Lawyer Overturns Prohibition Law to Open Craft Distillery
Paul Hletko practiced law on and off for almost 20 years before starting FEW Spirits, a craft distillery producing gin, whiskey and bourbon. Over the years, Paul has left law many times to pursue interests including teaching entertainment law, playing guitar professionally, opening a brew pub, and even running a record label. However, he always found himself coming back to the practice of law. Paul finally found what he was looking for with FEW Spirits and has no plans on ever going back to law. Having spent over a year overturning prohibition law just to get them up and running, he has never worked harder or been more passionate about any other career goal in his life.
The Road to Law School
Paul Hletko studied engineering at the University of Michigan. At the time, he was dating a woman whose father was a lawyer and held a very strong belief that everyone should go to law school. In an attempt to impress his girlfriend’s father, Paul took a class called “Law and Engineering.” It turned out this was the only class he could stay awake through. Taking this as a sign, he decided that law school would be a good next step.
Paul then attended Loyola University Chicago where he thoroughly enjoyed his law school experience.
“Law school was a lot of fun, but practicing law was very different.”
After law school, Paul was in litigation for many years. He started doing defence work which led into other types of litigation work. He later attempted to open his own firm practicing entertainment law, but did not find that to be fulfilling.
“I don’t think I was ever fully prepared for what it means to own your own practice.”
Throughout his law career, Paul always attempted to branch out and try things on his own. He had some brief moments where he tried other things such as being a professional guitar player, running a record label, opening a brew pub, and teaching entertainment law at Columbia college. Paul was always led by his creativity and his desire to create something new.
“All my life I’ve tried to be a creative person and find things that really motivate me. Getting up in the morning and making something new by the time I go to bed is what gets me fired up.“
After teaching entertainment law and practicing at the same time, Paul left his professor job and was a patent attorney for 10 years.
What prompted Paul to leave law for good was a desire to start a distillery. The idea first came to him when his grandfather passed away. His grandfather had owned a major brewery in the Czech Republic prior to WWII. During the war, the brewery was confiscated by Nazis. His grandfather was the only survivor of WWII in his family and he spent the rest of his life trying to get his family’s brewery back. His death inspired Paul to carry on the family legacy in his own way.
“I was looking for something new but still related to the family story and to who and what we are.”
Having been a home-brewer for 20 years, Paul already had an interest in the business and ideas about creating a successful distillery. So in 2010, he took the plunge and founded FEW Spirits in his home of Evanston, Illinois.
Taking on a New Role
FEW Spirits is a micro/craft distillery which produces small batch spirits such as gin and whiskey from Midwestern grains. They have been rapidly growing over the past eight years and are now featured at some of the best bars in the world and sold at top retailers everywhere.
Paul’s legal background was immediately relevant in his pursuit of opening a distillery. He was determined to start the distillery in his hometown of Evanston, Illinois. Evanston had been the home of the Temperance Movement and was a dry city for many years. As a result, before he could brew his first batch he had to work for a year and a half to overturn longstanding prohibition laws so FEW Spirits could operate.
“I find that the harder you work, the luckier you get.”
Paul believes that being an entrepreneur is simply being a problem-solver. In his case, he had a problem and had to work to change alcohol laws, health codes, zoning codes and more to start the first legal distillery in Evanston. Using all his skills as a lawyer, he took action and worked harder on this than on any of his previous entrepreneurial attempts. In fact, he named FEW Spirits after a local historical figure, the prohibitionist Frances Elizabeth Willard (F.E.W).
“A good lawyer can see the future and control and mold that future to their desires; an entrepreneur does the same.”
His transition into the business was not very different from starting anything else in his life. He learned so much from starting his law firm and from all of his previous failures.
“Failing is a really important part of success.”
He recognizes that FEW Spirits was the best step for him. There was always something lacking in his previous attempts of starting a business. His distillery goes beyond business for him and his dedication is really what pushed Paul to overcome all of his challenges. He spent much of his life searching and following his passions and interests, and eventually got to something he can be proud of and call his own.
“I wasn’t happy for many years and I think that’s a shame but it’s because of that I got to where I am now.”
Like many of the lawyers we’ve interviewed, Paul personally knows many attorneys that are unhappy in law but he emphasizes that a desire to leave is not enough. There needs to be a real goal or area that you wish to pursue.
“The only person really stopping you from living your dream is you, but it’s a lot easier if you’re going to something instead of running away from something else.”
His second piece of advice is simply to stick to it! Dreams cannot be made without putting in some hard work.
“As long as you’re dedicated, focused and passionate about the business, you’re going to succeed.”