Dr. Sonat Birnecker Hart on building a career your own way

Dr. Sonat Birnecker Hart is President of the award-winning Koval Distillery, which she founded in 2008 with her husband. The distillery produces whiskies, spirits, brandies and liqueurs and was the first distillery to operate within Chicago’s city limits since prohibition. However, her career started a long way from alcohol distillation. After earning a Master's degree from Oxford and a PhD from the University of London, Sonat spent over a decade teaching and lecturing in the US and Germany. In 2008 she took stock and decided to give up tenure in the hopes of a different quality of life - one that would afford an opportunity to give up commuting, work with her husband, spend time with her new child and return to her beloved Chicago. 

What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was a kid I had a very clear idea that I wanted to be a medical doctor. My parents encouraged it so I went and spent days with my pediatrician following her around with a little note book taking notes.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
For me a dream dinner party would be connecting with the members of my family who would most enjoy the fact that we have started a distillery in Chicago. 

Firstly, my great-grandfather, Manak.  He earned the nickname Koval, which means blacksmith but in Yiddish it has a connotation for someone who is a bit of a black sheep. He got that nickname when he left Vienna at the turn of the century to come to Chicago to start a factory. His family thought he was absolutely mad but he had a lot of foresight. The success of his factory enabled him to bring over a number of kids who were orphaned during the holocaust.  Our distillery is not far from where he had his factory.

I would also love to invite my great-grandmother on the other side of the family. She left Pinsk (Belarus) for America all alone when she was 14-years old after going on a hunger strike to convince her parents to let her go. She worked day and night as a seamstress and put three children through college and graduate school despite the fact that she'd never learned to read. I would love for her to see what we've done.

Finally I would invite my aunt Susan who was always the life of the party. She was an American expat who lived in Italy and worked as an erotic sculptor. She was unbelievably well read, tons of fun to be around and sadly passed away to breast cancer, way too early.

What single book had the greatest impact on you?
Without doubt it’s Friedrich Torberg’s Die Tane Jolesch oder Der Untergang des Abendlandes in Anekdoten, which is the German title of Tante Jolesch or The Decline of the West in Anecdotes (Studies in Austrian Literature, Culture, and Thought. Translation Series).

It had the greatest effect on me in part because it was the basis for my PhD. It captures the nature of Jewish life in Germany and Austria before the war. It's not a book about sadness. It's about laughter, happiness and smarts. I spent a lot of time writing about it, lecturing about it and I even helped translate it.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
We go to bed somewhat late after midnight as it’s often the only time when my husband, Robert, and I have time to relax or talk about work and business. That can sometimes go on for hours! When I get up depends on my two young boys. Last night I did two blanket adjustments in the middle of the night, one potty run and a "Mommy, can I come into bed with you?" at 5am. It's unpredictable. 

What is your favorite time of the working week?
I have a few. I like our late night conversations because I feel the best decisions we've made have been at about 1am in the morning during very intense conversations. I look back on those moments as being very important times. When you have your own business your work week doesn't end during the day, it continues on. 

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
When it came time to get moving on my desired career in medicine I was at college. I was taking pre-med classes and had this really unfortunate realization that I was not as gifted as other students in pre-med. It just wasn't my thing. I loved the idea of being a doctor but I was not capable. I feel like in life there are people who are incredibly capable and people who are willing. You need the combination of the two for something to work out.

I shifted gears completely and studied languages and literature. I was very passionate about finding a connection to my past and by that I mean, my heritage and my family. That led me to German culture and learning the German language. While I was in college I won a number of fellowships to study German-Jewish history 50 years after the war. I did that right after I graduated college and then I went to Grad School in London where I took it in the other direction and studied German-Jewish Cultural History from the turn of the century until 1938.

I went to Grad School in Oxford where I studied Jewish Art History. It was wonderful and I was passionate about it, and it led me to become a professor. I lectured widely in both America and Europe and was the Walter Benjamin Chair of German-Jewish Cultural History in Berlin. At the end of the day I guess I feel like life can have stages. When Robert and I left Berlin to move back to the States after my Fellowship, we asked ourselves some questions.

I was pregnant at the time and we were trying to figure out where we would settle down and buy a house in Washington DC area. We started to realize that we were actually just “settling” and not going for what we really wanted. We didn't really want to be there. We didn't want to have commuter lives and we didn't want to be apart from our kids. Despite the fact we had very successful academic careers - my husband worked for the Austrian Embassy and I’d received tenure - it just wasn't the lifestyle we wanted to have as parents.

