One afternoon in late 2014, Jordan Milne’s phone rang.
That path began to veer when Milne’s high school guidance counselor saw his PSAT scores. She told him: “We’re going to get you into a place where no one has gotten in before.” That place ended up being Dartmouth College. “She took a decent test score—and got me into a school that was a huge reach,” says Milne. “It changed my life.” When he got to school he considered the foreign service, and studied Russian and Arabic, but he ultimately found his way to finance, and began working at a Connecticut hedge fund in 2007.
Wanting to emulate his grandfather Ray, a Washington fruit farmer, Milne tried to “get into scotch.” He hated the taste, however, and developed a love for bourbon instead. He and his roommates bought different kinds, holding taste tests in their house. Milne, ever ambitious, wasn’t satisfied with sampling other people’s creations—and started distilling whiskey illegally in his garage. “At first it was extremely bad,” he says. “Like beyond bad. But then I started visiting craft distilleries and asking questions, and it started to get a little better. At parties, we’d take out the stuff I’d made, and people would actually like it.”
You don’t know whether it’s going to work—and the prospect of failure looms extremely large—but at some point you just have to say ‘Cannonball, I’m going in.'
In Maine, his partner could continue her career as a lawyer, which she loved—but Milne was eager to leave finance. “I had become a one-dimensional person; whether I was at work or not, my mind was always there,” he remembers. So after returning home, Milne brainstormed what he could do for work. “I was sitting there, Googling major employers and industries,” he says. “I got up and poured myself another glass of gin. And then I looked over at the still.”
Over the next two and a half years, Milne maintained a full-time job while planning his distillery on the side. He made budgets, courted investors, talked to other distillers—and in a “brutal trial and error process,” perfected his gin recipe. His mission? To get people to “think about gin differently.” To do that, he couldn’t create a juniper-forward spirit, like the majority of gins on the shelf. “I had to find a new flavor profile to be our frontman,” he says. “Juniper was going to be the bass player.” He made batch after batch after batch, experimenting with ingredients and quantities. The winning combination: fresh rosemary and mint in the lead, backed by orris root (from the iris flower), coriander and Tuscan juniper.
So Milne searched for a “ripcord” to pull, saying: “You don’t know whether it’s going to work—and the prospect of failure looms extremely large—but at some point you just have to say ‘Cannonball, I’m going in.’” For Milne, the custom still was going to be his largest investment; his ripcord, his cannonball. So in the spring of 2015, several months after the doorman incident, he ordered it. Then they moved to Maine. “At that point,” he says, “we were on the hook.”
In October 2016, Hardshore Distilling Company opened its doors. The following year, USA Today readers named it the best craft gin distillery in the country. While Milne says “the impulse to tinker, to conform, is always intense,” winning that award convinced him to keep doing it the Hardshore way. “We convert so many non-gin enthusiasts because we’ve taken such a different approach,” he says. “We’re really trying to show people this category has breadth and latitude.”
Hardshore’s Original Gin is now available in 12 eastern states and California, and the company is on track to triple its sales from last year. When asked about his success, Milne is humble, yet invigorated, saying: “I started this journey because I wanted to make the best negroni I could—and I ended up building a distillery.”
“Be careful what your hobbies are,” he adds. “You never know when they’re going to become your life’s work.”