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With SBA's help, 2017 Illinois Small Business of the Year Koval Distillery stays in high spirits

Robert Birnecker and Sonat Birnecker Hart

Koval Distillery, a Chicago-based organic whiskey, liqueur, and spirit producer, was born in 2008 when Sonat Birnecker Hart and husband, Robert Birnecker, were living in Washington, D.C., but were ready for a change. The couple was starting a family and had always loved Chicago - Sonat grew up in and around the city – so, inspired by Robert’s family business, an award-winning distillery and winery in his native Austria, the pair launched Koval Distillery. It was Chicago’s first distillery since the mid-1800s.
In its nine years, Koval has grown to a $2.5 million company that employs more than 40 people in multiple states and countries, and the SBA has recently recognized Sonat and Robert’s achievements, naming them the 2017 Illinois Small Business Persons of the Year. Support from the SBA and its resource partners has helped Koval along the way. An SBA-guaranteed 504 Loan is being used to centralize production, storage, and shipping at one site, in order to improve service and product availability and foster both domestic and international growth. Additionally, Koval is a past client of the Illinois Small Business Development Centers at North Business & Industrial Council (NORBIC) and Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago (ICNC), which are SBA partners. 
“The SBA program is fueling small businesses with success and support,” Sonat said. “Receiving an SBA loan has not only been essential to our growth and ability to purchase the ideal factory for our business, it is an independent vote of confidence in all that we are doing and trying to achieve, for which we are truly grateful.”
Sonat has led much of the product development, distribution and marketing, while Robert has become one of America’s top distilling experts, earning numerous certificates from Austria’s leading university program for distilling technology and working with other spirits experts to develop fermentation techniques for craft distilleries. Koval spirits are made from scratch (avoiding the common industry practice of purchasing and bottling pre-made spirits), and this “grain to bottle” approach allows them to certify their products as organic and kosher. The company has had success appealing to customers who want locally produced goods, as well as niche markets not addressed by their competition.
Getting off the ground is a challenge for any small business, but Robert and Sonat also faced outdated Illinois liquor laws – which they confronted head on. The couple worked with lawmakers to establish a craft distillers license, making it possible for them to have a small retail component, reduced licensing fees, a tasting room, and tours. Tenacity in addressing regulatory hurdles has been integral to Koval’s success.
Koval exports to more than a dozen countries, including Australia, England, Germany, and Japan, embracing cultural sensitivity for individual markets as opposed to a “one-size-fits-all” strategy. They have built relationships with trade organizations and, as needed, hire local market managers to help them adhere to a country’s particular norms and business styles. Robert and Sonat also maintain a multilingual website and use their own linguistic skills to attend international trade shows and network with partners.


Company Name: 
Koval Distillery
Chicago, Illinois