by Shaun Layton | I tend to ignore calls from unknown numbers, but I’m glad I picked up when I got the call from Death’s Door Spirits to represent Canadian bartenders at the distillery’s recent juniper harvest in Wisconsin.
My journey started off with a meet and greet feast of pig’s head, red snapper, and OMG…fried cheese curds at the Heritage Tavern in Madison, the state’s capital and home to nearly 245,000 people. It was here that I was introduced to a handful of fellow bar nerds from the UK who were also along for the ride.
Death’s Door is about twenty minutes from the centre of town. It gets its name from the once treacherous body of water between the city’s mainland and Washington Island, the latter being the location of the distillery’s wheat supply (and some of its juniper). The journey there, through the lush green countryside of America’s dairyland, was outstanding with nothing but beautiful farmer’s fields, red barns, and Lake Michigan on the horizon. And if there was a Michelin Guide to gas stations, Wisco would be leading the pack. Their gas stations have walls of great craft beer, beef jerky, cheese curds, and – naturally – live bait. Bonus: everyone rocks camo gear here, as hunting is almost as popular as the Green Bay Packers (more on them later).
We were walked through the whole distilling process by Brian Ellison, the man who created the brand. He travels all over the world preaching his story to barkeeps and spirits enthusiasts. I’m a huge fan, as the man’s hospitality know no bounds. Brian was our wingman for the whole trip, and as such he was a great teacher of local lore. He’s as knowledgeable about local history as he is about distilling.
The distillery is new as of 2012, and it’s one of the cleanest, greenest, and well managed distilleries I have ever had the pleasure of touring. Current annual production is about 250,000 cases (with room to expand). Death’s Door is best known in the bar world for its gin and vodka, but they also produce a phenomenal white whiskey, a Kringle Cream liqueur, and a uniquely tasty “Wondermint” — a play on Peppermint Schnapps (it’s much drier than the simple syrup-like ones on the market today).
I’m most familiar with the gin and the white whiskey, both of which are available in Vancouver at Legacy Liquor Store. The gin is unique for many reasons. First, they only use three locally sourced botanicals: juniper, coriander, and fennel. It’s born using Death’s Door’s vodka for its base, and instead of steeping the botanicals, they’re incorporated using a vapour infusion process, wherein the vapours of the distillate pass through the botanicals at controlled temperatures. This, along with a great base spirit and a small but carefully selected group of botanicals, results in a very well balanced, beautifully viscous and versatile gin. What starts off with juniper and citrus notes up front finishes with a nice bit of spice — exactly what I look for in a gin. It makes for a great Martini, one that’s higher proof (47%), dry and juniper-forward with citrus and spice. My other favourite way to drink this gin is in a G&T with a couple dashes of Angostura bitters.
The day after the distillery tour was the annual juniper harvest. A portion of this harvest goes into every batch of gin over the next year. To be honest, tickling the shrubby juniper bushes free of their precious berries was a bucket list thing for me. Being in the quiet field was very surreal. The smell of juniper was enchanting, reminding me not just of gin (or the hipster cologne one often smells in Portland), but of adventures in the great outdoors. After the harvest, coffee and Kringle Cream was served to us out of a food truck-like mobile unit called the Barmadillo. While on the island we were also treated to a fantastic pig roast, my first ever Wisconsin fish boil, a dash of debauchery here and there, and a wild scavenger hunt that encompassed the whole island (our team foolishly decided to rent bicycles instead of cars or scooters).
When on the island, a visit to Nelsen’s Hall to join The Bitters Club is essential. It isn’t what it sounds like, which is to say that it’s not a bunch of fedora-wearing bar “chefs” infusing cinchona bark and cherries into neutral spirit. Nelsen’s has been in business since 1899; it’s the longest running pub in the entire state. During Prohibition they were granted a pharmacist’s licence, and cleverly served Angostura bitters as a medicinal tonic. Punters would drink it by the ounce, making Nelsen’s the biggest purchaser of the bitters in the world. There’s a persistent legend of a man who drank a pint a day and lived to the age of 90! Nowadays it’s prudent to visit and do a shot of Ango to join the club. Our crew happily obliged.
To cap the trip off we were caravanned back on the ferry and off to the holy grail of sports: Lambeau Field, home of The Packers. Our gracious hosts scored us world class tailgating and a luxury suite from which we watched Green Bay roll over the New York Jets in their home opener. It made for a perfect ending to a great and especially educational trip.
Brian Ellison and the folks at Death’s Door are the real deal. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and are superb ambassadors of their state. Not once did they shove the brand down our throats (not necessarily a bad thing, come to think of it). They were more like, “This is Wisconsin. This is who we are. This is what we do. And, oh yeah, we also make amazing booze.” The attitude – and the experience that introduced it – makes me glad to have Death’s Door on my bar.