FEW Spirits Founder Paul Hletko Talks About His Brand’s Firsts (Including Playboy)

FEW Spirits Founder Paul Hletko Talks About His Brand’s Firsts (Including Playboy)

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Creativity comes through in many forms. For Paul Hletko, the owner and founder of FEW Spirits, it manifested in a variety of projects, from making cheese and bacon to designing guitar pedals. Each of those ventures allowed him to be artistic.

Making alcohol was another way for him to display his creativity. For two decades, Paul was a home brewer. He loved the aspect of making something from scratch and tasting, literally, his creations. However, founding FEW wasn’t just about showing off his creativity. It was about honoring his grandfather.

The family legacy.

FEW barrelsBefore WWII, Paul’s grandfather owned a huge brewery in Czechoslovakia. Then it was taken away from him as he was thrown into the Nazi camps. After surviving the camps, his grandfather spent the rest of his life trying to get his brewery back. Unfortunately, he passed away with no success.

The passing of his grandfather prompted Paul to start a new venture. “I wanted something close enough to what my family used to own but not be in the shadow of the past,” Paul said. So, what was close to brewing beer but wasn’t? The next step after brewing… distilling1.

The first whiskey experience.

But let’s go back to the beginning when Paul had his first whiskey experience. Like many other whiskey drinkers, he didn’t start off liking scotch or bourbon. No, his first foray into the genre started with SoCo (short for Southern Comfort), a liqueur that contains whiskey flavoring. Then, after he turned 21, he began to explore the world of whiskey and came upon Maker’s Mark, Kentucky-based small batch bourbon. From there, his palette and his interest in this space expanded.

Picking Evanston, Illinois as the home of FEW Spirits.

Evanston, Illinois [image courtesy of Google Maps]
For Paul, it was an easy choice. Evanston was his home. (He still lives only a few blocks from the current distillery location.) When he was deciding to build a distillery, he wanted another opportunity to give back to the community even though he was already on his daughter’s PTA board and part of the local Chambers of Commerce. He strongly felt that his distillery and his products could be another anchor point for community members to connect and meet one another.

“Liquor has had a bad reputation,” he explained. But he believed he could change that. Even though getting his distillery set up was a major legal feat, he had a lot of community support. Fast forward six years and you can see the Evanston locals rallying around FEW on Fridays, enjoying food, festivities and whiskeys.

The naming of “FEW”.

FEW stamped atop the distillerys production entranceFinding the right brand name is one of the hardest things to do when starting a company. (I know. Trust me.) So when it came time, Paul went through the process of evaluating all his options. He thought about his bottles and the idea of quality over quantity. Then, it hit him. His ‘aha!’ moment. Given there was only one employee in his company doing everything (aka himself) from distilling to bottling to marketing to selling, he couldn’t make too many barrels without sacrificing quality. A few quality bottles… FEW. And, so birthed the brand name of his spirits company.

However, as his brand grew, so did a rumor about the name “FEW.”

Speakeasy during Prohibition in the US. [photo courtesy of Heartland Brewery]
The town of Evanston has had its own celebrity for years: Frances Elizabeth Willard (F.E.W.). She was the national president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which pushed for Prohibition2 in the 1920s. This woman also had tremendous influence over the Women Suffrage3 movement as well. Thus, her name is proudly displayed almost everywhere in town, including an elementary school.

People who bought FEW began to circulate a story that the brand was a play on the initials of this famous woman. What an ironic twist on fate… that her name, once stood for the Temperance Movement, would now be the name of a craft distillery.

Well, I asked Paul about this. He laughed wholeheartedly and confirmed that this was nothing but a rumor. “There’s an elementary school named after her,” he noted. “It’d be inappropriate to have whiskey named the same.”

Nonetheless, he enjoys the stories people have concocted around his brand. Why not? “It’s something to talk about at the table.” (Agreed!)

FEW’s firsts…

FEW Bourbon Whiskey
FEW Bourbon Whiskey

Firsts are so memorable. Here are some of FEW’s firsts (from Paul’s perspective, of course).

