THR Note: We've since stopped back into Mercenary to check out their recent progress. After you read the full interview below, click here to get the latest update from Adam and Ari.
Depending on exactly who you ask, there are about 85 craft breweries and 18 craft distilleries in the state of Illinois. Until now, however, there have been exactly zero brewery-distillery combinations in the Land of Lincoln. That's somewhat surprising considering the success seen by other combo facilities like Michigan's New Holland Brewing and Oregon's Rogue Ales & Spirits.
That's all about to change as Mercenary Brewery & Distillery get's set to open in Chicago's Logan Square. Tucked down a side street just around the corner from fellow newcomers Ale Syndicate and Arcade Brewery, owners Adam Cieslak and Ari Megalis are hard at work on their soon-to-be combo facility. We stopped in during their buildout phase to find out more about the lifelong friend's history and their plan to bring the best of both worlds to Illinois.
You're really breaking new ground in Illinois with your brewery-distillery combo. What's your background? How did you two come to meet?
Adam Cieslak: We've been friends since...well, we went to kindergarten together, and all of grade school. So we've pretty much known each other our entire lives. His brother (Paul Megalis) is also our partner. I've known him since birth, pretty much. Ari and I have both been brewing beer for about eight years now. And we've been working with Koval – who've been training us on the distilling side.
Ari Megalis: Yea, they've been really helpful.
Adam: As for Mercenary, we really started getting serious a little over a year ago. We started working on our spirits, for research, and just decided we had to dive right in. The first few years before that, it was just more of a hobby. It started getting more serious when we said, "Let's see how good we can make a professional quality beer at home." Our first homebrew was really shitty, but you know, it's beer...it's not bad. We were able to experiment with small changes that really started to improve aspects of the beer. We improved the fermentation method and once we did that it was night and day how much a degree changes beer and how much control you can have over it. Anyway, all those little progressions lead us up to a year or two ago when we started researching brewhouses. There'll be some growing pains but I think we're ready to take it on.
Ari: We also had to secure funding. How many banks turned us down?
Adam: A lot...
Ari: Three banks turned us down, and we finally got our loan with the fourth one. No one wants to fund a brewery, right?
Adam: Yea, it's like any small business. Your business plan looks good but they're going to say no because we haven't been open before. So we did all of that, and felt like we kept getting close – then got set back. But we finally moved forward with a bank. We're also trying to do as much as we can with our day jobs. But hopefully we'll have a lot more free time coming up...
Ari: I still thinks it's crazy we finally did it.
Adam: I'm very excited about all the beer and spirits, but I just want to do cool shit with some of the smaller places around here. Like, there's a small bakery around here – I'd like to do some beer bread with them, or granola bars with someone else.
Did it take you guys a while to find this space?
Adam: Yea, we went to over a hundred spots. All over Chicago.
Ari: Yea, it felt like it at least. The biggest thing we were looking for was something with moratoriums for packaged goods or tavern restrictions. It seemed like we'd find a really good spot but it had a restriction on it.
Well you finally found something in this building... What was this place before?
Ari: "Navteq." They supplied a lot of mapping data to Google for a while, then Nokia bought them. This was their office. We're probably the most high-tech, wired-up brewery in Chicago, haha. There're these mega HDMI cables; there's fiber that runs all the way back into the kitchen. We don't know what it does.
The buildout seems to be the big holdup for a lot of new breweries. How's it been for you?
Ari: We got the lease in January and the space is in pretty decent shape. There's no major construction that needs to be done. Ideally I'd like to have a brand new floor put in, but, you know. We had to add in the floor drains but that was probably the biggest thing it's needed so far.
How about a taproom? Will you have an area for people to come in and sample the goods?
Ari: Oh yea. The main goal is to get stuff out there and into kegs. Once that's done we'll rip all the carpet out and put a little bar in the front area. We'll have small retail racks with pint glasses, shirts and stuff. We're thinking about putting in some skylights to bring in more light in that front part too. It will definitely be a taproom in the future. We're actually in a great spot here. Right across the street is a dry precinct so we're lucky enough to have one less hurdle to worry about.
Ari: Well, when we first started looking at this place, I knew they were close. It was just chance, after we realized how close. We didn't know them before. Then we moved in next door and we've gotten to know them.
Adam: We just emailed them out of the blue and said "Hey, we're Mercenary, and we're going to be neighbors." They were awesome and have been very welcoming. We're creating a kind of 'brewery row' over here.
For being tucked away down this side street, we were surprised to see how much foot traffic this back alley gets.
Adam: That's actually one of the reasons we liked this place. I know it's kind of tucked away at the end of the street (2717 N. Maplewood). But, the Green Exchange is right here and the employee parking lot is just on the other side of us. So once we get our growler pours going, we'll be able to accommodate all those people walking by after work. Or, I'm not going to be opposed to it if someone wants a growler at 9am.
