“It began with trying to help the local farmers do something with their wheat,” he explains. “We thought of opening a bakery, but there was no money in it. Luckily, we got started in 2005, just as the craft distilling movement was taking off.”
Washington Island is one of several small bodies of land located in Lake Michigan (Death’s Door is the name of the waterway that separates the island from Green Bay). The island was once known for growing potatoes, but by the 1970s the growth of the industrial farming system had left the growers without a market. Ellison, whose background was in economic development, encouraged the local farmers to plant red winter wheat. That wheat found its way into Death’s Door Vodka; the botanicals cultivated on the Island became the basis for Death’s Door Gin. Only three botanicals are used (juniper, coriander and fennel seed), and the flavor profile for the Gin was actually created by a chef.
“Making exceptional products is far more important than being local,” says Ellison. “Being exceptional allows us to tell our story. Some gins use a dozen or more botanicals. There’s no way anyone’s palate can distinguish and appreciate all those flavors. From a culinary perspective, the flavor of our gin is very pure. We’re also one of the three or four gins that don’t use citrus, because citrus tends to mask imperfections and take over the taste of the spirit. And we don’t grow lemons in Wisconsin, so it makes sense.”
The Quint family distills the Death’s Door products in nearby Madison. From a very small beginning, the spirits are now distributed in 27 states as well as online. It’s not easy competing with the large spirits brands and the multinational beverage conglomerates that own them, but Ellison is energized by the challenge.
“Honestly, it comes down to hustle,” he says. “I spend a lot of time on the street, meeting people, attending events and mixing cocktails. I do as much staff training as I can. You have to get to the bartenders. Obviously, we can’t offer them the same incentives as the large spirits companies, but we sell them on quality. You have to tell a true story with integrity.”
The nose of the Death’s Door Vodka is light and lyrical, with fresh aromas of wheat tinged with faint suggestions of ghost citrus. It enters the mouth cleanly, displaying a rich texture accented by notes of white pepper; you feel the imprint of the wheat most strongly in the middle palate. The citrus suggestions return on the finish, which is long and resonant. Combined with something floral such as Dolin Vermouth, this would make a very distinctive Martini.
Botanical are prominent on the nose of the Death’s Door Gin---you can really smell the juniper here. The flavors of the fennel seed and coriander come through strongly in the mouth, accenting a texture which is bright, clear and pure. Fresh herb flavors and anise hints linger for quite a while on the finish.
The plump, earthy nose of the Death’s Door White Whisky reflects the addition of malted barley to the red winter wheat. In the mouth, the spirit has a rich, grainy texture with flavors of caraway seed, anise and vanilla biscuit; because of the grains, this has a totally different and more serious mouth feel than the corn-based “white dog” that serves as a precursor to Bourbon. Like all of these spirits, the finish is long and lingering. The mixologists should be having a blast with this one.
Note: The Death’s Door spirits are distilled in 90-gallon pot stills. Only organic grains and botanicals are used, although the labels don’t carry an organic designation. The bottles note the harvest date of the grains, a nice touch (the ingredients for the Vodka and Gin were harvested in August of 2011, the White Whisky in August of 2010). Average national price for the Vodka and Gin is $30, and $35 for the White Whisky.
ABOUT THE BOOK: Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, by Mark Spivak, will be published in November 2012 by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot). Writing in an engaging and appealing style, Spivak chronicles the tales of twelve spirits that changed the world and forged the cocktail culture. While some are categories and others are specific brands, they are “the best kinds of stories: the type a writer could never make up.”