The Lion's Pride whiskey range is made at the Koval distillery in the American city of Chicago. This is the first distillery to legally produce whiskey in the city, or the state of Illinois, since the abolition of Prohibition in 1933. It was founded in 2008 by the husband and wife team of Robert and Sonat Birnecker and is operated by themselves and other members of their immediate family.
Koval produces a range of boutique and traditional American whiskies, in addition to a large range of fruit based liqueurs, brandies and eaux de vie which are inspired by Robert Birneker's heritage. He was inspired to recreate these fruit based spirits as his grandfather had worked in the distilling industry making such products in his native Austria. Flavours produced include coffee, ginger, jasmine, pear and rose hip. They also produce a vodka at Koval, which is distilled from rye grains. The range of Koval products are currently only available in eight states of the USA - California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Tennessee and Wisconsin - but as they start to pick up some industry awards this will surely grow.
Koval's whiskies are made from a variety of different cereal grains and are all certified organic and kosher. All of the materials used by Koval are locally sourced and this includes the grains and wood for the casks. The process of the whisky making, from the mashing stage through fermentation, distillation (see the custom made still from Germany, left), maturation and bottling, all take place at the distillery and are constantly monitored by Koval's small team of experts. This is unlike some boutique distilleries (also called 'micro distilleries'), who buy in pre-prepared wash or neutral grain spirit and then take the process from there.
We were delighted when we received a package containing a sample of each of the six Koval whiskies recently. We thank Meg Bell, Koval's Brand Ambassador, for sending these to us. Our package included the four whiskies released under the Lion's Pride label - the Oat, Rye, Dark Oat and Dark Rye - plus two versions of the new make spirit (or 'white whiskey' as it is know in America), which are named Midwest Wheat and Rye Chicago. For further information on the Koval distillery and its products, go to www.koval-distillery.com.
The Koval whiskies are all made using 100% of the named grain (eg - the Dark Rye is made with 100% rye, the Dark Oat with 100% oats etc) and this is done so as to reveal the pure characteristics of each type of grain. This is different from the majority of American whiskies, which combine differing percentages of different grains within their recipes. Each whiskey is produced in 30 gallon (113.5 litres) batches and all are released with an alcoholic strength of 40% ABV, with the Lion's Pride whiskies being bottled in single cask batches. All of the Lion's Pride bottlings are released at two years of age and the difference between the 'regular' whiskey and the 'dark' whiskey are due to different casking (we suspect that the 'dark' may have been matured in more heavily charred casks than the 'regular').
Our tasting notes
This unaged grain whiskey is made using 100% wheat. It is clear with absolutely no colour. The nose has lots of initial aromas of vanilla and is fragrant, fresh and positive for a new make spirit. Other aromas include distinct cereals, boiled fruit sweets (think of peardrops) and something slight earthy/musty. On the palate, this is light and tangy with some peppery spice, fresh green fruits (imagine pears and apples), icing sugar sweetness and bittersweet cereal grains. It becomes slightly creamier in the mouth with time. The finish is short and sweet with plenty of that icing sugar sweetness. Very pleasant and palatable for a new make spirit (being down at 40% ABV helps) and this would be great in a cocktail or with a mixer.
Like the Midwest Wheat, this grain whiskey does not undergo any aging in an oak cask. It is made using 100% rye grains and has no colour. The nose is full of sweet cereal aromas, backed up by a hint of citrus (orange maybe?), sugar coated boiled sweets and a floral undertone (think of honeysuckle). The palate is very sweet and tangy with some lovely honey and vanilla notes complimenting the sharper citrus orange zestiness. There is a youthful burning spiciness that gives way with time to give a comforting creamy toffee feeling. The finish is short and soft - this is very well rounded and has a very good balance. Equally perfect and pleasant to drink on its own or as part of a cocktail.
Lion's Pride Oat
Made 100% from oats, this whiskey has been matured for two years in American oak casks. The nose is expressive with plenty of robust cereals and fresh coconut fragrances. It becomes more scented with time in the glass - aromas of vanilla, honey, shortbread and a hint of orange oil come through. On the palate, this feels creamy and slightly oily - there are notes of distinct bittersweet oats (think of an oatcake biscuit), vanilla, honey, freshly grated coconut (plenty!) and hints of white chocolate and nutmeg. The finish is of decent length with icing sugar-like sweetness tempered by gentle bitter cereal notes. This grainy bitterness lingers and is delicious. A lovely dram to sip and savour.
Lion's Pride Rye
This is made of 100% rye grains and has again been aged for two years in American oak casks. The colour is a pale golden yellow and the nose is very attractive and fragrant with some lovely aromas of dried banana, honey, vanilla, oat/cereal cookies (the combination of grain, butter and sugary notes lead us to this description) and boiled fruit sweets. On the palate, this is light, tangy and mouth watering with opening notes of vanilla, honey and coconut. Then comes delicious caramel and warm wood spices (think of oak, cinnamon and nutmeg). The finish is pleasant and quite dry with plenty of dry, woody bitterness. This is complimented by a hint of hot peppery spice and the dried banana note from the nose.
Lion's Pride Dark Oat
Again aged for two years but in different casks, this whiskey has been made from 100% oats. The colour is a dark golden yellow and the nose is very sweet, fresh and highly perfumed. There are heavy aromas of robust cereals (these increase with more and more time in the glass) and golden syrup, backed up by more subtle ones of toasted almond and wood spice (cinnamon especially). On the palate, this is oily, firm and coats the inside of your mouth - there is a ton of caramel notes here, with others of honey, oak, coconut, golden syrup, toasted almond , cinnamon and nutmeg joining. The finish begins sweetly before becoming slightly bitter and astringent. This adds great balance and gives a palate cleansing feel.
Lions Pride Dark Rye
Made from 100% rye grains and matured for two years, this whiskey has a vibrant golden yellow colour. The aromas coming from the nose are lovely and vibrant - bitter cereals, woody coconut, caramel, peardrop sweets, icing sugar and fresh sawdust/oak. On the palate, there is an instant hit of orange oil, followed by a massive dried coconut note. Then comes vanilla, boiled fruit sweets, icing sugar, charred/toasted oak and plenty of soft and rounded baking spices (think of cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice). The whiskey feels viscous and a little oily in the mouth. The finish is long and enjoyably fresh with an abundance of oak, coconut and tangy, drying and rounded baking spices. Simply delicious.
What's the verdict?
If we are honest, then we were pleasantly surprised by the range from Koval. This follows previous less than positive experiences with some young 'boutique' whiskies from around the world! The Koval range is excellent and with a distinctive (and quite hard to describe) character that is quite unlike anything tasted on our whisk(e)y journey to date. The range (and especially the new make spirits or 'white whiskies') clearly benefit from being brought down to a palatable alcoholic level of 40% ABV, as the raw spirit notes at a higher ABV can sometimes be off-putting and overpowering.
With the abundance of boutique/micro-distilleries that have set up in the USA within last few years (and that continue to set up), the hope has to be that they all produce distinctive whiskies as good as those of Koval. If they do, then we are all in for a good time!