FEW Spirits Guest Post: Sydney Jones on Distilling in the Midwest

A Guest Post written by Sydney Jones, head distiller at FEW Spirits

The Lost Lantern Midwest Collection launches on March 27. It’s our very first regional collection, and as the name suggests, it’s focused on a region that we see as one of the unsung heroes of American whiskey: the Midwest. The region is home to hundreds of distilleries, and our Midwest Collection showcases six of the brightest lights in the Midwest. We truly think Midwest whiskey is poised to emerge as a distinct and recognized whiskey style. But you don’t have to take our word for it.

For our first regional collection, we asked several distillers across the Midwest to contribute guest blog posts about what makes their distillery and the Midwest as a whole unique. Today’s guest blog post comes from Sydney Jones, head distiller at FEW Spirits in Evanston, Illinois. FEW is a first-time Lost Lantern partner, and we’re releasing an amazing single cask of FEW Illinois Straight Bourbon as part of our Midwest Collection. They’re our first partner from Illinois. 

We asked Sydney to contribute a blog post because she has a truly unique perspective: she is now a distiller in the Midwest, but she’s not originally from Illinois and has also distilled in Florida, which has a drastically different climate. We wanted to get her perspective on just what makes the Midwest climate unique. 

Here’s Sydney–and thank you again for contributing! –Adam

FEW Spirits

FEW Spirits’ Sydney Jones on Distilling in the Midwest

Let it be known that I am not a Midwesterner. I did not grow up eating tater tot casserole, snow is a new life hindrance for me, and I’m still working on incorporating “’ope” into my vocabulary. I hail from the land down under, the great state of Florida, best known for its theme parks, salacious news headlines, and its vast assortment of reptiles. I’ve been distilling for FEW Spirits in Evanston, IL for nearly three years now, but before that, I distilled in Jacksonville, FL, making gin and rye whiskey in one of the most temperamental microclimates possible. 

Florida, like much of the south, is notable for its intense heat and humidity. Winter there is more of an abstract concept than it is a season, with temperatures in the region rarely getting below freezing. That extreme heat has intense repercussions for barrel-aged spirits; maturation is rapid, extraction is dramatic, and evaporative loss is excessive. Distillers making whiskey in Florida must keep these climatological characteristics in mind, especially if his or her spirits will spend any length of time in cask.

In Florida, I was painfully cognizant that my whiskey wouldn’t have much time to sit in its barrel given the extreme heat conditions, and the process with which I distilled was tight and exact. My cuts were narrow, and I pushed the proof up to nearly the 160 proof legal limit, knowing that heavier distillates wouldn’t mature as gracefully as lighter alcohol. Other craft distilleries may discuss their spirits in terms of their raw ingredients or their processes, but in Florida, I considered the heat to be the true source of my whiskey’s terroir. 

Different Climate, Different Distillation

Illinois was a different beast entirely, as I quickly found out. I moved to Chicagoland in late April of 2021, and within the span of the two-day cross-country drive north, I transitioned from 80-degree temperatures to brisk upper-30s. The cold wasn’t just something that my body would have to adjust to; it would also change how I distilled whiskey. 

Long before I entered the whiskey-making industry, Paul Hletko founded FEW Spirits in Evanston in 2011, determined to bring world-class distilled spirits to the town that originally championed Prohibition in the late 1890s. Since the beginning, FEW has been noted for its defiant approach to distillation, creating unique whiskies in unconventional ways, utilizing alternative yeast strains and unexpected ingredients. It was an operation that I had long admired during my professional career, and I jumped at the opportunity to join their distilling team. 

As I began learning production processes on the distilling floor in my first couple of days at work, I realized that the way that I had learned to taste and cut alcohol over the past four years was very different than the way FEW distillers operated. In Florida, my heart cut would wind up being high proof and lean, but FEW distilled their new-make whiskey to 140 proof, creating a much fattier alcohol than I was used to. 

In Florida, the transition into tails was something I obsessively monitored, but at FEW, tails were carefully considered instead. The new make was brash and full-bodied, much like the whiskey it eventually matured into, and it was nothing like what I had distilled down south. I mentioned the differences in distilling practices to Paul one day, who simply replied:

“Well, we’ve got plenty of time to age it, so we can afford to make some wider cuts.”

Midwest Whiskey: Maturation in the Cold

Unlike Florida, the Chicagoland area experiences a very cold winter season every year, with temperatures dropping and staying below 45 degrees for 4-6 straight months. On a personal note, I am not a fan, (I have yet to come around to cold weather), but on a professional level, this produces a period when maturing distillate has a chance to rest within its barrel.

Extraction and evaporation is significantly slowed, and sometimes even halted, and though oxygenation continues, cold periods of time create a kind of stasis in maturing whiskey, which allows us to let it remain in cask for longer periods of time. Fatty esters and alcohols that often characterize the tails cut have time to chemically degrade with this kind of long-term maturation, and thus, our hearts-to-tails transition can be broader. FEW barrels aren’t aging in a sprint, but a marathon, and it’s all thanks to our extreme Midwest winters. 

Alcohol production is a science and a process that has fascinated me for the past eight years of my career, and I highly doubt that my personal amazement at the flavors that we can produce via thoughtful distillation and maturation will ever be tempered. 

As the craft industry continues to develop and spread, I’m eagerly looking forward to the pipeline of whiskey that is being produced in non-traditional regions and climates. Heat, humidity, and elevation are all being seriously considered as drivers of flavor, and we’ve only just started to explore the differences in terroir of distilled spirits that are being produced across the U.S. There will be much to discuss, much to learn, and excitingly enough, much to taste.

 

 

Learn more about Lost Lantern’s FEW Spirits Illinois Straight Bourbon Single Cask!

 

Additional guest posts from our Midwest Collection: