I met Sonja Kassebaum for a weekend of bar-hopping run in downtown Champaign. This wasn’t an exhibition of partying, it was two night of discovering. The discoverer was me and it was the spirits of North Shore Distillery that I was learning (and tasting). You see, this isn’t a company where you just walk through a distillery and taste their products, North Shore Distillery does the traveling and brings the adventure to you.
The husband and wife team of Sonja and Derek Kassebaum own and operate North Shore Distillery, an artisanal distillery located in a Chicago suburb of Illinois. They started six years ago and have put their time into making quality products in this small distillery. They are hands on with everything, including Sonja’s picking of the herbs for the gin. She readily admits that “Grey Goose makes in one day what we do in six years.”
There is another who makes the spirits of North Shore possible -- Ethel, the 250 liter copper still that was hand-crafted to the Kassebaum’s specifications. It is Ethel who is responsible for the Gins, Vodkas, Aquavit and Absinthe that I so enjoyed tasting at the downtown Champaign stops that carry the North Shore Distillery Products -- Radio Maria (incredible Tapas), Bacaro (small, but enticing menu) and Seven Saints (home of the best sliders around).
After sampling (you don’t have to twist this gin-lover’s arm too hard) through Radio Maria and Bacaro on Saturday night, I joined a group of about 40 at Seven Saints for a spirit by spirit tasting led by North Shore’s Sonja Kassebaum and Seven Saint's Manager Andy Borbely, two people who know more about spirits than anyone I know. It was Gin No. 6 that had my immediate attention. With tastes of fresh juniper, lavender , floral and citrus, this small batch spirit won the bronze medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and I wasn’t missing the tonic at all. Even more flavorful is the Gin No. 11, which is much heavier on the juniper, without the floral.
The North Shore Vodka went down smooth, but it wasn’t what had everyone talking. It was the three surprises Sonja had up her sleeve (or should I say “in her bottles”). This small, private distillery was actually the first in the United States to make Aquavie. This oak aged spirit is full of spice – coriander, caraway, cumin, cinnamon – and is best served cold. The second treat, while popular (it sold out rather quickly on the first run), was not to my taste. The Mole Pablano, like the Spanish Mole, contains seven types of chile peppers, cocoa beans and spices for a very unique taste.
Finally, at this most unusual tasting, was a drink that has quite a history. The reputation of Absinthe is not well-earned, as Sonja Kassebaum explained. It was because of one man (whose drinking problem was quantity, not the spirit itself) that it was rumored to be a dangerous spirit. That didn’t stop North Shore Distillery from deciding to make it when it was legalized in the U.S. two years ago. This anise-flavored liquor is usually served with water and sugar to sweeten the taste. It was a first sampling for many, including me. I found it to be reminiscent (but smoother and not quite as sweet) of Sambuca.
Among the events coming up where you can taste North Shore Distillery products is at a Classic Cocktail Hour in Chicago February 11th at the Marriott and a Celebration of American Distilling in Madison, Wisconsin, February 18th. For more information on Distillery and some events around the country you can find them visit their website, follow them on Twitter or find them on Facebook