It’s Working Project - Dr. Sonat Birnecker, Pres. of KOVAL Distillery - Food & Beverage Magazine

It’s Working Project – Dr. Sonat Birnecker, Pres. of KOVAL Distillery

Koval distillery

INTRODUCTION:

It was an absolute pleasure to spend time with Dr. Sonat Birnecker Hart. Her back-story is far from what you might expect. Sonat’s route from academics to opening Chicago’s first distillery since 1800 is the stuff that great stories are made of. A former tenured academic and her husband – press secretary at the Austrian embassy in DC make their way into the booze business – yes, it is true! As Sonet sees it philosophy is a key ingredient, “Business owners are modeling for their children” in this case, two boys aged 13 and 11. Sonet is not only grateful and committed to a family-rich life, she is passion-filled yet flexible. Stopping to manufacture hand sanitizer during the Pandemic and then back to her the work and warmth of family – with her loved ones playing essential roles (have you seen her sister’s artwork on the labels?!?!). The brand features Gin, Whiskey, Brandy, Vodka and Liquor. Sit back and enjoy the Story of Koval.

PORTRAIT PROJECT INTERVIEW:

WHAT IS ONE PIECE OF ADVICE YOU WISH YOU COULD OFFER YOUR FORMER, EXPECTANT SELF?

Spend more time traveling with your sister and brother… and do not pluck your eyebrows!

IN 2008, YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND MADE THE CHOICE TO WALK AWAY FROM YOUR HIGHLY RESPECTED AND SUCCESSFUL CAREERS IN ACADEMICS AND DIPLOMACY TO LAUNCH KOVAL OR PERHAPS BETTER SAID, TO EXPLORE NEW IDEAS. YOU LEFT THE FACE-PACED AND EXPENSIVE WORLD OF WASHINGTON, DC BEHIND TO MAKE AN UNUSUAL LEAP.  YOU LANDED IN CHICAGO CLOSER TO FAMILY. WHICH WOULD YOU SAY LEFT MORE OF A MARK, THE ENDING OR THE BEGINNING?

The journey is the goal, so the mark is living each day as best as one can. 

YOU WERE AN EARLY ADAPTOR TO WHAT IS NOW “ON TREND”. SO MANY WOMEN ARE TAKING THEIR TALENTS OUT OF THE CORPORATE/ACADEMIC WORLD AND CHOOSING AN ENTREPRENEURIAL PATH. AKA, THE GREAT RESIGNATION. YOU HAVE BEEN IN THIS SPACE FOR OVER 15 YEARS – WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS DIFFERENT NOW? AND WHAT WOULD YOU SHARE ARE KEY LEARNINGS OF THE EARLY DAYS OF HANGING YOUR OWN SHINGLE AND LAUNCHING A BRAND?

I think that there has been a growing interest in entrepreneurship, in tandem with the popularity in the craft movement: whether beer, coffee, sweets, and other items, as well as new modes of promotion and sales via the internet. I think that women, when afforded the opportunity, have always loved independent work, whether launching a brand or otherwise. It comes with a kind of freedom that is not often possible when one works for someone else, such as finding ways to integrate motherhood into a workday, working with family or friends, taking time to volunteer or give back during the work week. These are only a few of the things that I found attractive in launching a brand. One cannot underestimate the thrill, however, of building something from scratch in an exciting industry. 

YOU SHARED SOME REMARKABLE STORIES ABOUT HAVING THE KIDS ON SITE WHILST THE FAMILY GREW THE BUSINESS. DID YOU LIKE HAVING THE KIDS SO CLOSE BY? WHY OR WHY NOT?

This is a special time. My boys are growing up so quickly and soon they will be out of the house and leading their own lives. I love that they understand what I do and we can talk about it, whether it’s trademark law, marketing, distribution or international trade. I also love going about my day while hearing about the best Plainswalkers to add to a control deck in Magic the Gathering, discussing their thoughts on Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, or being able to work while they practice their instruments in the background.

YOU STARTED YOUR FAMILY, NOW TWO SONS, AT THE SAME TIME YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND GAVE BIRTH TO KOVAL. YOU WORKED, AND CONTINUE TO WORK, LONG HOURS AND OBVIOUSLY POUR YOUR DEDICATION INTO ALL YOU DO. IT SHOWS! STILL, YOU HAD TO MAKE SOME COMPROMISES INCLUDING MOVING INTO YOUR PARENTS’ HOME FOR 2.5 YEARS.  YOU BECAME A FAMILY OF 3 UNDER THEIR ROOF. AND THEY WORKED WITH YOU AT THE DISTILLERY AS WELL. TELL ME WHAT YOU BIGGEST TAKE-AWAYS HAVE BEEN FROM SUCH A DRAMATIC LIFE SHIFT AS A WOMAN AND AS A FAMILY? 

I do not see moving into my parents’ home as a compromise. It was and is (since we have been staying with my mom again for most of the pandemic) a really amazing opportunity. I do not think that everyone would feel the same about living with their parents as adults, but it has been rewarding for me. Being together has been helpful for them and helpful for us. It has given my children a chance to really get to know their grandparents, and since my father passed away, given them a sense of responsibility for helping my mom. I am sure that they will have very fond memories of their conversations and experiences with my parents, and I know that they have a great deal of respect and compassion for the trials of aging.