Is there a brewery or distillery that you use as a model for the approach you're going after?
Adam: I really like what Rogue is doing.
Ari: Yea, but we didn't really model it after anybody. We're pretty much just modeling it off of a traditional Scottish distillery. It's basically a lauder tun without a boil kettle.
Adam: Our spirits are being made almost damn near identical to our beer process as far as we'll be using a brewhouse to mash. We're not going to do what a lot of places do, which is essentially grind the grains into a powder and then when you still, it's dissolved in there. That's the Scottish way of using grain and water, just like you're making a beer. The process is pretty similar.
Ari: We'll focus on malt whiskeys so we'll even have a distilled version of our beers. Like say, the stout, for example – we can make one with a little bit higher gravity and less hops. When we distill that we'll actually get those same stout flavors coming through in the unaged whiskey.
Adam: And another one we want to do that for is the pale ale. We really like the hop profile we have so we might bring some of those hops into a gin, so you can really taste the hops coming through. Are you guys into craft whiskey at all?
I think we'd all say we're into it, but don't know enough to really speak to it.
Ari: Well that's kind of what we hope to do: take you guys that have a basic understanding of what craft spirits are about and bring them over to the whole craft spirit world. Which...is very much 20 years behind the craft beer market as far as all the trends go. But they're really similar, too.
Adam: The same type of people who are really into craft spirits are those who are really into craft beer. It's eye-opening to see what we can do with spirits. It's the same thing when you have a really good beer versus your average macrobrew. Though, I do have a special place in my heart for my High-Life. It's like, wow, this is not what I expected from a whiskey. Before we age anything, we'll be making some white whiskeys. You can actually drink that right off the still. And you would think it would be a moonshine that's too harsh, but it's almost the opposite of what you'd expect. There are a lot of those malt flavors in the wort that carry through so you get this really smooth malty flavor.
Speaking of barrel-aging, what are your plans on that front?
Ari: What's going to be nice for us is that we're not going to have that pressure to rush anything that's not aged to where we want it to be, because we'll have the beer to support us. Whiskey is done when it's done.
Adam: We'll age in smaller barrels so you get better contact between the spirit and the wood. There's more surface area so you get a lot more of the mellowing aged flavor that comes out.
Speaking of barrels, how will you start building out your barrel collection?
Ari: There's a bunch of cooperages in Michigan. We'll probably use the same ones that the guys from Koval use.
Will all your barrels be first-use?
Ari: We're going to be using mostly new barrels. You can age stuff in used barrels it just takes forever. We might have a couple single malts aged in a used barrel – to kinda age is slower. Maybe a limited release... 12 years from now. But mostly, they'll be all new. After we use them once, we'll use it for something with beer. Say we have a distilled version of our stout – we can age that in a barrel. Then we could use that barrel to age the actual Stout in it.
Adam: It's really an incestious relationship, haha. You'll see the whole lifecycle coming from one grain set. You make good beer, you still it to have it another way...then make beer again to age it in that same barrel.
How are you planning on getting your stuff out to the city?
Ari: Well, we can't really self-distribute once we get our distilling license. We'll probably self-distribute for a few months. We'll be packaging it though. It will probably be 22oz. bombers to start.
Adam: I really like the 16oz. cans, especially with our pale ale. But we need to start bottling to really get stuff out there. We're in the process of picking out our spirit bottles right now as well.
Will you have a naming theme for your beers?
Ari: We're planning to name some of our more limited, higher-gravity releases after some historical mercenaries and warlords, fittingly...
Adam: Yea, we were going to do all of our stuff like that, but that'd get get old really fast. So we'll just do that once in a while. We want to do a Pulaski Pils and other Chicago-themed names. So we'll do a few of those type of things but I'm a big fan of the more minimal design. The labels will be more straightforward: light background, one splash of color, maybe a small graphic in the middle.
Lastly, other than your homebrew, what's your drink of choice?
Ari: Corsair Distillery is probably one of my favorites. They do a hop whiskey which I really like. I also like Ale Syndicate's Sunday Session. It's always a go-to beer for me.
Adam: I guess my favorite is Koval. Everything I have from them is so good – and they're just super nice guys. Beer-wise, I also really like Ale Syndicate; especially some of their recent releases. Other than that, I've really been digging Maine Brewing's stuff. I really like the fact that, in the last half a year, they've become a lot more available around here. You can give me any one of those beers and I'll be happy. I really like it because it's not crazy over the top. It's just well made.
THR Note: We've since stopped back into Mercenary to check out their recent progress. Now that you've read the full interview, click here to get the latest update from Adam and Ari.
It's obvious there's something special brewing at Mercenary and we'll be the first in line to sample the fare once that first batch rolls out. A big thanks to Ari and Adam for taking time out of their evening to talk shop and share a little knowledge on the spirits side of things.
Photography by Jack Muldowney & Robert Battista