You are Sonja and Derek Kassebaum. You're married. You're living the American dream. One of you is a chemical engineer and the other is a lawyer. You live in Chicago which - while corrupt, crooked and full of awful roads, horrible traffic, and confiscatory tolls - is still pretty cool. You've got all of this and what do you do?
Seriously... what is the most prudent and sensible thing you could do?
Why, if you're the Kassebaums you give up everything and open a microdistillery, of course.
Derek Kassebaum-a successful chemical engineer and entrepreneur found himself reading about a man in Vermont who made vodka from locally produced maple syrup and another from milk (Vermont Spirits by Duncan of Duncan Spirits). The Vermont gentleman's former job was on Wall Street... today, he is much happier. From that shining example, the idea of North Shore Distillery was born on whiteboard and legal pad. In 2004 it became a reality.
Today, it all starts with Ethel. She's a German copper still with a couple of interesting features specifically designed by Derek. First, it's heated with a water bath and electricity, rather than steam. What this means is that the heat is a gentle heat - cook long and slow just like good ribs - and that allows for a slower, more controlled distillation process that they believe adds to the complexity and depth of their spirits. Secondly, there's an odd bell-shaped flare at the top of the still - this creates reflux. Not acid reflux that throws bile back up your esophagus but rather an expanded volume of space where the vapors condense and run back into the still for additional rounds. (Remember from high school chemistry? As a volume of space expands, temperatures cool? Who says high school chemistry isn't good for anything!)
You want handcrafted? They hand-fill the bottles one at a time. They hand-cork the bottles... one at a time. They hand-label the bottles... you guessed it: one at a time. This is all done by three volunteer stay-at-home moms who have managed to get out just a little bit to volunteer at the distillery.
North Shore distillery is an expression of a chemist who likes to experiment and a mixologist who loves to dabble. Today's impressive line of spirits first opened with their flagship Distillers Gin No. 6 gin and vodka. No. 6 is considered a modern gin with large floral tones complementing the traditional juniper. Later, when some gin martini enthusiasts from a local restaurant wanted a more traditional gin, North Shore responded by creating the No. 11 gin, which is heavier on the juniper and is meant to appeal to those with a classic preference. At first, it was made for and offered only to certain restaurants but has recently been bottled and offered retail. Know it by the emerald green bottle.
Each summer since 2006, there is a limited release seasonal spirit. The first releases were done in 2006 and were the Ceylon Tea and Medjool Date infusions. This was followed the next year by Rhuginger No. 6 made with 150 pounds of fresh rhubarb (harvested at 7:30am and made into the batch that same day - every last bottle). Last year was the Alphonso Mango No. 11, which was their traditional No. 11 gin infused with the king of all mangos (alphonso). These mangos were a specialty item - a mere 30 cases - that were obtained by the heroic efforts of local Indian grocers and retailed for the stunning price of $3 each! The Kassebaums did nothing but slice mangoes for two weeks. Mole Poblano is the most recent limited edition run - a mere 500 bottles. It's an infusion of 7 different peppers. Something about the distillation process leaves most of the heat behind and brings forward the herbal essence of the peppers. The common thread in all of these limited edition spirits is that no one else is doing them, which they regard as one of the great pleasures of being a small and nimble microdistillery. They can literally craft spirits in response to local restaurant requests, the opinions of friends, and their own tastes. And, in the emphatic words of Sonja Kassebaum, they will never, ever be made again.
Their experiments have taken them to produce three recent spirits: a Tahitian Vanilla vodka that is now discontinued, an Aquavit blending traditional Norwegian tastes with a modern blend, and an absinthe they have named Sirene. They're now playing with some rums and whiskies that rest in experimental pots and a few small oak barrels. Many of their experiments are tested and sampled with the Distillers Club, a local group that tries various creations and operates as a kind of focus group / market research group for North Shore. Some experiments have resulted in failures (they regard their efforts at using kiwi disgusting and they described working with pears as hard with a noticeable grimace) and a great lot of mediocre spirits that never make it to a customer.
