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Distilling alcohol is not for those who seek instant gratification.
It took four years for Jordan Milne to perfect Hardshore Original Gin, the only spirit he sells out of Hardshore Distilling Co. in Portland.
He’s distilling a bourbon that he may or may not sell to the public, but it won’t be ready for seven or eight years.
It also took him four years to put together a plan for the distillery and two years to build it.
He started selling the gin a year ago.
After that, though, things happened fast.
Hardshore Original Gin was named the nation’s top gin by USA Today, as chosen by a readers’ poll and a panel of experts.
Milne said the honor underlined what the intention was years ago when he first decided to distill gin — to create a gin that is “very versatile, very distinctive and people like it.”
Milne wasn’t a gin expert when he first became interested in distilling, he was a bourbon man. But his father-in-law liked gin. “I thought, ‘If Chuck likes it so much, I’ll try to make it.’”
At the time, he was working in business finance in New York with his wife, Lindsay, now an attorney at Bernstein Shur. He distilled as a hobby, but when the pair decided to move to Maine, it was an opportunity to try distilling full time.
It took a while to find the right place in Portland — he needed ceilings high enough for the 2,100-liter Arnold Holstein still and a 10-year lease, because you can’t pack up and move barrels of alcohol that take years to age.
The distillery opened in the former Nissen bakery building at 53 Washington Ave. in October 2016, next door to Maine Mead Works and a couple doors from Oxbow Blending and Bottling.
Milne said the building isn’t the only thing that has worked out — so has the neighborhood.
“It’s been awesome,” he said. “The whole neighborhood is really on fire.”
The neighbors themselves have worked out, too. For instance, the day his still was delivered, the building wasn’t ready for it to be installed. He stood in the parking lot on Washington Avenue, surrounded by large crates, wondering what he was going to do. He didn’t have to wonder for long — the owners of neighboring businesses, who he’d never met before, offered to store the crates in their space until he was ready.
“People have been willing to bend over backwards to help out,” he said. “Maine has been like that from Day 1.”
Now that still towers above the tasting room and distillery that's industrial, but surprisingly cozy, including black Lab Hudson, who helps out as a greeter.
Part of the coziness is the warm smell of rosemary and the other botanicals used to make Hardshore Original.
He said there’s a lot of typical dry gin on the market. “Everybody is doing that,” he said he thought when he first decided to distill gin. “So, what do we do that’s different?”
Milne starts with juniper, the basis for all gin, and infuses it with rosemary and mint. It’s distilled three times, the third to soak in the botanicals. Each batch is quality tested so it’s identical to the one before it. In the year he’s been selling it, he’s had success convincing local stores, supermarket chains and bars and restaurants to stock it.
The tasting room, open on Saturdays and Sundays, “doesn’t exist to create a tasting-room experience,” he said, but to school people in the versatility of good gin.
Milne said that the reactions to gin are predictable. First, there are those who had a bad “gincident” in college and aren’t sure they want to try it again.
“We also hear a lot of ‘I like gin, but I don’t know what to do with it,’” Milne said.
He said Hardshore is unique enough that people put aside their preconceptions about gin, and part of his mission is to also show people how it can be used in a wide range of cocktails.
Besides Milne, Hardshore has two full-time and two-part time employees, and he may be hiring more. He said those who work there don’t have to have distillery experience, but they do have to learn everything there is to know about how Hardshore gin is made, so they can speak with knowledge about it to customers.
Milne said to create a good gin, he had to become a student of gin and the art of distilling.
But he’s also become an appreciative student of the Maine craft alcohol scene. He can reel off the name and products of almost every distiller in the state.
He said it’s an exciting time for craft distilling. “We’re in the early days,” he said. “It’s like craft brewing was 20 years ago.”
He’s experimenting with a bourbon, but it won’t be ready for seven or eight years. “You gotta make it now if you’re going to have it then,” he said.
He’s also considering some other gin flavors for the future.
But the focus now is on the Hardshore Original Gin, bubbling behind him in the giant copper still.
“Right now, it’s gin,” he said. “This is what we do. This is all we do.”
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