“Opened in Chicago’s up-and-coming West Loop neighborhood in August 2013, CH Distillery (564 West Randolph) is the city’s first distillery with a cocktail bar. Celebrating the science of making spirits, the distillery takes its name from carbon and hydrogen, the fundamental compounds in alcohol, and at the same time, pays tribute to Chicago’s local community. Founded by spirits enthusiasts Tremaine Atkinson and Mark Lucas, CH Distillery focuses on locally-sourced ingredients, producing spirits on-site in custom-built stills, from vodka and gin to rum, whiskey, liqueurs and specialty spirits. The distillery takes spirit-driven cocktails to a new level, allowing food and beverage director Krissy Schutte to custom-create liquors to build drinks around. ”
When we say “handmade,” we actually mean it
Both CH founders, Tremaine Atkinson and Mark Lucas, answered a few birds-eye view questions on CH and it’s continued success.
AG: What made you both want to start this uncommon concept in Chicago? How did you get into the distillery business?
M&T: We love Vodka. It’s crisp, clean and because it’s so simple, the nuances of flavor really matter. That passion for Vodka led to wanting to make it the right way-from local grains and truly handmade, all the way from scratch. When we realized no one in Chicago was doing that, it was a no-brainer to open up CH.
AG: Why did you decide to name the distillery CH Distillery?
M&T: Distilling Vodka is highly technical because it’s so pure. CH stands for Carbon and Hydrogen, the principal atoms in alcohol molecule, and celebrates the science of making spirits.
AG: Knowing that you focus on locally-sourced ingredients, where in the Midwest do you outsource?
M&T: We source all of our grains from farmers in Kane County.
AG: What distinguishes your brand more than any other that is mass produced?
M&T: CH Vodka is made from whole grains and its beautiful, subtle flavor character comes simply and directly from those grains. Other distilleries simply purchase pre-made industrial ethanol and re-distill it and add flavorings. When we say “handmade,” we actually mean it!
The cocktail program at CH offers beverages that highlight the main ingredient, CH‘s spirits. “Schutte calls the distillery a “farm for bartenders” and the ability to create a specific spirit for the cocktail program gives her endless opportunities to be creative.” Experimenting with infusions, creating house-made syrups, and using seasonal juices, the menu is constructed into two sections: Krissy’s original libations and “her take” on the classics. While Krissy continues to execute riveting collaborations at CH, she also designs and collaborates with many different liquid locations around the city. The latest CH collaboration was with Logan Square’s Fat Rice.
Exemplifying an older traditional Russian libation, the fun and uncommon beverage called The Tradition is a CH favourite – containing a shot of ice-cold CH Vodka, served with home-made rye bread, and a side of pickles. As customary, the typical procedure is to smell the fresh grains from the rye bread, next, to drink the vodka, and to eat the pickles – to compliment all of the flavours within the vodka. Although I had never partaken in such a tradition, the custom and the idea of representing an old classic with a home-made product was both fascinating and impeccable.
Two standout cocktails: the Cease and Desist and the Baron Takes Tea were equally phenomenal and flawlessly constructed. Containing Lapsang Suchong tea (a favourite past-time of Krissy’s Father), CH London Dry Gin, ginger, honey, and lemon, the Cease and Desist is still a crowd favourite today, even being said that its effects can be compared to those of Oxycontin. Because the cocktail’s original name was actually the “Oxycontin” drink, once word had spread, CH was slammed with an actual Cease and Desist letter, forcing them to amend its name to ironically, the Cease and Desist. Showcasing a more subtle and light cocktail, Krissy infuses Earl Grey CH Key Gin with lemon, simple syrup, egg white, and soda, making the Baron Takes Tea another crowd pleaser.
Pairing each menu item with CH libations, executive chef, JP Doiron, executes a seasonal program that focuses on Northern and Eastern European cuisine, sometimes even incorporating CH spirits in his dishes. Two menu items that were paired with the libations above were the Russian Caviar (Red Caviar, Pumpernickel Blinis, Citrus Crème Fraîche) and the Whitefish Spread (smoked whitefish, hard boiled egg, caper, on black rye, fine herbs), both delicious and satisfying while still complimenting the crisp flavour of the CH Vodka.
Chicagoans now expect cocktails to be as carefully made as restaurant dishes, and that’s good for everybody – M&T