Nestled in an industrial park off the Tri-State Tollway lurks a couple of pioneers. Or mad scientists.
Actually, it's the combination of these two attributes that spurned Derek and Sonja Kassebaum to open North Shore Distillery in Lake Bluff in 2005. And two weeks after a passage of a new Illinois law, their doors are open for distillery tours every Friday and Saturday.
A lawyer and a chemical engineer by training, the couple started the distillery as an outlet for their entrepreneurial energy.
North Shore is the first artisanal distillery in Illinois, and is one of only three state-wide. It regularly produces six spirits: two types of vodka, two types of gin, aquavit and absinthe. Their first distributor was in Highland Park.
I was first exposed to North Shore vodka at Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook. I recall surprise both that there was such a thing as an artisanal distillery and that it was located within fifteen minutes of my hometown.
Thus began a fanboy's obsession with learning more about North Shore and their craft.
This past weekend, my wife and I took a Saturday afternoon tour of the distillery with three other couples. You're probably wondering how there could possibly be that much to see or do, but we learned a lot about craft spirits for the 90 minutes we were there.
The biggest surprise of the tour was the distillery's scale, or rather the lack of it. North Shore products can be found in liquor stores and bars from Chicago to Gurnee, plus outlets in ten other states and Canada, so I expected a larger operation. In a firebrick warehouse stands just one small, hand-made still, with only a 60-gallon capacity.
It takes a week to produce a batch, so North Shore only produces one spirit at a time. Everything is done by hand, including one-at-a-time bottling and labeling. During the tour, I was able to fill a fifth of vodka, which I purchased for my own collection. Derek Kasselbaum signs every bottle of North Shore spirits personally, but for my bottle, he let me scribble my initials on as well. You're never going to do that on the Budweiser tour in St. Louis.
In the tasting room, we had a chance to sample all six of the distillery's products. The bartender and staff explained the proper way to enjoy absinthe, their two types of gin and their new, infused vodka. A bar-like friendliness emerged as we discussed cocktails and craft production with the other couples.
To maintain consistency, North Shore keeps a cabinet filled with samples of every batch of alcohol produced at the distillery since it opened. The owners compare the botanicals of each week's gin against the flavor of their very first production. Despite the precautions, sometimes the taste of a batch can be a little different. This is the biggest difference from the mass-produced spirits, where an expectation of consistency is the most important brand attribute.
If, as North Shore's Kassebaum says, the small distillery movement is 15 years behind craft breweries, I can't wait to see what comes from these and other producers in the decade ahead.
The North Shore Distillery's tasting room is open on Fridays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tours by reservation are available Fridays at 6 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Check out North Shore on Twitter and Facebook, where you can also find their still.