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Interview with Brian Ellison from Death's Door Spirits

With only 3 botanicals, Death's Door Gin is a very distinctive gin. We sat down for an interview with Brian Ellison from Death's Door Spirits to talk about gin and giving back to the community.

Can you tell me a little bit about the history of Death's Door, the company, in your own words?

Death’s Door is named after the treacherous waterway “Death’s Door Passage” that separates Washington Island (pop. 700) from the Wisconsin mainland. It earns its name from 350 ships that have sunk since records have been kept. In 2005, I was tasked with finding a way to bring a sustainable economy back to Washington Island and began working with the families to grow hard red winter wheat.

The wheat was first used in breads and baked goods on the island, but this was not enough to generate much business. We began selling the wheat to a local brewery for beer, but the farmers quickly asked about making a “sin” product. I set out to find someone to make Vodka using the wheat from the island.

Death's Door Gin Wheat FieldSince these efforts pre-dated craft spirits manufacturing, I was unable to convince any of the large ethanol producers to make small batches from our product. I decided to make the product myself and went to school at Michigan State University to learn distilling sciences.

In 2007, I began to distill Vodka and soon after Gin. I would drive my station wagon to accounts mostly across Chicago, Illinois and Wisconsin to sell the product case by case to anyone who would give Death’s Door a try.

As demand and production grew, it was clear we needed a new facility and in 2012, we opened a state of the art facility in Middleton Wisconsin with capabilities to produce 250,000 cases annually.

Today, Death’s Door products are available across the US and in 19 countries.

Can you talk a little bit more about your efforts with local farmers? What was the inspiration there, what did you need to do and what has the effect been?

I actually did not set out to become a distiller. My background is in economic development. Understand that farming and agriculture are sustainable forms of business. In this case to help the island community, we recognized we needed to grow something off the island that had market value.

Death's Door Gin FarmersWe work with a variety of families to create a mosaic of fields suitable for growing wheat and harvesting wild juniper. Some families on the island lend their land and others tend the fields. It is a community effort. This community had a rich tradition in farming, notably in potato production. When those markets collapsed in the 1950s, families stopped farming and many of the fields on the island sat fallow since the 1970s.

In our first year we grew five acres of wheat. Now we grow upwards of 1200 acres each year. Death’s Door Spirits uses all of the winter wheat grown on the island.

Death’s Door production has surpassed the wheat growing capabilities of the island and does source additional wheat, as well as corn and malt, from the American Heartland of the United States.

Your slogan is "simple, local, exceptional." Can you expand on that a little? Why that slogan and what does it mean?

Simple reflects the few ingredients we use to make the Vodka and Gin, with three grains and for the Gin, three botanicals. We believe less is more. Some of the best flavors you can enjoy are a few simple ingredients. Each ingredient can actually be identified and enjoyed when tasting the Vodka or Gin.

Death's Door Gin with Hip FlaskIn the Vodka, which also serves as the base of the Gin, there is creaminess on the palette from the malted barley and a hint of vanilla flavor from the wheat. There are no flavorings or artificial ingredients added such as glycerin or citric acid, often used to smooth impurities in a base distillate.

The Gin has simplicity as well with its three botanicals: juniper, coriander and fennel. The fresh juniper on the front, the spicy citrus coriander on the middle and a cooling fennel finish.

We understand “local” better than anyone. We started as an effort to help families in a small island community and believe in the ability of communities to come together with a common purpose. We have however grown to be a global brand and always look for ways to solidify our commitment to these families and to the state of Wisconsin. An example of that commitment is our annual Juniper Harvest where we bring bar professionals to Wisconsin for an immersive four-day experience to pick juniper and socialize with the locals.

Exceptional is our commitment to quality. Above and beyond anything we do, we work tirelessly to consistently create a great bottle of spirits every single time. We have rigorous processes in place for every step of our production, from the sourcing of our grain and its processing, our distilling and bottling, and quality assurance methods.

Talk to me about the gin, it only has 3 botanicals, what was your thought process in making such a simple gin?

When I developed the Gin in 2007, there was no conversation happening around botanical blends in Gin. This was never intended to be a competitive point for us, but as more and more gins come to market with more botanicals, we are pleased to have this advantage.

Death's Door GinI worked with a chef on Washington Island and she challenged me to develop a gin with as few botanicals as possible. The idea is when you find the right flavor profile, you find restraint and do not add more ingredients for the sake of trying to be more complex. This points to our brand pillar of simplicity.

The coriander and fennel seeds are provincial to Wisconsin and the foods our state is best known for – cheese, meat and large game. You will notice there is no citrus in our botanical mix. We do not grow citrus in the state due to cold weather. It seemed disingenuous to include it just to follow the crowd. Bar professionals can add citrus or any other acid to a cocktail and we give them the simple canvas to do so.

What has the reaction to it being like so far?

Early on and even still today, the bar community has consistently embraced the brand and our Gin. It is humbling and exciting. We have earned a great reputation among this community and our peers in distilling. This has translated to us becoming a global brand that is still made from grain in our own distillery.

Your video says that you consider yourself to be a cornerstone in the craft spirits movement. Can you expand on that a little?

When I began distilling in 2007, there were roughly 70 distilleries operating in the United States. There were only a handful of what might be considered craft distilleries, and we were fortunate to be part of influencing and enhancing the bar industry in the US. There are now more than 1,200 distilleries just in the US.

What do you have in store for the future?

Our main focus now is the creation of Rye Whiskey. We have been distilling from grain in our own facility and barreling in earnest since the first of 2016, and plan to release our blended rye whiskey in 2019, after resting three years in oak charred barrels. Today we have 1,200 barrels in our new 10,000 square foot rack house and have an aggressive production plan for each month to keep up with projected market demand.

Aside from Death's Door, what’s your favourite gin?

Tanqueray 10 for its simplicity and elegance

How do you prefer to drink your gin?

Typically in a glass.
My drink of choice is a variation on the Negroni: Death’s Door Gin, Cynar (instead of Campari) and sweet vermouth.

An unusual, yet delightfully dry gin, the taste of all three botanicals is clear: loaded juniper berries up front; spicy, citrusy notes from the coriander seeds in the mid-palate; and a soft, cooling finish provided by the fennel seeds. Death's Door Gin is big enough to stand up to classic or vintage cocktail treatment, but soft enough to be enjoyed on the rocks or as a dry martini. It truly is the "utility" gin of our time. Pick up a bottle at our gin shop.

Interview with Brian Ellison from Death's Door Spirits

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