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Feature Tue Apr 10 2007

Gin Soaked Boy

We wound up with a bottle of it at home rather accidentally. It, along with a few other things, were bought as a gift for someone. Come gift giving day, the entire package was too heavy to lug downtown on a rush hour train. The bottle was sacrificed. Really, the decision to leave this bottle behind wasn’t a difficult one, and the decision was made before we were aware it was made.

We finally opened it a week later when we had an unforeseen evening together and made gimlets. I had told her about the killer gimlets this gin makes.

“This is good. It’s really good. And it’s the gin that does it,” she said, adding for my ego, “But, good for you for figuring it out.”

In late 2005, from Lake Bluff, Sonja and Derek Kassebaum launched the first batches of gin and vodka and in the process created Illinois’ first micro-distillery, North Shore Distillery. And it truly is micro. Derek does the distilling and, until signing with a wholesaler at the beginning of the month, Sonja did the selling, and they shared the delivery duties. They have one official part-time employee who started only recently, someone who helps out with an occasional in-store tastings, and a handful of stay-at-home mothers and grandmothers who help a few hours a week with labeling. That's it. That's the staff.

Hooking up with a distributor will not only free them from directly handling sales and distribution, but will also allow them to actually produce alcohol. Since they were also technically in the distribution business they could only legally process alcohol. They bought grain alcohol from downstate and redistilled it. The three-tier system that exists in most states requires a producer to sell to a wholesaler, who in turn sells to a retailer. These laws were originally enacted after prohibition to protect retailers from being bullied by producers. Many people, especially smaller producers who want to sell directly to retailers, feel these laws to be outdated and biased in favor of the wholesalers. The three-tier system may be in its death throes. A year and a half ago, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled against wholesalers in favor of Costco, setting the precedent that may consign these laws to the ashbin. (In the typically glacial way these things move, it will likely be years before there’s any real change.) The same laws that prohibited the Kassebaums from manufacturing alcohol set off the chain of events that prompted Larry Bell to pull his beer from Illinois. By signing with a distributor North Shore will be able to not only distill their own grain to make vodka and gin, but also grapes for brandy, or apples for apple jack.

This is good news for spirits lovers. If the reviews they been getting, especially for their gin, are any indication, their brandies should rock pretty hard as well. Just a few months ago Chicago Magazine food critic, Dennis Ray Wheaton, conducted a tasting [PDF] in which North Shore bested Tanqueray 10, Bombay Sapphire and gin geeks’ favorite, Hendrick’s. The prestigious Chicago based Beverage Tasting Institute rated the gin Exceptional and actually commented, “Wow!”


Sonja and Derek met in Colorado where they were both seniors at different colleges. They eloped two and a half months later. That was 15 years ago.

The idea of a distillery started a year and a half before their first batches rolled out, when Derek’s entrepreneurial urges came to a head. Sonja’s background is in Human Resources and, prior to that, law. Derek’s background, however, is a little more conducive to this particular business. He holds a degree in chemical engineering and an MBA. When Derek, who was running a telecommunications consulting firm, suggested starting a distillery, Sonja went gamely along. Well, maybe not so gamely. She says she “was sucked in along the way.” But Derek wasn’t the only spirits geek in the household. Sonja, it should be said, is also a bit of a spirits aficionado, which made the decision to start a distillery an easy one.

To get their 250-liter copper pot still built, the Kassebaums turned to Europe. There exist only a handful of still manufacturers in the world, and many of them are accustomed to far larger scale operations. While Derek didn’t actually design the still, he had very clear ideas of what he wanted. They went with the manufacturer who best understood Derek’s vision. As part of the licensing process, the still needed to be demonstrated as fully functioning. So, much water was distilled in order to get their license.