  • The first product ever produced by FEW was bourbon. FEW’s location near Chicago allowed for easy import of corn, which is the dominant grain in bourbon4.
  • Paul started his venture with just himself. He was the master distiller, the businessman and the salesperson. His proudest moment thus far (related to the distillery) was “firing up the stills.” After he filled his very first barrel, he sat in the middle of his distillery and said to himself, “Holy crap. What did I get myself into?” He couldn’t believe all the hard work had paid off.
  • Shortly after finishing his first barrel, Paul experienced his first drink of his own product at a top whiskey bar. That moment was exhilarating for him. Everything he had been working towards culminated into this exact point in time. The bartender knew who he was as soon as he ordered the FEW Bourbon, a relatively unknown brand at that time, but Paul didn’t care. It was his own product—his efforts manifested in liquid gold. No doubt it tasted delicious.
  • The first baby “credit” came about during one of his distillery’s well-known FEW Friday events. The community gathered and BBQ was served. One (regular) patron commented that she became pregnant with her first baby after having a few glasses of FEW with her husband.

Paul’s favorite tale to tell.

 A few months back (in June), FEW was featured in Playboy magazine. That’s right, Hugh Hefner’s multi-million dollar business. Playboy crowned FEW as the top distilled spirit in Illinois. As any proud mom would do, Paul’s mom had to get her hands on a few copies to show her friends. Ten, to be exact. So, the story goes: she went to her neighborhood store that had Playboy and grabbed ten copies. The clerk at the register was quite surprised by this woman’s excitement towards the magazine. Of course, he didn’t know the full back story. But who cares. Paul’s mother grabbed ten… TEN copies of Playboy… from a store… in person! (I’m sure that clerk will never forget that encounter.)

FEW and the whiskey industry.

FEW Spirits
FEW Spirits in front of the distillery

Being the marketer that I am, I asked him about the industry and his competitors. “The tough part about my business is that my competitors are all great,” he explained. Many of the whiskeys, from scotch to bourbon and craft to big brand, are highly competitive in quality and price. However, he doesn’t fret. “The industry is still growing,” he stated. Fifty years ago, the volume of whiskeys sold was twice than that of today, so the market is not yet saturated and demand will continue to rise.

“Whiskey is the type of liquor that cuts across gender and class,” says Paul. Unlike some of the other alcohol categories (ahem! vodka), whiskey is not just a “liquor delivery mechanism,” it’s an instrument to bring people together. And, that’s what he has been doing with FEW… bringing people together, in Evanston and around the country.

“Whiskey is glorious,” he finished. I could hear the awe in his voice over the phone. And, I agree. Whiskey is glorious.

Now, go grab a FEW and enjoy it with some friends!

Paul’s Whiskey Persona™.

Of course, I had to figure out Paul’s Whiskey Persona. No surprise here. He came out as an ENTREPRENEUR. (Want to see if your Whiskey Persona is the same? Find out here.)

  1. The whiskey distilling process consists of setting up the grain, mashing the grain, adding yeast and distilling the alcohol several times. The low alcohol substance created by fermentation from the yeast is called “beer.” The difference between the beer we consume and the “beer” made in the whiskey distilling process is that beer we drink includes flavoring like hops, which give it more of a bitter taste.
  2. For those of you who might not know about Prohibition, it was a thirteen-year long “dry spell” in American history (1920-1933), where the 18th amendment forbade the production, transport, and sale of alcohol. During this thirteen years of prohibition, speakeasies (hidden bars) sprouted all across the country. Alcohol didn’t stop flowing, it just went underground. People even started creating their own alcohol, aka moonshine.
  3. Women Suffrage Movement was the movement to legalize the right of women to vote in the US. It started in a few states and localities but gained national attention in 1920. Frances Elizabeth Willard, Evanston’s proud “celebrity,” was a huge proponent of the movement and was instrumental in helping women achieve suffrage in the passing of the 19th amendment (1920).
  4. Bourbon is whiskey made in the US from at least 51% corn and aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years. Although many bourbons are produced in Kentucky, many other distilleries across the country produce bourbon, e.g. FEW Spirit.

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