As anyone who has suffered through more than three minutes of conversation with me knows, I am from the desert—the Mojave Desert, specifically, and I consider it to be the most beautiful place on Earth. Not beautiful in the way people usually talk about their favorite celebrity crush or Ansel Adams calendar, but beautiful—the kind that is weighted with a reverence and love that language will always fail. It is my spiritual and physical homeland, and though it is my greatest hope that I die on a glacier somewhere in the Arctic Circle, the desert is where I will be buried. Here, let fellow desert rat, shitkicker, and all-around visionary Ed Abbey say it better than I ever could:
I am here not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.
That’s part of it, but not even close to all of it, and that will have to do for those that don’t get it. Simply, and rather crudely put, the desert doesn’t give a shit, and it doesn’t pretend, or let you pretend, any different. It is what it is, and given the nature of it, it is nearly impossible to pretend otherwise.
So what does all of this pseudomystical, Heideggerian horseshit have to do with gin? Plenty, boss. Gin is uncompromising, unwilling, and unconcerned. Despite all attempts to pacify it, dilute it, tame it, make it hip, and replace it with vodka made from grapes, gin perseveres. There it sits, every day, on the shelves of my work, gathering dust, while the hordes of unwashed mommies in white capris scoop up lesser spirits by the cartful. Sure, gin gets love from the cocktail geeks, bartenders, and octogenarian alcoholics, but really, it is the perpetual underdog. There’s something about the botanicals, the forest floor funk of gin, which makes it cranky, unapproachable, and occasionally unlovable. For most people, anyway.
Me, I love gin, and I get a little pissy when it’s debased, whether it is by callous bartenders with unripe limes and crappy tonic or by sloppy distillers out for a quick buck. So when North Shore Distillery sent us not one, but two American-made gins, I was more than a little skeptical.
North Shore has two gins on the market: the No. 6, a ‘modern’ dry gin designed to appeal to the unconverted, and the No. 11, a gin made for classic gin lovers. Both are made in small batches in Chicago (GO BEARS!) by Master Distiller Derek Kassebaum, his wife Sonja, and one more part-time employee—this isn’t exactly Brown-Forman we’re talking about here. So how do these spirits stack up against household favorites like Martin Miller’s and Beefeater?
Let’s start with the No. 6. As previously stated, this is the gin designed for non-gin drinkers: a claim that, honestly, scared the hell out me. There’s already a gin like that on the market, and it’s called vodka. But that claim, while true in some regard, might be selling this product short.
First off, the nose is a complex layering of traditional botanicals with some interesting, and very engaging surprises. There’s a notable citrus zest/rind thing going on, but also some serious lavender and floral notes—similar to Hendrick’s (another favorite gin of ours), but without the cucumber beat down.
On the pallet, the No. 6 shows up with a more traditional profile, and while the juniper component that turns people off to gin is still there, it is followed by a creamy mouthfeel and mildly sweet finish. I’m guessing that this is supposed to be the selling point to non-gin drinkers, but I’m still a little unconvinced that this will win anyone over. Still, this added element makes the No. 6 ideal for mixing (it made a killer Ramos Fizz). Gin, as usual, wins again.
The No. 11 is a horse of a different breed, and in my estimation, a truly superior product. The nose is, as advertised, classic. Loads and loads of juniper, followed by sweet notes similar to the No. 6. The entry has more juniper, citrus peel, and even a bit of dirt (in a good way) followed by an awesome peppery finish. That finish is what sold me; in many ways, it has the same characteristics of my favorite tequilas. I made a Ramos Fizz with this as well, and while it was delicious, this is definitely cut out for bigger, more robust drinks. Even a lazy bartender couldn’t mess this one up with tonic.
Bottom Line: Both of these gins are, thankfully, really gins; however, they exceed expectations on every level. American small batch distilling is making huge strides, and it’s great to see the same craftsmanship and passion applied to something besides bourbon. I still wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for everyone to come around to gin, with this or any product, and that is how it should be. Austere, a bit uninviting, and occasionally, willing to betray a bit of beauty to those ready to see it. A clear, still morning in the desert where everything happens, even when there’s no one around to see it.
No. 6: 90/100
No. 11: 94/100
[Ed. Note: If you are in Southern California, Beverage Warehouse in Culver City is the only place currently carrying any North Shore gin, and at the moment they are only carrying the No. 6.]