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An experience in a glass: An evening at North Shore Distillery

Derek Kassebaum, co-owner, turns his barrels of rum at North Shore Distillery in Green Oaks. Kassebaum owns the distillery with his wife, Sonja.
Derek Kassebaum, co-owner, turns his barrels of rum at North Shore Distillery in Green Oaks. Kassebaum owns the distillery with his wife, Sonja.

GREEN OAKS – Natalie Morris was never a gin girl.

At least that was before she and her husband, Brian, discovered North Shore Distillery, an artisan distillery in Green Oaks tucked into a corner beside Harley-Davidson across the street from Lambs Farm.

Now, the Mundelein couple perch on a pair of seats at the tasting room’s bar, enjoying a pre-dinner cocktail or two, and Morris smiles as she accepts a frothy white drink in a martini glass called a “New Orleans Fizz” – her new favorite seasonal gin-based cocktail on the distillery’s menu.

“Delicious,” she confirms after a couple of sips. “I promise you.”

North Shore Distillery has become one of Morris’ favorite cocktail spots since the distillery opened its tasting room three and a half years ago, and she says they try to come every couple of months to see the new cocktail concoctions the owners and their team of bartenders have created with their signature spirits.

“Coming here has made me change my whole outlook on cocktails,” Morris adds.

When Sonja Kassenbaum and her husband, Derek, opened North Shore Distillery in 2004, it was the only craft distillery in Illinois and one of 16 throughout the country. Kassenbaum says she and her husband were already self-professed cocktail and spirits “nerds” before he had the idea to launch their own distillery, but their still and the tasting room has allowed them to take their passion and creativity to new levels.

Today, they produce a wide variety of artisan spirits: three vodkas – one straight, two flavored – five gins, a traditional French absinthe, two aged rums, two whiskeys and two liqueurs. North Shore also makes its own aquavit, “a more obscure Scandinavian spirit,” Kassenbaum explains, adding that theirs is the first aquavit created in the United States. All of their spirits are made on-site with all-natural ingredients in their production room. They affectionately call their still “Ethel,” named both for Kassenbaum’s grandmother and the type of alcohol it distills.

“We try to make the spirits be awesome on their own so you can totally sip it on its own in a glass, if that’s what you’re in the mood for, but if you wanna mix it, it’s gonna do something incredible with other ingredients, too, and we try to be very conscious of that with everything we make,” she says.

The Kassenbaums opened the tasting room three and a half years ago and since then have enjoyed welcoming people into the world of the craft cocktail.

They repurposed the former kitchen and cabinet showroom to fit their needs and created several seating areas for guests, from the lounge area, complete with bookshelves and a working fireplace where guests can enjoy a more intimate experience over a cocktail or two, to their “great room” – an open area filled with tall bar tables and stools where guests can mingle in larger groups. And, of course, the tasting room bar, where Morris and her husband are enjoying their drinks.

Distillery tours take place monthly, and events and classes are posted on the website for the community to enjoy. History and cocktail buffs alike can enjoy lectures such as “History of the Cocktail” while those searching for a more hands-on experience can register for a cocktail making class.

“We do a lot of brewery tasting and distillery tastings and honestly – literally – nothing beats [here],” Morris says. “They kind of open your eyes to all the different possibilities and they really take pride in what they do. I think that’s really important.”

While they were once one of 16 distilleries nationwide, that market has now expanded to more than 2,000 and Kassenbaum says the cocktail is undergoing a renaissance of sorts in the food and beverage industry. She’s loved witnessing and participating in the innovation of creating a complex, layered drink that can foster an experience for someone rather than just serve as a means to an end.

“A cocktail can be an experience in a glass,” she adds, “just like a great dish at a restaurant.”

If you go

North Shore Distillery

13990 Rockland Road, Green Oaks

Hours: 3 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 2 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 to 7 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday and Tuesday.

Information: 847-574-2499 or visit northshoredistillery.com

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