Introducing New Original, Paul Hletko

Our latest New Original is Paul Hletko, founder and distiller of FEW Spirits, maker of some of the best bourbon we’ve had. What better way to introduce Paul than in his own words; we sat down and asked him a few questions…

What inspired you to start FEW?

FEW was inspired by a couple different aspects.

First, a dogged desire to create and make new things. All my life, I have loved to create, and this has driven me to many creative pursuits, ranging from music, to electronics, and more. Coupled with a love of beverage alcohol, it is pretty simple to end up wanting to make booze.

Second, family history is an inspiration. Prior to WWII, my grandfather’s family owned a major brewery in the Czech Republic. The family lost the brewery to the Nazi invasion, and the family was all murdered in the camps, with the exception of my grandfather. After the war, he tried to get the brewery back, but never did. When he died, it struck me that the family legacy and history was gone, unless I did something about it. So I did.

What makes FEW different than other distilleries?

I think there are a couple things that separate FEW from others. First off, we actually make all our spirits, by hand, in our distillery. So many other brands simply purchase spirits from others, and pass it off as theirs – we are very proud that we make our own. Second, we deliberately avoid making spirits that taste like others – one of the advantages of making our own is we can make it taste how we want it taste. It also allows us the luxury of focusing on the spirit, rather than the budget spreadsheet, so we can really do what we want to do. We are a distillery, run by distillers, not spreadsheet jockeys.

What is the most important factor in crafting whiskey?

I don’t think there is a single most important factor in crafting whiskey. So, I’d have to say that the most important factor is the vision of person doing the crafting. What is the vision, and how do they want it to be in the glass? Is the whiskey to be soft, or aggressive? Sweet, spicy? Oaky or grainy? Dry or fruity? How robust? And, then, does the person doing the crafting have the skill to implement that vision – you need to be good at not only envisioning what you want, but also skillful enough to make the envisioned whiskey. It’s not easy to do!

What do you wish people understood about distilling spirits?

I think I wish more people remembered that spirits are supposed to be fun! We see a lot of people getting bogged down in the stuff that shouldn’t matter so much, at least to anyone other than those of us who make it. How does the spirit make you feel? Do you want to share this with friends? Does it taste good? We at FEW want our spirits to be shared and enjoyed – the other stuff pales in importance to enjoying! We are always happy to chat about production methods and super geeky stuff, but only as a way to help build enjoyment.

What is the most important factor to your success as well as that of FEW?

I have no idea what success is, or if we are doing it! We think we’re pretty lucky to get to do what we want to do every day, and I guess that’s my best definition? Mostly, we do what we want to do, share it with the world and talk about it. We don’t worry too much about ‘success’ and we measure how close our output is to matching what we want it be – when we are making what we want, we ‘succeed’.

What did you do before opening FEW?

Before FEW, I did lots of stuff. I’ve got several failed companies in my past, as well as stints as a desk drone. I’ve been a pro guitar player, ran a record label, built guitar pedals, all sorts of stuff. I even practiced law for far too long, but hated it.

How do you balance the business and your personal life?

What’s balance?

Who has influenced you most?

I think there are many people that have influenced me, ranging from my father and mother, to grandparents, and music. Music has always been a deeply meaningful part of my life, and in particular, I’d single out The Grateful Dead, as well as Jeff Tweedy, as strong musical influences.

What does New Original mean to you?

I think New Original simply means being true to you. It has become increasingly challenging to simply be, but that’s my goal. Don’t copy, and be the best you that you can be.

What are your favorite places in Chicago?

I love Chicago. I love Wrigley Field, Delilah’s, and Theater on the Lake. I love going to Maple & Ash for dinner, the United Center for the Hawks, and biking up and down the lakefront. I love the back deck at Up Down Cigar. I miss Lounge Ax! But, for sure, my favorite place in Chicago is my home, with my wife and kids.