With some basic recipes the still manufacturers use to demonstrate their equipment and a little advice gleaned from books and other distillers, the Kassebaums set out to stumble their way through their first batches. “It was a lot of experimentation (and we made a lot of weird (and bad) stuff along the way),” they told me. For their vodka, they aspired to the smoothness found in Belvedere and Grey Goose, as well as a taste that could be enjoyed on its own without loading it down with flavorings. (By definition vodka is supposed to be flavorless, odorless and colorless. While the latter is true, there plenty of variations and nuances in vodka beyond relative smoothness. Taste a few high-end vodkas side by side and see.) Vodka, like many, many other things on the planet, is made up primarily of water. Initially, Derek and Sonja thought that very pure water would be the way to go. They distilled their own water, and also played around with other distilled waters. Much to their surprise however, blind taste tests showed plain old Lake Michigan water to be preferred. They suspect the mineral content in the lake water deserves the credit for smoothing out some of the rough edges.

For their gin, they admired Hendrick’s for its use of non-traditional botanicals (cucumber and rose), but were shooting for something original in and of itself. They started looking for a floral element to help soften the finish of their nascent gin and ultimately settled on lavender. (It is this very quality that makes the gin work so damn well in a gimlet.) Lavender was, however, their fall back flower. Their first choice was lotus flower petals, but the FDA does not recognize it as an acceptable botanical. As a result, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau would not approve their recipe. Lacking the funds and resources to fund a study on the safety of human consumption of lotus petals, which would be required for FDA approval, Sonja and Derek settled for lavender. In addition to lavender and the requisite juniper, they also use coriander, angelica root, cardamom, Ceylon cinnamon, anise seed and freshly zested lemon peel. Their Distiller’s Gin #6 is so named because it is the sixth recipe they worked out. (They also make Distiller’s Gin #11, available only in restaurants, an experimental batch made in response to comments that their gin wasn’t junipery enough. So, they turned up the juniper. It goes to 11.)

After being introduced a few years back to aquavit by some Scandinavian friends and finding a dearth of the product in the States, they released their own last fall. What juniper is to gin, caraway is to aquavit. The Kassebaums also add coriander, lemon peel and cumin. After distillation, their aquavit spends a short time in oak, giving it a softer edge and a rich straw color. (I personally am dying for heirloom tomato season to come around. One of the first things I though of when I tasted their aquavit was shaking it up with some heirloom tomato juice. If only all of you could taste what I taste in my head...)

They also make a vodka delicately infused with Tahitian vanilla. It is, mercifully, a far cry from other commercially available vanilla vodkas, with its pure vanilla flavor and a wonderful demonstration of subtlety. Last summer they released a limited edition gin infused with Ceylon tea and another with Medjool dates after playing around with quince and bitter melon. They’re currently tossing around ideas for cordials and will likely be starting work soon on a brandy or apple brandy, but, due to the necessary aging, those are all still a couple of years away.

Don’t expect Sonja and Derek to be kicking back now that someone else is handling the selling and distribution. Derek is already itching to get started on their brandy and limited releases for the summer, and hopes to be able to increase their output. Sonja, for her part, will continue to be the public face of North Shore Distillery: out on the streets drumming up business and helping to educate clients about their products.

Perhaps the most important thing about the Kassebaums is this: they are very nice people making some very nice things. Do your karma some good. Go buy a bottle or two.



A gimlet is traditionally made with, and likely developed for, Rose’s lime juice. I used to love working with Rose’s, but about a year ago I started noticing an odd flavor in it, and have a difficult time using it now without tasting said odd flavor.

1½ part North Shore Distiller’s Gin #6
1 part fresh lime juice
1 part simple syrup

To make the simple syrup add 1 cup of sugar to 1 cup of water in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Chill.

Combine all ingredients over ice in a glass and stir. Or, combine all ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake and strain into a martini glass.

If serving up, borrow a page from the Matchbox’s playbook and drop a lightly beaten egg white into the shaker with the other ingredients. It’ll give the drink a nice frothiness and a wonderfully silky texture.

Yerba Santa:

This recipe was developed specifically with Distiller’s Gin #11 in mind, but it will also work very nicely with #6.

Leaves from 2 or 3 sprigs of thyme
½ oz. simple syrup
1½ oz. North Shore Distiller’s Gin #6
2 oz. of sauvignon blanc (preferably from New Zealand)

Muddle the thyme leaves with the simple syrup in a cocktail shaker. Add ice, gin and wine. Shake and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a sprig of thyme.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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