Between the ages of 10 and 18, former Barrington High School soccer star Jenny Solberg often climbed trees in her neighbors’ yards in the fall months and shook, shook, shook the limbs. The center midfielder—now 34-year-old Jenny Solberg Katzman mother of a precious hat trick (Sienna, 4; Wade, 2; and Eva, six months)—had placed a sheet of tarp atop a stretch of lawn to serve as a gathering material for falling apples.
Or plummeting pears.
“You could say I was cross-training in the trees,” the Winnetka resident says with a laugh. “But I never told my high school soccer coach about it; he probably would have considered it unsafe.”
Katzman’s father, Charlie Solberg, had sanctioned the lofty activity. Back then, the patriarch of the family needed the fruit as step one in the five-step process of producing a fruit brandy. The other four steps: chop fruit (via a bicycle-powered chopper); press fruit; ferment fruit; distill fruit.
“It was my family’s hobby and passion,” says Katzman. Her father had learned to distill in the abundant fruit-growing region of Austria, where he’d played professional hockey as a forward.
Years later, when Katzman was living in San Francisco and working for the international tech company Meltwater, her husband, Taylor, encouraged her to morph the passion project into a business.
Katzman then ran the idea by Solberg.
“My father told me he’d start a business with me, but only if I moved back to Chicago,” Katzman recalls.
Head east, young woman. And that’s what she did.
The father-daughter entrepreneurs launched Rhine Hall Distillery in 2012. Katzman runs the day-to-day operations of Rhine Hall, a distillery with 14 products that focuses on European-style fruit brandies. These delicious brandies, crafted from 100 percent fruit, are described as eau de vie (water of life).
“Or,” Katzman elaborates, “the purest expression of fruit.”
Solberg, 69, also owns Solberg Manufacturing, an industrial equipment supplier based in Itasca.
The production space at Rhine Hall—located in Chicago’s Kinzie Industrial Corridor and named after the Austrian ice rink Rheinhalle, where Solberg once skated and slapped shots for a salary—is open to the public for tours, tastings, cocktails, events, and more.
“My father is innovative, always has been, and he’s someone who doesn’t like doing things conventionally,” says Katzman, who after Barrington High School earned an NCAA Division I soccer scholarship at the University of Vermont.
“He’s also a sounding board for me, as well as a mentor,” continues Katzman, the youngest of Solberg’s five children. “What I love about what I do is building relationships with growers and makers, along with learning all about the fun ways other cultures make products. My husband and I went to Normandy, where I learned how the French make apple brandies.”
Katzman majored in European Studies and minored in marketing at Vermont. How prescient.
She took an entrepreneurship course in college and—eerily—had to come up with a marketing plan for picking and selling apples (yes, apples) at a farmers market. The professor was impressed and praised Katzman for creating a cogent, sumptuous presentation.
“What my professor said to me that day motivated me to pursue a business career,” Katzman recalls. “I remember it so well; I can see her now. I’ve been goal-driven all my life. I like having a goal in mind and putting the pieces of the puzzle together to get there.”
Rhine Hall Distillery has been a great success thanks to the potent blend of a committed father-daughter combo.
“A fruit brandy is a difficult product to make, and it’s challenging at times to source fruit (apples, pears, cherries, apricots, and plums, among others),” Katzman says. “But we’ve figured out how to be successful at it. We’ve done that by staying loyal to fruitbased products—our core.”
But the best part of her career to date has nothing to do with Rhine Hall Distillery’s bottom line and everything to do with her business partner.
“I am the luckiest girl in the world to work with my dad,” Katzman says.
Rhine Hall Distillery is located at 2010 West Fulton Street in Chicago. For more information, visit rhinehall.com.