Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood is home to a collection of culinary and cocktail establishments that work tirelessly to challenge and satisfy the ever-changing sensory needs of craft connoisseurs on a global scale. CH Distillery, located at 564 W. Randolph St., is a relatively new addition to Chicago’s cocktail scene, but it has already left an impact stretching beyond the West Loop.
CH Distillery was brought to life three years ago by Tremaine Atkinson and Mark Lucas with the goal of creating grain-to-bottle vodka from fresh local ingredients. The distillery shares the building with its own tasting room, a smaller operation compared to its mass production brethren. However, what it lacks in size is countered by the meticulous attention to detail put into every batch. The end result is a strong addition to the expanding selection of local spirits available to the Chicago market. Tremaine himself is the head distiller and has created a wonderful line of spirits that include vodkas, gins, rum and liqueurs.
The CH tasting room is a gorgeous, awe-inspiring modern temple dedicated to the artisanship of distillation. Head bartender Azrhiel Frost and chefs Pablo Madrigal and Miguel Huerta have crafted a wonderfully balanced menu of food and cocktails. CH products taste amazing by themselves, but when used in a classic cocktail or an original CH cocktail, like the Cease and Desist, one can still truly appreciate the nuances of the spirits. When the cocktails are paired with a delicious food item, like the lamb loin chop and salad, prepare to be floored (and not just from the alcohol content).
CUSP Magazine was fortunate enough to sit down and have a drink with the managing director, head distiller and co-founder of CH, Tremaine Atkinson, to discuss CH Distillery.
Q&A – CUSP Magazine & CH Distillery
CUSP Magazine: What is CH Distillery?
Tremaine Atkinson: We are a small distillery making vodka from local grains. From the vodka, we make a bunch of other spirits like gin, aquavit, liqueurs and rum. We also have a great cocktail bar and restaurant attached to the distillery.
CM: When customers walk into CH, what do you offer them?
TA: First and foremost we offer them a great portfolio of spirits. You can drink them on the rocks or in any of our inventive and classic cocktails. In every aspect, we try to use the freshest ingredients possible.
CM: In three short years, CH has grown immensely and is now appearing in bars and liquor stores all over Chicago. What do you attribute to this success?
TA: We’re still a young company, but I think we’ve done well because we make our spirits in a genuine fashion. We use local ingredients and have really focused on our hometown market. There is a real niche for handcrafted spirits in Chicago.
CM: Chicago is a big food and drinking town with many small distilleries popping up all over the place. What do you think has separated you from the competition?
TA: I don’t know if we’re separated from the rest of them, but I think that what has made us different is definitely our focus on making vodka from scratch. That is our core product, and most distillers are focused on making aged products, which aside from rum, we don’t do. I think we also have a real positive attitude about being in business. This isn’t just for fun; we’re trying to build a long-term solid business.
CM: Why is Chicago important to the identity of CH Distillery?
TA: I love the city of Chicago. I’ve lived here for almost 20 years, and I think it’s the best city in America. It’s got all the culture you could want from anywhere, but it also has this great laid back Midwest attitude. There’s a great work ethic here and an appreciation for local businesses. Many businesses also love to collaborate, so even though we may be in competition, we still help each other out.
CM: The brewpub/ distillery pub idea is a relatively new trend that has been sweeping the city. Do you think that it’s here to stay?
TA: I hope so. We didn’t start off wanting to be trendy, though we may have ended up that way. I went to a lot of distilleries before starting CH, and it always seemed like you’d end the tour sipping a little quarter ounce pour out of a plastic cup. For me, it seemed like a very unsatisfying way to experience the product, so we built CH with the idea of having people enjoy the building and the product.
CM: What do you think of Chicago’s craft beer and artisanal spirits market compared to the rest of the country?
TA: I think we’re doing some good stuff here. I’m not too familiar with what’s happening around the rest of the country. I think that we’re nearly to the point though where you can open a bar and stock the entire program with just local spirits and local beer. That’s pretty awesome, because you couldn’t do that five years ago. I think Chicago has come a long way, but there is still a long way to go.
Tremaine – “We’re still a young company, but I think we’ve done well because we make our spirits in a genuine fashion. We use local ingredients and have really focused on our hometown market. There is a real niche for handcrafted spirits in Chicago.”
CM: Unlike other cocktail bars and brewpubs, your food menu is limited to mostly small plates and shareable plates as opposed to big hearty meals. Why have you chosen this structure?
TA: I love brewpubs; I love having a beer and a burger. I could sit at the Revolution brewpub all day and have a great time. For here, we wanted something where the food was a little lighter. I don’t know if sophisticated is the right word, but it’s not the kind of place where you would come and stuff yourself. It’s more of a place where you come to experience some really great flavors. You can still come have dinner here, for restaurant week we have a four-course dinner that is really amazing. We did approach CH with the idea of having a more sophisticated food concept, which isn’t to say that everyone else is not, we just have different thoughts on what to serve.
CM: Can you walk me through your cocktail program and how it caters to the CH spirits?
TA: The cocktail program is first and foremost driven completely by our spirits. Our cocktail bar is essentially our tasting room, which means we can only serve what we make. Everything is made in-house with the exception of the bourbon. Azrhiel Frost is the genius behind our cocktail program. As she often says, “I like weird shit,” but her talent is in finding unexpected flavors that don’t overwhelm the spirits. We want folks to enjoy the cocktail but also taste the subtleties of our spirits.
CM: Why is it important to CH to use locally sourced ingredients?
TA: If you go back to the origins of alcohol, it was always made by what was locally available. The tradition of eau de vie in Europe was to take the fruit that was left over from the harvest and instead of turning it into jam, you made brandy. Essentially just taking advantage of everything on your land. I, as close as possible, wanted to emulate that. We live in amazing grain country. I am personally not a big fan of corn vodka, so I sourced wheat and rye from as close to the city as I could possibly get it. Our grains come from Kane County, just 50 miles west of the city. Sourcing local is just a good way to do business; it only makes sense if you can get high quality ingredients from as close as possible.
CM: What does the future hold for CH?
TA: We’re hoping to do more of the same. We’re doing what we love, making vodka and other spirits as well as collaborating with other local businesses. We are expanding to a second distillery in Pilsen, because we’re selling almost everything we can make here. That’ll be coming online in the next year or so.
CM: What are some of your favorite places to eat and drink at here in Chicago?
TA: Without even walking more than two blocks from our doorstep, there are some amazing dining and drinking options. We have Sepia, Blackbird, Avec, Bin 36, Salero and Embeya. I would happily eat and drink at any of those places.
CH Distillery has much to offer its clientele. From tours of the facility to a welcoming and attentive front of house staff, it is no wonder that they’ve grown so much in so little time. Still, as Tremaine said, they have a long way to go. The city of Chicago along with CUSP Magazine is willing and ready to see what the future holds for them.
Check out what else CH Distillery is up to by keeping up with them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.