What we wanted was to live in a city that we loved, which was Chicago. We wanted to be with our children and not have to put them into daycare. I understand many parents don't have the option but we wanted to not have to do that. We wanted to work together, as oppose to seeing each other after an hour commute at the end of the day. It became very clear that the only way we could do that was if we had our own business because then we would be able to write our own rules.

We were sitting around one holiday telling my family about our desires to start up our own business and maybe move back to Chicago but we weren't sure what we wanted to do. We'd brought back some brandy from Robert's grandfather's distillery in Austria and we were all drinking and talking about it. My sister said, “This is amazing, why don't we have stuff like that here? Why don't you make liquor in Chicago?”

We were unsure, it sounded daunting to start a liquor company. Liquor seemed very mysterious and there weren't many independent liquor companies at the time. It seemed like we would be blazing some serious trails but my sister just nagged us and the idea took root.

   Dr. Sonat Birnecker Hart in the Koval Distillery in Chicago

Dr. Sonat Birnecker Hart in the Koval Distillery in Chicago

Koval was born in Chicago in 2008.  We moved in with my parents with a newborn in my brother's old bedroom for two years while we invested every single penny back into the company.

Ultimately we did get what we wanted because we were with our son, everyday all the time. I was working in Chicago with my baby attached to my body all day long. I nursed on demand, there was no putting me in some cubicle somewhere to pump. I had meetings with my child on my lap. It was fabulous.

Now we're an international liquor company. We make everything from whiskey, gin, vodka, brandy and liquors. Ultimately we are doing what we love in a manner that makes us happy. It doesn't mean it's not a lot of hard work but it's the kind of hard work we wanted to do.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your industry?
We did absolutely everything ourselves. Robert and I are very good at doing a lot of things in this industry but one thing that we are absolutely not good at is design. I did not inherit any of my parent’s artistic genes. To save money in the beginning we tried to do all the branding ourselves. Yes, it saved us money but I think it cost us lot of money later on.

We thought about the types of products we wanted to make from a very academic perspective which is completely removed from what a retailer or consumer would think. For example, we loved the idea of presenting a grain in three different expressions. Like a Rye as a white whiskey, a whiskey in a toasted barrel and an aged whiskey in a charred barrel... allowing people to taste the three different ways in which Rye can present itself. Then we took it a step further and did it with five different grains. So then we had 15 whiskeys on the market in addition to our bourbon. It was too much and we didn't think through what a retailer could handle. It completely diluted our brand. There was no consistency to what was on the shelves anywhere.

When my sister took over our branding, she helped us to streamline to a few main products. We learnt the hard way and it was very difficult for us to completely shift gears.

What motivates you?
I am absolutely motivated by having a vision of where I want things to go. I'm thinking of the now, but I'm always thinking of the next step or the next two steps. It means that the journey is always the goal and it keeps things very exciting. There's never a dull moment and there's never down time.

Also being able to maintain this situation where I'm able to be with my kids as well as working and figuring out ways to do that, keeps me very much on my toes because I have to manage my time incredibly well. I have to get creative with how I carve out time for myself too.

What advice will you give to your children at the start of their career?
It's most important to do what you love and whatever you're doing, try in someway to make the world a better place. I don't mean they have to cure cancer. If they become an artist they should just try to make great art or if they want to be a comedian, make people laugh. All those things make the world a better place.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Truly being able to run a business and be a mother at the same time on my own terms. I've done this in the way I've wanted to do it and in a way that I believe is fabulous for my kids and makes them happy.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
1. A lack of fear. A lot of people would be afraid to shift gears and do something different. I've often shifted gears and feel that life is a journey that can go into many different places. One should just enjoy all of these different manifestations.

2. Knowing what it means to work hard. I think some people have a different idea of what hard work is. If one really understands true hard work and what it takes to get things done right and well, there's a natural success that can come with that.

3. Having a sense of Sechel. It's a Yiddish term which means "smarts" but it's almost spiritual in the sense that it's an ability to judge what you need to do in a certain circumstance to have the best outcome. It's not academic smarts.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Time is precious. If we recognize that everyday, we will live life very differently. It's not just precious but it's fleeting. I feel that every day is important, every hour, every minute.

Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
I always turn to my family. I'm lucky that way. 

There are also other people in the industry that I enjoy talking through issues with and there are other women business owners that I've had a great opportunity to talk with about growth and business issues. 

Funnily enough I can even talk to my kids because they understand what I do. It's not a foreign thing to them. People might think that kids can't understand but they can and are often really sharp in their perspective.

What's next?
We've recently released a gin which has been going fabulously and we're slowly distributing it through our distribution networks. We've been expanding across Europe and in about 10 days we're launching throughout Japan. It's all very exciting.


As told to Caroline Hugall over Skype on Wednesday 15th April 2015. Sonat is based in Chicago.