I’ll fully admit to barely being familiar with FEW Spirits. My knowledge on these pioneers of the American craft whiskey movement is limited, but now a little less so than a few weeks ago. I’ve founder Paul Hletko to thank for that, who recently hosted a masterclass in Amsterdam. Afterwards, I brought home samples of a few (no pun intended) of their core products – FEW Bourbon, Rye and Cold Cut.
Paul Hletko had multiple careers before deciding to move into whiskey making. He was a professional guitar player, ran a record label, designed and built custom guitars effects pedals. And he worked in law when his grandfather passed in 2008, which ultimately was the catalyst for launching FEW Spirits in Evanston, Illinois.
“Before World War II my grandpa’s family owned a brewery in what is now the Czech Republic. It was invaded by the Nazis, and they took the brewery. My family was wiped out in the camps, but my grandfather survived. He spent the rest of his life trying to get it back, but never succeeded.”
Hletko has undoubtedly told this story a gazillion times, but still visibly choked up when he repeated it during the masterclass. It was an unexpected moment. Inspiring too. In short, Hletko took it upon himself to revive his family’s legacy. But no, he didn’t start a brewery. Probably because he’s too smart of an entrepreneur.
At the time, the American craft beer movement was well underway. Making a mark would’ve been difficult (if not impossible). When one attendee asked advice on launching a whisky brand, Hletko was very clear. “Don’t do it. When I started out, there were maybe 30 craft distilleries in the United states. Now there might be 3,000 craft producers. It’s impossible to stand out.”
Starting FEW Spirits has proven a great decision for the likable Hletko, who never seemed to take himself too serious, but also wasn’t afraid to be quintessentially American. A little brash, a little loud, but never obnoxious. Always willing to take the mickey out of himself. He’s very quotable. At one point, he said “I’m the first guy to even make alcohol in the birthplace of Prohibition – I killed Prohibition dead.”
Here he was referring to Evanston, Illinois. It’s not just where FEW Spirits is located, it’s also widely recognised as the birthplace of Prohition. One of the leading figures of the temperance movement was women’s activist Frances Elizabeth Willard, whose family moved to Evanston in 1858.
Willard became national president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in 1879 and would remain so until her death in 1898. And even though Prohibition wasn’t ratified until 1919, she played an important role in laying the foundations.
Why is this important? Those paying close attention, might have figured it out already. The initials of Francis Elizabeth Willard spell out F.E.W. That immediately explains the name FEW Spirits. Although… “I would never name my brand after her. That’s just a coincidence.” (Just to be clear, Hletko wasn’t being serious, just having a little fun.)
I can go on for a while, but safe to say, the masterclass was entertaining and then some. I’ll share a few more tidbits below when discussing the actual whiskies. We’ll start with the FEW Spirits Bourbon, then move on to the FEW Spirits Rye, and end with the FEW Spirits Cold Cut (not actually whiskey).
FEW Spirits Bourbon (46.5%, OB, 2023)
According to Paul Hletko, their FEW Spirits Bourbon accounts for roughly 70% of the company’s sales. “It’s big, bold, brash, not shy. That’s what we are as people [Americans, ed.] and it shows in the whiskey.”
The mash bill is 70% corn, 20% rye, and 10% malt. They use Belgian beer yeast for a three day fermentation. Hletko describes the bourbon as being “on the spicier side – a little different than the bourbon you grew up drinking.”
Nose: Rich notes of caramel, pine needles and Demerara sugar, but also a sprinkle of nutmeg. Then whiffs of marzipan, cured oranges and cherry syrup. Really enjoy the faint cumin note. Taste: A good amount of spices with cloves and cardamom, but also cinnamon buns, orange pith and toffee. There are gentle floral touches too, but the wood (resin) is certainly very dominant. Finish: Medium length. Oak shavings and warm spices, as well as fennel and a few drops of coffee.
There’s lots to like here, but it’s also a tad unpolished. That probably means this will divide opinions somewhat. Not a crowd pleaser, but a strong-willed, audacious bourbon.
FEW Spirits Rye Whiskey (46.5%, OB, 2023)
While Bourbon might be FEW Spirits’ biggest seller, their rye whiskey brought them a lot of success. “Rye is what put us on the map. We lept ahead of the competition because of our rye whiskey.”
FEW Spirits Rye is made from 70% rye, 20% corn and 10% malt. They use a French wine yeast from the Loire valley. Hletko describes it as the inverse of his bourbon. “Rye is generally known as spicy. But the yeast adds a fruitiness to ours.”
Nose: Dark, earthy and warming. A combination of burnt brown sugar, forest floor and damp oak, but with some delicate notes of plums and sweet dates thrown in. It’s rather bready too. Taste: Nice, lots happening. Initially arriving on earthy notes and traditional rye spices. Not very peppery, but rather more warming. Then sweeter, syrupy flavours accompanied by some generous dried fruits, oranges, milk chocolate, and a subtle herbaceous quality. Finish: Long with hints of marmalade, Frisian rye bread and molasses.
For me, this is a big step up from the bourbon. There seems to be a better balance between the rye spirit and oak. Relatively accessible, yet never boring.
FEW Spirits Cold Cut Bourbon (46.5%, OB, 2023)
FEW Spirits is not afraid to experiment. “We have a willingness to crash and burn. Then we laugh about it. That sets us apart.” They even made a pechuga style whiskey with sausages from Hot Doug’s in Chicago.
FEW Spirits Cold Cut Bourbon is not that wild, but it’s also neither bourbon nor whiskey. “It is FEW Spirits Bourbon but we reduce it from cask strength with cold brew coffee.” According to Hletko, that comes down to about one cup of coffee per 700ml bottle. How did he come up with Cold Cut? “I drink enough coffee to kill a small horse.”
Nose: While the notes of coffee, and even mocha, are undeniable, you would certainly be forgiven if you don’t recognise this for what it is. This is pretty similar to FEW Spirits’ regular bourbon. The caramel, the Demerara sugar. Also some cured oranges and nutmeg. You get the gist. Taste: Surprisingly, the mouthfeel seems much creamier. Granted, here too the oak is rather present. Plenty of spice, some latte macchiato (but that might just be the power of suggestion), pine resin and toffee. Finish: Medium length. There’s oak, spices, some chocolate and a bit of coffee (but I picked up a coffee note in the original bourbon too).
They could've (and maybe should've) taken this much further. The bourbon has the upper hand and the influence of the cold brew coffee is subtle. But it does somehow work. Full marks for the concept, but I believe there's room for improvement in the execution.