Death’s Door Gin
Washington Island, Wisconsin is at the heart and soul of everything produced by Death’s Door Spirits. This 22 square mile island hosts 700 miles of uninterrupted shoreline, protected coves and inlets, as well as acres upon acres of open land with rolling hills and hardwood stands. Sound idilic? Sure is.
Throughout the 1950s Washington Island was once known for its potato farming. The island’s spuds were famous around the world for quality and flavour. However, in the early 1970s, vertical integration in the potato industry left Washington Island without contracts to grow its crops. As the story so often goes, with no customers to cater to, island farmers stopped planting and instead switched to other jobs that were more tourism-based, or in more extreme cases, moved off the island altogether in pursuit of a livelihood.
Fast forward to 2005, when a small group began exploring and reinvigorating farming on Washington Island.Through the assistance of the Michael Fields Institute, a specific variety of wheat was selected for the island that would grow well in the unique maritime conditions. Armed with enough seed to plant five acres and enough know-how to get it done, brothers Tom and Ken Koyen began growing wheat. They had humble aspirations to start with but with hard graft, ingenuity and a bit of luck, the wheat took hold and thrived.
Let’s take another little leap ahead now, some seven more years…
Founded by Brian Ellison, Death’s Door opened its doors on June 4th, 2012. It’s fair to say that Death’s Door as a distillery was partly the result of this agricultural development programme and that it was created as a way of seeing what else could be done with the grain, but it was always intended as more than that… The distillery, based in Middleton on mainland US, is now one of the largest Wisconsin has ever seen, with an annual capacity in excess of 250,000 cases.
Since their creation, both Death’s Door Spirits and the nearby Capital Brewery have supported the local farmers efforts to expand the acreage of hard red winter wheat from five to 1,200. They also helped them to obtain the organic certification that was achieved for all of the crops in 2010 and they have stayed true to these roots by continuously looking for other ways to work with local agriculture.
For Tom and Ken, what had started as an experiment to see if agriculture could be restored, promoted and conserved on Washington Island soon blossomed into a fully-fledged business. It went from something that was grown exclusively for use at the Washington Island Hotel, to something that’s now far bigger than anyone could have imagined and in 2018, the issue isn’t to try and grow wheat on the island, it’s how to supplement what is grown there with other cereal from the state as the distillery’s demand is now more than the 22miles of land can yield.
The name Death’s Door, incidentally, was taken from the body of water between Door County peninsula and Washington Island. Potowatami and Winnebego tribesmen originally named the waterway, while the French called it Port de Morts (the port of the dead) when trading in the area to ward off other traders.
If you thought there was a raw honesty to the gin’s story, the real tour de force is that Death’s Door Gin has a surprisingly simple botanical mix of organic juniper berries, coriander seed and fennel. Using juniper berries that grow wild on Washington Island along with coriander and fennel sourced from within the state, Death’s Door Spirits is a great example of how much can be done with so little and perhaps more importantly, that confining your self to just a few choice ingredients and mastering them can unlock a sum that is much greater than its parts.
To make it, the team ferment a combination of wheat and barley into a wash (using champagne yeast for the beer geeks wondering), which is passed through their stripping column and driven to a lofty average of over 80 ABV (an impressive feat for a first pass through the stills).
This “Low Wine” is then taken and placed through their vodka columns polishing it up all the way to 190 proof (95% ABV for us Brits). Separate to this, a corn base is fermented and distilled in the same dual process to the same high proof, and the two distillates are combined to form the base of their Vodka. The addition of all three cereals may seem like a strange leap given the connection to the wheat, but there’s method in the madness… The barley aids the fermentation, allowing them to kick start the process, while the addition of corn helps the vodka have a sweeter edge to it.
Having undergone this process and made their vodka (which is actually sold as a product in its own right) – they use it as the base spirit for Death’s Door Gin. To make the gin, they steep the base spirit with the three botanicals, distilling it once more in a pot still to create the gin.
Death’s Door Gin to taste…
On the nose, all three botanicals are distinct. On the nose, there’s a flurry of fennel, a woody juniper and an almost-citrus twang from the coriander seed. Neat, the predominant taste of piney juniper berries emerge up front, intertwined with the anise-like tones of fennel. The customary spicy citrus notes from the coriander seeds emerge next, along with an increasingly confident fennel, that’s got an added sweetness to its liquorice flavours. There’s a neat order here, as if one hands the baton to the next. It’s incredibly smooth at 47%, deceptively so, and as a Gin Death’s Door is brilliant in a G&T. Mint can accentuate the herbal elements within the gin, but we feel it positively bursts with flavour and character once combined with an orange peel as a garnish. Use both if you’re feeling fancy!
The base spirit is where we feel the gin marks itself out from the rest and leaves it’s most memorable note. It’s memorable, not just conceptually in the fact that Death’s Door make their own though, but because when tasted neat the gin has a touch of sweetness emerges on the finish. Death’s Door has a simple botanical ensemble that works in harmony but that is elevated by a rich, sweet undertone. One accentuates the other and it all seems to revolve around in a co-ordinated dance of flavour and texture. It’s hard to explain the beauty in such simplicity and by pushing this humble quartet to be everything it can be, their gin quietly states why it’s one of the very best US gins to have ever been made.
Locality and trust is of huge importance to the brand, that’s obvious to see here. By using local ingredients exclusively, the team are showcasing their support, but since 2015 they’ve been putting their money where their mouths are as well. Well, actually, they’ve been doing that since the beginning, having pledged back in 2005 that one percent of their top line revenue would be donated to initiatives that keep the Great Lakes of the United States clean. In 2015, though, they signed on another line, joining the 1% for the Planet initiative; a global network of businesses that conspires to make the planet healthier.
Death’s Door has been a journey of following an idea and continuously pushing it to the next level. Something that started as a farming project has become a global brand that has kept social corporate responsibility at its core. American hero saviour story aside for a second, this is a gin worth seeking out on taste alone. It’s defiant and distinct, a feat that many gins fail to achieve. The fact that its focus lies on craft and locally sourced produce makes it a spirit with soul and adds authenticity, having proven time and again that they walk the walk and have the courage to back their moral convictions.
It’s widely distributed in the UK, so you won’t be too pushed to get hold of it. And you should, trust us. It’s brilliant!
For more information about Death’s Door Gin, visit their website: www.deathsdoorspirits.com
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