. Instead, the MEM students disregarded the scope and took matters into their own hands. As Hletko explained, they massively increased the scope of the project, but in turn massively increased its usefulness as well. F.E.W was very happy with the results of the collaboration and Hletko said he “would definitely work with MEM again, as projects present themselves!”
F.E.W. already won a double gold medal in the 2011 New York World Wine & Spirits competition for their white whiskey. You can try F.E.W. spirits yourself at a variety of locations in the city and suburbs or head to the distillery Saturday 2:00 PM-5:00 PM for a tour and tasting. The distillery is also hosting an event this Friday, August 17, from 5:30 PM-8:00 PM. See Paul Hletko’s interview with Craftsman Experience below for more details on the history and mission of F.E.W. Spirits.