In the end, the Kassebaums of North Shore reminded us like so many garage inventors tinkering away at a variety of inventions with some interest in the market but a far greater interest in indulging their own imagination and tastes. This is a fine American tradition from Thomas Edison to Bill Gates. Or, if you prefer, the garage bands that gave us everything from jazz to grunge. Or even community theater passionately hammering away on local productions of great plays. It's an idyllic picture easily matched by the warm, generous character of Derek and Sonja...
... and it extends to their marketing. As with most small microdistilleries, they are often responsible for their own marketing and sales if they want to ever actually sell anything and on the weekend we visited, they had scheduled three different tastings. We went along for the ride to the Distinctive Cork-a brilliant little locally owned restaurant in Naperville, IL that has a dedicated clientele for their wine and now carries North Shore products. The set up was simple: distinctive cocktails featuring North Shore spirits were paired with appetizers from the restaurant. If you thought being Sonja was glamorous, think again because she spent at least 90 minutes just zesting and preparing fruit and infusing syrups before bartending for about 150 minutes. Far better to be the paying customer this night because when it started, food and drink issued from the kitchen/bar in generous numbers to the enthusiastic reception of everyone, which interestingly comprised far more female than male and most of these admitted to being cocktail enthusiasts in general. Distinctive Cork Executive Chef/Owner Scott Taylor teamed up with North Shore Co-Owner Sonja behind the bar to kick out the marvelous four-course round of appetizers and drinks. I don't care who you are, there's not much of a better way to spend an evening than at a local restaurateur presenting signature dishes with a local microdistiller making cocktail magic. For posterity, here was the menu:
Duck Eggrolls with a Ginger Gimlet
2 oz North Shore Distiller's Gin No. 6
1 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz ginger-infused simple syrup
Shake ingredients with ice and strain into cocktail glass.
This one was a big hit with a great majority of the customers (and so were the egg rolls). They loved the sweetness of the gimlet with a light spice kick from the ginger. One lady announced, I love the taste because that means I can drink more!!
Bacon and Bleu Stuffed Burgers with a Aquavit Bloody Mary
2 oz Aquavit
4 oz Bloody Mary Mix
Combine ingredients over ice, stir well, squeeze lime wedge on top.
Customers were very surprised to learn aquavit was in this mixture rather than vodka - most had never heard of aquavit before. North Shore converted a great many customers that night. Anyone who claimed to have liked Bloody Maries in the past liked this particular version... particularly with the spicier mix. Instant tailgate! proclaimed one woman. The burgers, by the way, were fantastic.
Calamari with a Grapefruit Basil Fizz
2 oz North Shore Distiller's Gin No. 11
3.4 oz grapefruit juice
1/2 oz basil-infused simple syrup
Shake gin, juice, syrup and one basil leaf with ice; strain into ice-filled glass; top with club soda.
Divergent opinion on this drink. Several people loved this drink calling it light and summery. Way better than a mojito! chorused a table of co-eds who were, by this point, quite enthusiastic on this and a number of other issues. Others preferred the sweetness of the gimlet to this drink.
Flourless Chocolate Cake with a White Mocha Martini
1 oz North Shore Vodka
1 oz white chocolate Liqueur
1 oz coffee liqueur
1/2 oz cream or half-and-half
Rim cocktail glass with mixture of ground espresso, fine sugar, and cinnamon, shke ingredients, strain into glass.
This drink was a sweet, thick dessert drink. It was a huge hit with anyone who liked dessert.
In the end, customers were delighted to learn about a local establishment serving drinks that they liked distilled from local product. Place matters, we heard over and over again, I don't like to buy big in my groceries, I don't like chain restaurants, and I'd now go out of my way to by North Shore products. Many promised that they would, now that they know them. This, we imagine, is how all the small markets work: they spread at the grass-roots level, by word-of-mouth, and by partnerships among businesses who later become friends.