Chicago Distilling Company: A Storied Family History, Steeped in the Backwoods
Noelle DiPrizio hardly seems like the granddaughter of a moonshiner. Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Buffalo Grove, she had no idea of her family’s storied past. Up until a few years ago, Noelle was the director of operations for a high-end interior design business, working for a firm whose accounts have been featured in major design magazines. Her world seemed a far cry from the backwoods of northern Wisconsin, a hotbed of bootlegger activities in the 1920s and 1930s.
“My husband Jay first learned of my family history in distilling when we started dating many years ago. It’s not even something I was aware of,” says Noelle. “He would go into the backwoods with my father during hunting season. Not being much of a hunter, he would hang out at the hunting shack with my cousins and uncles.” It was within the brotherhood of this band of hunters where the yarns began to unwind, stories of the old days of Prohibition when her grandpa and his cousins turned leftovers from the corn crop into ethanol and made moonshine. The clandestine activities remained unspoken about for years and the stills were kept tucked away, hidden in a shed. But one by one, as cousins and uncles dusted off the stories, they dragged out the old family moonshine cook stoves.
Noelle’s parents came from a small town nestled deep in the old logging country of the Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin, about 90 miles north of Green Bay. “My mother is one of 15 kids and grew up with very few modern conveniences. Her father, “Shorty” Enders, taught all of his children how to live off of the land, from fishing for dinner to making dandelion wine in the summer time,” says DiPrizio. These days you’d call that country lifestyle “living off the grid,” but back in the 1920s up north, there was no grid.
Most of Grandpa Shorty’s wisdom was passed down, while some chapters were kept buried for years. As Noelle grew up, she spent time up north and sometimes helped during maple syrup season, deep in the pristine forest, surrounded by crystal clear lakes. When Jay entered the picture, he too fell in love with these natural resources.
They began to think about how they could tap into the land and leave a legacy of their own.
The more they talked about the family history, their future became clear—take a page from Shorty’s book and turn local crops into alcohol. With the help of Jay’s brother, Vic, they embarked on a journey to learn the craft of distilling.
Chicago Distilling Company was born in 2010. “There was a drastic learning curve,” Noelle explains. Working the front of the house on a recent Thursday night at the Tasting Room of Chicago Distilling Company, she pours a taste of their Ceres Vodka, made from organic Illinois yellow corn. Next to it, Finn’s Gin, a modern style gin made with a base of Ceres Vodka and 11 botanicals, including hibiscus and orris root. “It’s not as dry as other gins,” she says. The next of the three is Shorty’s, an un-aged white whiskey and a nod to the family legend.
In a true old-fashioned way, Chicago Distilling Company sources local organic corn and wheat, keeping a smaller footprint and supporting the local economy. “We source 90% of our grain from right here in Illinois from farms less than 60 miles from our distillery. We could go outside the area and source from throughout the Midwest,” she says, but they wanted to keep their business in Illinois. “We live in the grain belt of America so it is almost a no-brainer for us.”
The business is set to expand beyond the 100 gallon still, which sits behind a glass window in the production area behind the bar. There are plans to open a second facility, which will house a 500 gallon production still.
In a very male-oriented business of spirit production, Noelle DiPrizio is becoming a stand out. Finn’s Gin has won gold medals in the New York International Wine and Spirits Competition and Portland’s Great American Distillers Festival. “I think you will only see more and more women becoming distillers and creators of artisan spirits. I have two sons and maybe I will be fortunate enough to have a daughter some day. Either way, I don’t want any of my children to grow up in a world that they see a separation in roles between men and women,” she says.
“I had a great aunt that ran a speakeasy in the Northwoods during prohibition,” she shares. There were few boundaries back then and it seems to be the same for Noelle today. “I’ve believed that as long as I can remember, so I think that’s what makes working side by side with Jay and Vic very natural.”
Although it is a far cry from Grandpa Shorty’s backwoods still, the Chicago Distilling Company, guided by Noelle DiPrizio’s passion, has brought the family business back to life for future generations to enjoy.
The Chicago Distilling Company Tasting Room features products made on site along with signature cocktails, which change frequently and seasonally. Because they are not allowed to incorporate any modifiers such as mixers from outside vendors, they must concoct their own syrups and elixirs in-house from various, unique ingredients. “I work side by side with our head bartender and we have innovation sessions once a week trying to push our cocktail menu forward and develop bitters, tinctures and other modifiers for our drinks,” says Noelle DiPrizio. Fortunately she can choose from a world of spices to add unique flavor. Rodrick Marcus of Rare Tea Cellar in Chicago, she says, has been “a very good resource” for ingredients such as black currant tea and other exotic elements.