North Shore Gin
If there was ever an example to demonstrate just how competitive the gin market has become today (and the spirits market in general), North Shore is it. Back in 2009, when I took over the spirits at K&L, North Shore was my first real addition to our selection. I had spent some time hanging out with bartenders Erik Ellestad, Jennifer Colliau, Craig Lane, and Erik Adkins over at the now-defunct Heaven's Dog on Mission Street—at one point easily the best bar in San Francisco. We were discussing the exciting new world of "craft" gin (there were maybe three or four new ones back then!) and Ellestad told me he thought the North Shore 11 was his favorite. We sat at the bar tasting small pours of various gins side by side, and there was no doubt: the North Shore was the clear winner. I ordered a few bottles for the store the next day, opened them for the staff, and watched the madness take hold.
From that point on we were all huge North Shore fanboys at K&L. The staff was amazed, we were selling bottles by the case, and Sonja Kassebaum—the distillery owner—was making regular trips out from Chicago to do events with us. That momentum lasted for about two years until the gin world absolutely exploded and began pickling itself in a veritable sea of saturation. All of a sudden our customers wanted new gins—non stop—every single time they came to visit. The shelf became a revolving door of boozy experiments, wild concoctions, haphazard distillates, and transitory faces. Years later, North Shore's dominance had all but been forgotten.
The pendulum is now swinging back the other way, however. After years of tasting through bizarre recipes and amateurish adventures, I see a lot of customers returning home to the basics. It's no different than being young and wide-eyed. You want to see the world and know what's out there—to date all kinds of people and understand what's possible in life—but eventually you settle down and gravitate back to the basics. That's happened to me recently with gin, which is why I've been drinking gallons of North Shore recently—the gin that originally brought me to the dance. The gin that made me love gin because it tastes like really good gin! You know who else loves gin? Sonja Kassebaum, which is why she and her husband Derek started North Shore distillery in the first place back in 2004; not because they eventually wanted to make whiskey, but because they wanted to make gin. They were pioneers of the American craft gin movement, focusing on the botanical spirit long before it was cool again.
The opportunity to be artistic with the botanicals and creative with the recipes was what drove Sonja and Derek to open their own distillery. Wanting to create something different from what was available on the market, they released the North Shore #6 gin back in 2005, one of the first American gins to use cardamom and lavender—a standard practice today among many small producers. Not only did they want a new gin, they wanted clean gin. Fresh gin. Bright gin. Gin that tasted more vibrant than the standard pour. What they quickly learned, however, was just how picky gin drinkers can be (as I also learned after sending various bottles to my grandmother, the ultimate gin connoisseur). It turns out that gin's focal point—the juniper—was pretty important to a number of classic enthusiasts, who had a hard time coming over to the North Shore #6. Thus, the North Shore #11 was born with a heavy juniper recipe (because it goes to eleven—yes, they named it after Spinal Tap).
"As that point, there were few distilleries that were making multiple styles of gin," Sonja told me recently. "We were the first distillery making different gins to play differently in cocktails." People were totally confused. "Why is that bottle white and the other one green?" customers would ask all the time. Two gins? Why two? Today, it's common for a distillery to have more than two gins and to make a navy strength, an Old Tom, and a sloe gin, to boot! But it wasn't always that way. These days there are plenty of new and bright-eyed gin customers who don't even know about North Shore and their early dominance. They think this modern movement began with Bruichladdich's Botanist or Monkey 47 (just like Nirvana fans who had never heard of the Pixies).
Maybe, now that you're all grown up, you can go back and revisit some of the classics to give yourself a better perspective. Like an old Motorhead song, these gins still kick major ass.