As I wandered the aisles of the Chicago Independent Spirits Expo a couple weeks ago, I came across something unusual: two rums from North Shore Distillery, both aged between four and six years. Rum is still relatively rare among local distillers, who tend to focus on vodka, gin, and whiskey instead; if they branch out from there it’s likely to be into liqueur or brandy. CH Distillery makes an unaged rum, and Tailwinds Distilling Company in Plainfield has built its brand on Taildragger, a lineup that includes a white rum, an amber rum aged for at least two years, a coffee rum, and an overproof dark rum. But that’s pretty much it for rum made in Illinois, and there certainly aren’t any others that have been aged for six years. Most local distilleries weren’t even around when that rum went into barrels.
North Shore Distillery has actually been around quite a bit longer than that: it was the first craft distillery in Illinois when it launched in Libertyville in 2004. Rum wasn’t part of the plan back then, cofounder Sonja Kassebaum says. She and her husband, Derek, started out selling vodka and gin while experimenting with whiskey recipes. In 2009 they began manufacturing the rum-based Hum Botanical Spirit for mixologist Adam Seger—which required them to learn how to make rum.
“Anytime we had extra we’d just stick it in a barrel,” Kassebaum says. After a few years Seger and North Shore amicably parted ways, but the Kassebaums continued making rum. “We tried to perfect the manufacturing process to promote interesting flavors,” she says. “We experimented with all the different grades of molasses, different kinds of heat, to find out what kinds of flavors they produce. We use a long fermentation process, almost 21 days, to promote flavor development.”
For a little while the Kassebaums served the unaged rum in their tasting room, mostly in cocktails, but they quickly decided that white rum wasn’t for them. Instead, they’ve been putting all the rum they produce into used bourbon casks, and a few months ago they released the first bottles. One, called Bourbon Cask Rum, is blended from various barrels and adjusted to 80 proof, but has no sugar or caramel coloring added. “Almost all aged rums add sugar,” Kassebaum says. “We like that dry style. It sips like a whiskey. It has a little smoke to it, some spice tones. It finishes with tropical fruit.” The second rum, called Doublewood, was created by aging the Bourbon Cask Rum with cherrywood staves and Mexican vanilla beans. “That one we add a little sugar, so it’s more like that classic rum drinker’s rum,” Kassebaum says. “It’s the one that sells most to consumers.”
Which may explain why most rum has sugar added: people tend to like it that way. “One universal truth is, people like sugar,” Kassebaum says. “If you put sugar in, people are going to like it better.” Sugar can cover up flaws, masking off flavors that come, for example, from a fermentation that’s too short. But it can also accentuate flavor, Kassebaum says. “We make a Tahitian vanilla vodka, and if we don’t put a little sugar in, your brain can’t process the vanilla flavor. You don’t taste how complex the vanilla is if we don’t put in sugar to keep it on your palate long enough for your brain to catch up.”
Customers who want actual whiskey (rather than a dry rum that drinks like whiskey) don’t have much longer to wait: Kassebaum is hoping to release North Shore’s first bottles of it next summer. Up to now the tasting room has served the distillery’s single malt whiskey just once a year, Kassebaum says—on the Saturday closest to Saint Patrick’s Day. The oldest barrel is ten years old, but what they release will be blended from many different barrels, and she’s not sure yet what the age statement will be.
The other, a bourbon-style American whiskey made from corn and rye, is currently available at North Shore’s tasting room. That’s been true ever since last fall, when the distillery moved from its former location—just up the street from where it is now, in a space so small the tasting room had a grand total of 13 seats—to its current location in a former kitchen showroom. It’s also next to a Harley-Davidson dealership, which Kassebaum says factored into their decision to give the whiskey a permanent place behind the bar. “A lot of those people want whiskey,” she says.
Whether the whiskeys get released next summer, though, depends on how they mature. “It’s an interesting process to learn about barrels and how they change over time,” Kassebaum says. “You like it but it seems very youthful, and then all of sudden it’s like, huh, I don’t know how I feel about that. I kind of liken it to parents: kids get into their teenage years and it’s like, huh, I hope you grow out of that trait right there.” v