The Six Year Old Craft Distilling Veteran: Paul Hletko of FEW Spirits

8/7/2017

Paul Hletko has learned throughout his life that he’s not very good at a lot of things. He was an OK rock guitarist, but so are a lot of other people. He wasn’t terrible at running a record label, but he could only keep that going for a few years. What Hletko was really good at, though, was something a bit vaguer: creating something out of nothing.

“What really gets me excited is creating,” said Hletko, founder of FEW Spirits in Evanston, IL. “This idea of having something at the end of the day that didn’t exist when I woke up. I’ve spent my life really trying to be as creative as I can, as often as I can.”

Hletko’s quest to create hasn’t been limited to material things. As the grandson of Jewish immigrants who were captured and killed in World War II, he has always had his family’s history on his mind. That itch to constantly create, coupled with the need to preserve a legacy, is what – in a roundabout way – led Hletko to FEW Spirits.

That was six years ago almost to the day. Since that spark took off and kindled, FEW has ignited into a global craft brand available in 30 counties, across four contents. It has also garnered numerous awards, including being named ‘Craft Whiskey of the Year’ by Whiskey Advocate back in 2013.

On the eve of that six year anniversary, we sat down with Hletko to reflect on his FEW’s past, its future, and its role as a craft spirit veteran at only six years old.

Paul Hletko of FEW SpiritsBreakthru: How did FEW get its start?

Paul Hletko: I’ve always had family legacy and history in my head. I had some family history in the brewing business before World War II. My grandfather’s family owned a very large brewery in the Czech Republic. When the Germans invaded in 1939, they took everything and sent my grandpa and his whole family to the camps. My grandpa was the only one to survive the camps. After the war he spent most of his life trying to get the brewery back, but he never did.

When my grandpa passed away years later, it struck me that there is this all of this family legacy and history just hanging there, and if I didn’t do something about it, it was going to be gone forever. So I got to work thinking about what I could create to move the family legacy forward. It occurred to me that distilling craft spirits could be a fantastic way to create something that is all my own, but still honor my family’s history. FEW kind of grew out of that. Family history, family legacy and a lifetime of wanting to create something that was an expression of me.

Why did you decided to build FEW in Evanston, IL?

For me, I wanted to put the distillery where I live and at the time I was living in Evanston. I had three kids and a wife, and I was on the board of directors for the Chamber of Commerce and vice president of the PPA. It was the modern suburban dream!

I eventually found this amazing spot halfway between where I live and where my kids go to school. It was killer. The only thing standing between me and the dream was 160 years of prohibition history. Evanston is infamously known as the birthplace of the prohibition movement. The city was famously dry. If I could overturn 160 years of prohibition history, that would make for quite the story. My grandpa would have absolutely loved that. So I went to the city and laid out what I wanted to do. I was hoping they would say no and I could stage a fight to reverse the laws. Instead, they said yes and asked how they could help. I had to reverse 160 years of prohibition history, so I lost track of how many city council meetings I attended to change everything, but eventually, it all worked out and we opened up.

How has it been to watch the FEW grow from an idea into a nationally recognized distillery?

It’s funny you talk about it because tomorrow is actually our sixth birthday. It’s surreal, to put it frankly. Six years ago I started off alone and to have FEW grow the way it has is absolutely amazing. I think it really speaks to people’s desires to be in touch with what they’re drinking, who they’re drinking it with, and how they can engage with people and be part of their life’s ups and downs.

Over the years, I’ve had people around the world share with me their experiences with FEW. I had somebody tell me that he was estranged from his father for 30 years and when he came by my rye whiskey, he decided for whatever reason that is father would like it. So he calls up his dad after 30 years and a week later they were together sharing a bottle of FEW Rye whiskey and began to build a relationship again. That is what makes this whole business amazing, being a part of people’s lives and hopefully making them better. Sharing a drink with your friends and family, that is what this is all about.

At six years old, do you consider FEW and yourself to be veterans in the craft spirit industry?

I think it’s kind of strange that a business as young as six years can be veteran, but I think that is how it has worked out. Obviously there have been people who have been doing this longer than we have, but when we started there really weren’t that many craft distillers in the market. At that time distributors wouldn’t return our phone calls and it seemed next to impossible to get meetings with retailers. Now many business owners will come in on their days off just to meet me. So over just six years we’ve gone from being asked to leave stores, to now having the owners coming in on their day off just to talk.

A lot of us who have been in the industry a little longer are now starting to take leadership roles and trying to set an example for some of the younger distillers out there. We’re guiding them on everything from markets and route-to-market strategy, to even advising them on how to act in this industry. A lot of this led to the formation of the American Craft Spirit Organization in which we try to present that leadership role and exhibit that we operate with honor and integrity, and we produce some damn fine spirits as well.

Looking back over the past six years, is there anything you would have done differently?

I’ve actually done a decent amount of thinking about this lately. Honestly there isn’t that much that I would have changed. With hindsight being 20/20, I try to think about where I was then and what I knew at that time, and there really isn’t anything I would have done differently. We’ve had our fair share of luck along the way, but overall I think we’ve done pretty well.

Where would you like to see FEW in another six years?

We really just want to keep doing what we do, which is making the best whiskey in the world. At the end of the day we are motivated by that glass of whiskey being shared by friends and family. We want that liquid to be the absolute best we can make it. So for the next six years we just want to keep producing the best spirits for people to share and to keep building on that creative dream that started all of this six years ago. 

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