Proof66 had the great privilege to welcome Sonja Kassebaum from Chicago's own North Shore Distillery at one of our tastings. It's always a pleasure to watch a professional at work and Sonja was in rare form for us that night. Of course, it helps to have your palate seduced with great vodka, gin, and absinthe to go with the lecture but make no mistake about it, she does something vitally important in the spirits world: she makes it fun to try things.
This was abundantly clear from her opening remarks over our introductory cocktail the Moscow Mule. "This is the drink that taught America to drink vodka", Sonja announced as she mentioned its history with movie stars, its recipe of lime, sometimes the sweet Rose's Lime Juice, vodka (her own North Shore Vodka, of course), and the ginger beer. "A light, refreshing summer drink!"
2 oz North Shore Vodka
½ a fresh lime
Pour vodka into tall glass, press lime juice into glass and drop in the lime. Fill with ice, top with ginger beer. Garnish with lime wedge if desired.
"Wait!" a man called anxiously from the corner. "Are we supposed to put the lime wedge in the drink?"
You see, the poor fellow had been presented with an unfamiliar drink with a garnish. Should he treat it like the lime wedge in a Corona beer and pop it in? Was it decoration? What was the right move?!
Sonja's a pro and she gets it. "Whatever you like," she told him crisply. Then winked at him and said: "I do!" Then she plunked the lime in the drink and knocked back half of it one go. In that moment, she absolutely personified what we feel the cocktail culture and fine spirits should be about: get a little educated, understand what you're drinking, and then - above all - drink what you like.
The Moscow Mule was a great drink; every bit as light and refreshing as promised. (Rather poorly named for such a nice, pretty drink - how does a slinky twenty - something put a on a little black cocktail dress and make such an order with any dignity in a swanky club?) Truth be told, though, it could probably accommodate just about any but the most awful vodkas. But in the very next round we got to compare a premium-end potato vodka (Chopin from the famous Polish distillery Polmos Siedlce) against the equally premium North Shore Vodka made from a blend of American Midwestern corn and wheat. "There is a difference between vodka brands," Sonja had promised us. And here it was - in a glass at room temperature and unadorned - for everyone to see. The Chopin is a well-regarded vodka with a slightly bitter, creaminess that comes from the potato. Those that like potato vodka love their Chopin and we had a few of those at the tasting. It's a sharp contrast to the North Shore Vodka, which we found quite sweet on the front part of the palate and a much, much smoother finish. Anyone who has spent any time with Proof66 is well-versed in this most popular of American spirits and North Shore's vodka is a very nice and elegant offering to the growing movement of American craft-made vodkas.
And then on to Sonja's first love: gin.
Another series of remarks about gin included the fact the modern day spirit is "Really just flavored vodka... vodka is like the blank canvas over which the distiller creates a unique set of flavors that becomes their signature gin." And indeed, North Shore takes their same vodka that they bottle and runs it through another distillation to infuse it with the herbs that create their flavor profile. North Shore offers two different kinds. Their first and most recognized is North Shore No. 6, which they consider to be a more modern-style gin. This means it has less of the classic juniper flavor (though it is still considered "dominant" to qualify as gin) but brings a more complex set of complementary flavors with a much longer, lingering finish.
"This was named the best North American gin!" Sonja brightly announced to applause from the audience. And indeed we can confirm that. The No. 6 nailed a 95pt rating from the Beverage Testing Institute in 2008 and to this day it remains firmly ensconced in our top-20 list of gins. It fits beautifully with several cocktails that are a match for the strong set of botanicals making up the No. 6.
This is greatly in contrast with the second gin from North Shore that was made especially for martini enthusiasts who were calling on the distillery to make a more classic gin. North Shore No. 11 was their answer to that call. Equally well-crafted (it scored a 94pt ranking from the Beverage Testing Institute that same year) it features a heavy juniper profile and a much simpler but much more soaring finish. (The Proof66 partners, being a bit snobby with their martinis, fell in personal love with the No. 11.)
Both of these gins were tasted neat along with the venerable and ubiquitous Tanqueray London Dry for comparison purposes. While there were a few people who preferred the No. 11 and even a couple souls who preferred the Tanqueray ("Fair enough," is the typical response from the even-tempered Sonja in these occasions, once again living the creed that one should drink what one likes however one likes) the popular acclaim went to the No. 6. Indeed, once the patron got over the relatively higher proof of the gins (both North Shores are at 90 proof and the Tanqueray at a touch over 94 proof) there were calls to the bar that very night for drinks featuring the No. 6.
More interesting - at least to the people drinking at the tasting - than the history was the absinthe itself. An intense green at a scorching 120 proof, this is an enormously difficult spirit to make and very sophisticated to drink. The dominant flavor is anise (black licorice), which seems to make a lot of people flinch. But the Orange Frappe that was served with the absinthe blended down the anise with a good deal of orange and other flavors. Just about everyone who claimed to "hate" licorice was rather pleasantly surprised at how much they liked the drink.
Orange Absinthe Frappé
1-1½ oz Sirène Absinthe Verte
½ oz Orange Curaçao
2 oz Fresh orange juice
½ oz Fresh lemon juice
Stir the ingredients together without ice. Fill a rocks glass (or coupe glass if you have one) with crushed ice, then pour drink over the ice. Garnish with a thin orange slice.
And then the absinthe fountain stole the show. A gleaming fairy with outstretched arms served as the pedestal holding a clear glass canister full of icy water. Four spouts from the bottom of the canister - but still about 14 inches off the table because of the lifting arms of the fairy - allowed a slow drip to between one and four glasses that waited beneath with about 2 ounces of absinthe in each. (You can buy one from North Shore right here.) The absinthe is clear green but as the water slowly drips into the glass, the icy water releases the essential oils suspended in the spirit. This rises in a haze from the bottom up, almost like a fog. This is the loush. When the "fog" reaches the top of the absinthe and there's no clear green layer left, you're done and the drink's ready! (Purists might tell you the "perfect absinthe" will have a sliver of clear green at the top of the glass) If desired, a slotted spoon can hold a single sugar cube that the water drips through to add a sweet component to the absinthe.
For all who wanted, Sonja passed around the traditional presentation from the fountain. This drink was a big hit and resulted in many converts on the night. The first taste is redolent of anise (licorice) but - as Sonja warned us - the oils coat the tongue on the first sip or two. Every drink after that one finds the anise fading to the background (near invisibility, really) and other flavors coming to the fore. "In absinthe, every sip is different than the last," Sonja says. "That's what makes drinking absinthe so much fun."
And that's the heart of the matter: fun. Drinking should be fun. Cocktails should be fun. If there's a legacy for what Sonja brings to a tasting is that it is, and should be, fun.
Check out the North Shore Distillery's website for availability, more cocktail recipes, and absinthe accoutrements. They also have a very active Facebook page.