From College Professor to President of a Thriving Distillery

Sonat Birnecker Hart boldly transitioned from college history professor to president of a thriving distillery.

by Sue Tomchin

As career changes go, Dr. Sonat Birnecker-Hart’s is an unusual, or should we say a “spirited” one.

In 2008, Sonat, now 43, made the leap from tenured Jewish history professor to president of Koval, the distillery that she and her husband Dr. Robert Birnecker (also a former academic) founded in Chicago, the first in the windy city since the 1880s. 

In the U.S., the lengthy Prohibition era forced many small distillers out of business leaving hard liquor in the hands of mega-distillers. However, over the last 10 years or so, inspired in part by the success of craft beer breweries, craft distilling has taken off. Koval was in the vanguard of this movement and is now one of the leading craft distillers in the U.S., with international distribution and a slew of awards for its gins, whiskies, vodka, brandies and flavored liqueurs.

“If you love to learn, you can learn anything you are passionate about,” Sonat said when I spoke to her by phone about founding Koval and the changes it brought to her professional life. “I’m living my dreams every day,” she declared.

A graduate of Oxford University and the University of London with a PhD in Jewish Cultural History, Sonat taught and lectured at universities in the Washington and Baltimore areas and Germany. In 2006 she and Robert were at a crossroads—either put down solid roots in the D.C. area by buying a home, or do something bold that would enable Sonat to work with her husband and be near family in her hometown of Chicago. 

“Instead of buying a house, we bought a still,” she said, laughing. “Our friends and family weren’t sure it was a good idea but it worked out,” she says. “While we were getting our business off the ground, we lived with my parents for two years with our baby.”

Robert, a native of Austria, grew up helping his grandparents at their distillery. He also studied distilling technology at Austria’s leading university program and worked with one of Europe’s foremost spirit experts. While he concentrated on getting the technical aspects of their operation up and running, Sonat focused on state regulations governing craft distillers. These, she discovered, were outdated making some of the things they planned—a tasting room, a retail store and tours—illegal in the state of Illinois. With child number two in tow, Sonat traveled back and forth to the state capital of Springfield to meet with legislators, and was ultimately successful in bringing about changes in the state laws. (She has recently been back in the state capital seeking a change in regulations so Koval can increase the amount it produces.) 

Sonat also focused on product development, distribution and marketing. How to “compete with the largest liquor companies in the world for shelf space,” was a challenge, she noted, but “there is always room for incredibly high quality.” From the beginning, she and her husband focused on creating products in small batches from scratch, eschewing the use of pre-made spirits, a common industry practice. Their liqueurs, for example, are made with a white whiskey base distilled on the premises, to which they add such herbs, spices or fruits as ginger, caraway, honey and coffee. “Most commercial liqueurs just use an industrial alcohol base,” said Sonat, explaining that using their own base gives them a unique flavor.  

Their other flavor profiles are similarly distinctive. Their bourbon, for example, is made from a mash that features not only the traditional corn but also millet; their “barreled” gin which won a gold medal at the New York Spirit Awards, features an intriguing flavor profile of rose hip, juniper, angelica root, and coriander. 

Koval’s latest introduction is a barreled peach brandy, the inaugural member of a new line of limited edition spirits named Susan for President. The inspiration for the line is not the recent election, but Hart’s unconventional Aunt Susan, an artist, sculptor, and “true original” who lived in Carrara, Italy, and once casually campaigned for “president of the world.” According to Hart, she campaigned “as a celebration of art, the joys of life, and the constant striving to be the greatest version of oneself imaginable.” The brandy is made from organic peaches and aged in Koval rye barrels and features a striking lasercut label. 

All Koval products are organic and “grain-to-bottle” with every aspect of the operation from contracting with farmers to grow the grain to on-site milling and mashing to distilling and bottling carefully supervised. Its products are also certified kosher. 

“We are proud to be a Jewish company,” Sonat told me and went on to explain that tzedakah is a fundamental part of Koval’s philosophy. “We are very involved in the community and in the last year alone, have been part of more than 300 charitable events,” she said. Being a Jewish company also means implementing good business practices, she added, noting that Koval offers such benefits as paid family leave to all employees. 

Family is a priority to Sonat herself. Since getting a new company off the ground often meant working long hours, Sonat and her husband made the decision to set up a play area for their young children at their plant and have continued to home school them on site. (Family members have also contributed to the business’s unique brand: Her sister Oona Hart and her firm Dando Projects created the award winning gold foil and laser cut label for Koval’s dry gin and her mom, Charlotte Hart, the distinctive illustrations for the labels of Koval’s liqueurs.) 

In addition to their work running Koval, Sonat and Robert are known for encouraging and educating others hoping to join the field. “You see, I haven’t completely left teaching,” she said, noting that they have taught at least 3,000 aspiring distillers from around the world about the basics of the business through the workshops they offer and the classes they teach at Kendall College in Chicago. They have also consulted with at least 150 distillers setting up shop in the U.S. and Canada, teaching them the craft and using their contacts in Europe to help them to acquire the necessary equipment. 

“We’re going to have competition anyway,” she says, “and we would rather have people in the craft distilling category who know what they are doing. When we help them create a good product it raises the reputation of the entire craft spirits category.” 

Turkey-Day Cocktails from Koval

Apple of My Eye 

  • 1 1/2 oz. KOVAL Bourbon
  • 2 oz Apple cider
  • 1/2 oz Fresh squeezed lemon juice

Combine the ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker, shake and then strain into a cocktail glass. 

Shofar so Good

This cocktail was developed for the Jewish New Year, but its fall flavors make it a natural for Thanksgiving. Ideally, the bourbon should be infused for about a week. 

  • 2 oz KOVAL Bourbon — we infused ours with dates and apples for an extra taste of fall
  • 1/2 oz KOVAL Chrysanthemum & Honey liqueur
  • 1/4 oz grenadine or pomegranate liqueur
  • 3/4 oz lemon juice 

Shake vigorously and strain into a cocktail glass, add a thin apple slice for garnish.

Thirsty for more? Check out these delicious recipes for Thanksgiving and Hanukkah!