Re-Visiting Champaign with North Shore Distillery

I’m so busy traveling around that I often don’t get to go to some of my favorite places in my hometown. When my friend Sonja Kassenbaum of North Shore Distillery told me she was coming to town to visit some of the bars and restaurants that house her products, I decided it was a perfect time to catch up with both Sonja and downtown Champaign.

We started the evening at Radio Maria, which I’m sorry to say I haven’t been to in a while.  Sonja was pouring cocktails made with some North Shore Sol Vodka (which has a citrus infusion) for the guests while I enjoyed one of my all-time favorite drinks – North Shore No. 11 Gin and Tonic. I was surprised at how many people had never had her spirits before, but not surprised that they kept ordering them the rest of the night.

Radio Maria is in the heart of downtown Champaign and is known for not only a large selection of spirits, but their beer list. They had 27 beers on tap during my visit. The other thing Radio Maria is popular for is their tapas. Sonja and I sampled some wonderful ones which I had remembered from my last visit: Arancini, risotto balls with mozzarella, topped with tomato sauce; Queso de Cabra, fried goat cheese topped with honey; and Lamb Meatballs, stuffed with cheese and pine nuts, cooked in a tomato broth.

While we nibbled on the tapas, Sonja told me all about the expansion of North Shore with a new tour (that includes a visit with Ethel, their famous still) and tasting room. The only thing I couldn’t get her to tell me was what her special spirit would be this year.  There have been some exciting ones, including the  Mole Poblano, Medjool Date Infusion and last year’s Corpse Reviver, but she is very good at keeping a secret so we will have to wait until Ethel is ready to divulge it on her Facebook page.

Sonja had lots more places to visit in Champaign-Urbana that carry her products, such as Carmon’s Bistro (I haven’t tried it under the new ownership, but it was a favorite and I’m hoping it hasn’t changed much) and Black Dog (some of the best barbecue you will find this far north). Before she went back to Chicagoland, I also took her to check out Destihl, a brewery I love that she had not yet visited.

Executive Chef Manny Martinez joined us at Destihl for a fun sampling of his food (mainly the out of this world Beer Battered Asparagus and Stuffed Poblano) and her spirits. We managed to get through most of the North Shore Collection of vodkas and gins before making our way to their Sirène Absinthe Verte. North Shore was the first to bring this delicious spirit into the U.S. and I for one am certainly glad they did. If you haven’t tasted this high proof, less sweet Sambuca tasting liqueur, I urge you to head over to Lake Bluff (just outside of Chicago) and do it soon.

While I’m on the subject of Destihl, I’d like to pass along some information on their beer dinner this week (11/9) in their Normal location. It’s not only a great opportunity to check out some of their beers, but you can also sample some of Chef Martinez’s fabulous food. For more information on the dinner, contact the brewery,  309-862-2337. Unfortunately, I will be out of town (what else is new), but I’m sure I will find another excuse to go back for asparagus and poblanos!


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