YOU HAVE A REMARKABLE AND THRIVING FAMILY BUSINESS. THE STUNNING LABEL ARTWORK IS YOUR SISTER’S DOMAIN, IN FACT, THE NAME KOVAL IS CONNECTED TO YOUR ANCESTORS.YOUR FATHER WOULD SAY HE WAS A BOX PACKER AND YOUR MOTHER CONTINUES TO ENGAGE. HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE AT THE CENTER OF ALL OF THIS ENERGY AND EXCITEMENT?

Everyone is the main character in their own life, but nothing revolves around me. Life is a short moment in time and we do what we can to make it count as individuals, as a family, as a community, a nation, and world before the worms. Nothing I am doing is any more important than what my mom directs her energies to, or my sister, or brother, or friends, and we all support each other, cheer each other on, and thus, if we are at the center of anything, it is a community of support and love. For that, we are very lucky indeed.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHERE DO YOU FIND YOUR SUPPORT? TIME TO CARE FOR YOURSELF? ACCESS TO THE TOOLS YOU NEED TO RE-CHARGE?

I live my life based on a very old blueprint: Judaism. It affords–for me–a clear path to a life well-lived. It is the support and wisdom of thousands of years of teachings, ideas, arguments, stories, history, and culture, wrapped up in a mindset for how to conduct one’s business and one’s home. I draw great joy and inspiration from it. Perhaps the most important element of it that is related to self-care is Shabbat. It is the original model for a work-life balance, and it works for me. Shabbat is not only a celebration with a fabulous meal, it creates a time set apart and different from the work week. It offers rest and joy, while demanding freedom from work, stress, and, especially today, technology. 

WHAT WERE YOUR BIGGEST COVID LEARNINGS? HOW DID YOU HANDLE THE TRICKY CHALLENGE OF SUPPORTING THE FAMILY/WORK DYNAMIC AND A RADICALLY NEW BUSINESS LANDSCAPE? HOW DID THIS IMPACT YOUR FRIENDSHIPS? MARRIAGE? DID YOU EVEN HAVE A MOMENT TO REST? AND OF COURSE, WHAT IS DIFFERENT ABOUT YOU NOW, IN THIS BRAVE NEW WORLD?

When we shifted our business from making alcohol to making hand sanitizer, we found ourselves working day and night, but we were not alone. Everyone in my company was doing the same because we were driven to do what we could to help our community. It was one of the most difficult circumstances we’ve encountered, but also one of the most uplifting because we saw everyone come together to help. Even as a company, we could not do it all alone. People around the world donated to us so that we could continue to make hand sanitizer and provide it to those on the front lines for free. Members of our community came together to support our efforts: breweries donated their beer so that we could distil it and turn it into hand sanitizer, companies donated packaging, restaurants donated food to our staff, companies offered their vehicles to deliver the sanitizer around the city, politicians came in their own cars to pick up and deliver to those in need in their wards, my friends came together to help however they could. We felt that the entire city was doing everything it could to make things better and it was an amazing and inspiring experience. It was the environment of a war effort, and everyone was understanding. In this new world, I like to think that we are all more sensitive to each other, but also, sadly, less carefree and open.

THINKING BACK, WAS YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE AS A NEW MOTHER WORKING? CAN YOU GIVE SOME FLAVOR TO THAT TIME IN YOUR LIFE?  IF MOTHER WAS NOT YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE, WHAT WAS?

As a new mother working, my biggest challenge was probably finding ways to promote my products in-person, while bouncing a child in a wrap… it must have been a funny sight! Any of the challenges were offset by my ability to run the business without having to sacrifice my desires and instincts as a new mom, such as nursing on-demand. It is difficult to look back on what the biggest challenges were because there were so many, and there still are so many! That is the case with any business – there are challenges lurking around every corner! I would say that early on we had tons of big issues: branding, trademark violations, distribution challenges, and growth. So many challenges, so little time, but never a dull moment! 

WHAT PRO-TIPS DO YOU HAVE TO SHARE WITH OTHER NEW OR EXPECTANT MOTHERS? 

Take long showers, it might be the only time you get to yourself. 

WHO WAS YOUR BIGGEST SOURCE OF SUPPORT IN RETURNING TO WORK AS A NEW MOTHER?

Returning? I never stopped working, I was always working on something. My husband supports me in all that I do. Of course, my family and friends are also a huge support. 

WHO ARE YOUR MENTORS? WHO DO YOU MENTOR?

I am always inspired by strong women. My greatest inspirations come from my own family:

My great grandmother, Ida, who left Pinks, Russia at the age of 13. She went on a hunger strike to convince her parents to let her leave for America. She put three children through college and graduated school by herself, sewing day and night, while taking care of a sick husband. She was smart, hardworking, and unsentimental.

My Grandmother Bea received a PhD despite her professors’ surprise that she would rather continue her education over going home and having babies. After then having four children, she went on to get another degree as a nurse to take care of her husband when he became ill, and later, was headhunted to work for a finance firm at 80 years old. She was generous, diligent, and adventurous.

I am also inspired by my mother, who has rigorous discipline and a thirst for knowledge.

Yet more to the point, I think that we can learn from just about everyone who comes into our lives. 

I have mentored a number of people over the years regarding the spirits business specifically, but also entrepreneurship in general. 

FILL IN THE BLANKS:

As a working parent, I never expected housework would be so hard and international trade would be so much easier. 

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