Courtesy Hardshore Distilling/Heidi Kirn

Mixology

Hardshore Distilling: Risking It All for the Love of Gin

One afternoon in late 2014, Jordan Milne’s phone rang.

Not his cell phone, but the phone on the wall of his Midtown apartment—which he says “no one ever called.” It was the doorman. He asked Milne, “Do you guys have water leaking?” No. “Are you running the dishwasher?” No again. “Well, the people downstairs are complaining there’s water leaking through the ceiling,” he said. “I’ve gotta come up and take a look.”Milne and his wife, Lindsay, sprung into action. They weren’t using the dishwasher; they were distilling alcohol—which, unlike homebrewing, is against the law. “I was elbow deep in an illegal batch of whiskey,” recalls Milne. “I thought, holy shit, we’re about to get evicted.” They grabbed the still, searing hot at 206 degrees, and scooted it into a closet. They had just disconnected and hidden the hoses when they heard a knock at the door. “We got away by the skin of our teeth,” says Milne. “At that point, I was like: ‘We need a better place to do this.’” 
Milne is handsome, with cerulean eyes that dance as he talks, and an affable, charismatic and tirelessly passionate manner. He grew up on a 1,500-acre farm in Bouckville, New York, a town of around 500 people 30 miles east of the state’s geographical center. “I grew up in a small part of the world,” he says. “I knew that when I eventually got to see a bigger part of it, I was going to learn a lot —and the path I was going to take would change.”

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.'
By 2012, Milne was engaged to his college friend-turned-lover, Lindsay Zahradka. They were thinking about starting a family, and also about leaving New York. When Hurricane Sandy hit, they drove to Portland, Maine, to visit his fiancée’s brother. At dinner one night, they sat by the window; outside, snow fell under the glow of a street lamp. They looked at each other and instantly decided this was where they’d start their new lives. 

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.
“I have a shelf in my distillery with the hundreds of test batches we made over the years,” says Milne. “Some are good but not perfect, and some are terrible.” His now-wife was often the initial tester, and Milne admits: “My wife had to try some pretty lousy gin to get here.” Yet even once he’d found his recipe, Milne hadn’t fully committed. The pair had great jobs in New York, causing them to constantly second-guess their plan. “We had a really good thing going,” says Milne. “But comfort can be bad, right? It can kind of lull you to sleep.”

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 does everything itself, including making its own neutral spirit with wheat from Milne’s family farm. “If we put it into a bottle, we could easily call it vodka,” notes Milne. “But I think that’s a huge waste of gin.” By controlling its neutral base, Hardshore can end the fermentation process early, leaving some sugar unconverted to alcohol. This softens the flavor, and adds thickness and weight—which, according to Milne, “allows the botanical to unfurl a little more slowly on your tongue, as opposed to dropping like a bomb.” When drinking Hardshore’s gin, he calls its texture “half the experience.”

Although the distillery is also aging bourbon, it won’t hit shelves until it meets Milne’s exacting standards. Which might be never. “There’s a very decent chance we never put out a bourbon,” he says. “When we put forward a product, we don’t want to be good from a craft perspective; we want to be the best from a category perspective.”

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.”

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