Behind the Scenes at North Shore Distillery

By Anthony Todd in Food on Oct 2, 2009 6:00PM

(Last month we arranged to have our "Properly Sauced" tag team of Anthony and Rob tour North Shore Distillery. North Shore's Sonja Kassebaum told us that today is the distillery's fifth year anniversary. We hope you enjoy this recap of Anthony and Rob's tour.)

Have you ever spent time in an entire building that smelled like gin? It’s nothing like the time you spilled your bottle of rotgut all over the kitchen floor and forgot to clean it up - when gin is fresh and pure it’s the sort of scent you could wear as cologne. When we (Ed. Note: "We" in this case meaning Anthony and Rob, who also contributed to this story. — CS) first walked into North Shore Distillery’s unassuming building in Lake Bluff, IL, we couldn’t stop exclaiming “everything smells so good!”

North Shore Distillery’s gin (especially the Distiller’s Gin #6) has been one of our addictions for over a year now. We’d been lucky enough to meet Sonja Kassebaum, who owns North Shore with husband Derek, at the National Restaurant Expo, and we were thrilled when she graciously agreed to show us around their production facility.

The fine art of small-batch distilling is just that: small. In fact, we were slightly surprised by how small, considering the number and quality of products that they turn out. The Kassebaums are the distillery's only employees; Derek is the master distiller while Sonja handles sales and marketing. Everything, from distilling to bottling to labeling the bottles, is done by hand. When we first walked into the outer office, there was a small bowl of recently zested lemons sitting on a table. Leftovers from a batch of Vesper cocktails? Nope. Those lemons were for the batch of gin that was currently on the boil - most decidedly not an industrial operation.

All of North Shore’s products are made in their beautiful copper-jacketed German still, which was bubbling away when we visited. The entire distilling process is enclosed, so all we could see was the distillate pouring out of a spout. This distillate, essentially a very strong concentrated liquor, contains all the alcohol and flavors that eventually ends up in the finished product. Herbs and grain alcohol are introduced into the electrically heated still, which cooks them together, flavoring the finished product and scenting the air. The heated alcohol vapor rises to the top of the still, where it is condensed and drawn off, while the remaining liquid is removed via a valve at the bottom. Not all of this distillate can be used for production - the early product contains a higher concentration of bad-tasting volatile chemicals. So the job of the master distiller is to choose not only what goes into the still (a precisely calibrated mixture of botanicals) but which batches of distillate to use.

Almost any combination of flavors can be created using this setup, and North Shore produces a number of other great products, including aquavit, absinthe, vodka and limited edition batches of flavored spirits. Like the laboratory of a very tipsy mad scientist, North Shore’s production facility is filled with trial runs, works-in-progress and early mistakes. A large cabinet at the back of the room contains samples from every batch they have ever processed, and mysterious tanks around the room contain various alcoholic experiments.

Clearly, Sonja and Derek are doing something right. They’ve won more awards than we can list here, and the Beverage Testing Institute rated their two gins as the best and second-best American-made gins. North Shore products can be found at liquor stores all over the Chicago area. Check out their website for more information, including cocktail recipes, and start mixing!