The once-familiar story about the next great boutique winery has begun to morph, from grapes to grain and from presses to pot stills, into the story of the next great boutique distillery. New bars are popping up all over the country (especially in the Bay Area) and the stools are full of thirsty enthusiasts, none of whom are asking for a glass of Pinot or a crisp Chardonnay. The resurrection of the small-production craft distiller is quickly catching up to (and overtaking?) the cult of the winemaker for the top spot in the hearts and minds of alcohol aficionados. Whereas the rise of domestic wine production came from a “we can do it, too!” mentality, the current domestic craze for craft spirits is more of a return to glory for the people who once did it best. Before America fell into the desperate depths of Prohibition, its watering holes were home to the most passionate and talented alcohol experts the planet has ever known. But once their craft became illegal, they went elsewhere. With them went the recipes, the techniques, the knowledge and the experience, leaving tipplers to the dirty bathtubs and seedy backrooms looking to capitalize on the proper bartender’s absence. Only 70-plus years later have we recovered, poised to retake our throne as the world’s reining champion of great booze.
Gin was king pre-Prohibition. It made (and still makes) all the best cocktails—from the Aviation to the classic Martini (the only real Martini). Many of the best gins came from England and today many still do. However, the American products to join the ranks over the last decade or so have been truly spectacular: Anchor Steam’s Junipero, Leopold Bros. Small Batch and Sarticious are a few that come to mind. However, no arrival to our liquor shelf has been as exciting as the products of a small distillery in Chicago called North Shore; they may very well be the next great story in craft distilling. Their No. 6 Gin is radiant, their Scandinavian-influenced Aquavit is wickedly smooth and their No. 11 Gin is so heavenly that it has converted me completely to an avid North Shore follower. Their small production, hands-on, adventurous and delicious spirits have my head spinning, both because of their quality and the fact that I can’t stop drinking them.
Just how small does “small production” mean? In the case of North Shore it means small batches of distinctive bottles made by two people: the husband and wife team of Derek and Sonja Kassebaum, plus one part time employee. Since they don’t make very much, I buy everything I can when it’s available. Derek, who is trained as a chemical engineer, does all the distilling, and Sonja, a legally-trained consultant for start-up companies, now consults for and manages her own. Before they teamed up to create their own line of craft spirits, Derek dabbled in brewing his own beer and making his own wine, but thought it would be exciting to actually try and make a living distilling spirits. Sonja, always a cocktail nerd at heart, decided to leave the corporate world and lend a hand. Four years later, they’re ready to conquer America’s lounges and retail stores, winning over tasting panels from coast to coast.
Just why are North Shore’s gins so freakin’ delicious? The answer to that may lie in the design and functioning of their still, which Derek helped to create. While most stills are heated with steam, the North Shore still relies on a hot water bath, which allows for a far greater control over the temperature at which the spirit is distilled. Being able to control the temperature means greater control over the resulting flavor, which at times seems too perfect to be true. Another reason could be that both the No. 6 and No. 11 are made by people who love and appreciate gin. The philosophy behind their gins is simple and smart: make something great and make sure it doesn’t taste like everything else. In the case of North Shore’s gin production, different combinations of botanicals and herbs were used experimentally in different batches, which were then tasted and improved upon. The No. 6 is named so because it was the batch number of their best formula. Batches one through five, as well as batches seven through whatever, were also created, sampled, poured for friends, and brought to blind tastings, but were not as beloved as batch number six.
While the No. 6 was clean, focused, soft, and delicious, it was flavored with some non-traditional botanicals such as lavender. Derek and Sonja were completely satisfied with the result, but they were also worried about the lack of traditional juniper flavor and wanted to make sure they had another ace up their sleeve for hardcore gin lovers. The result was the No. 11, which is not named after its batch number, but rather after the famous Spinal Tap quote, “…this amp goes to 11.” In this case, the juniper is turned up not to 10, but to 11, and it is ridiculously good. I used to buy three or four different gins at a time because I liked their unique and specific qualities, but I am having a hard time drinking anything but the No. 11 right now. The nose is so aromatic and the flavors are bold, but graceful. I guess I just don’t see the point of drinking anything less than the best, and believe me, the No. 11 is absolutely the best gin in production right now.
The Scandinavian presence in the north Midwest led North Shore to also produce the underappreciated Aquavit—a neutral spirit flavored mainly with caraway seeds—but often containing small amounts of anise, fennel and coriander, among other spices. Derek and Sonja had friends who would periodically travel to Scandinavia and return with a bottle to taste them with, and they thought, “We can make this.” The twist with the North Shore Aquavit is that, unlike most traditional Aquavit, it is aged briefly in small American oak barrels, which softens the alcohol and adds a faint richness to the flavor. The result is a highly aromatic, spicy, yet smooth after-dinner sipper that has been receiving rave reviews everywhere, and one that has been selling out at our Redwood City store without me having to say a word (the word is out!).
Sonja Kassebaum is well aware that the cocktail revival is moving full steam ahead being such an avid fan herself. With her guidance, North Shore has smartly centered its production on pleasing both admirers of great spirits and lovers of great cocktails. Someone who buys a bottle of North Shore No. 11 is going to make the martini of their life, let alone gin and tonic, while someone looking to create a classic Aviation, Martinez, or Corpse Reviver is going to be hard pressed to do better than with the No. 6. The best bartenders want to pour their booze, the best retailers want to sell it, and people everywhere are dying to buy it—that’s the triple crown in the liquor business. Aside from the economics, however, is the fact that Derek and Sonja love a good drink. They got into this business because they wanted to wake up in the morning and go do a job that they loved and believed in. The revival of American craft distillates owes its success to production that is, once again, a labor of love rather than a capitalistic grab at filling the void. More than 70 years after Prohibition gutted our industry, we have once again found our way towards making great spirits and great drinks, and it is because of passionate and knowledgeable producers like North Shore that we have done so.