In 2012 Brenton Engel legitimised his moonshining operation and established Let There Be! Distillers. Working off the idea of using a name that reminded him of what the old-timers had taught him about making booze, a friend suggested that he combine the words Let There Be into one name. And so the Chicago gin was born… Letherbee.
The roots of Letherbee began with a little bit of ingenuity and old fashioned bootlegging. Brenton Engel was making pot still whiskey on a farm in Springfield when he was in a band and running the moonshine to Chicago for local gigs.
Engel eventually got a job as a bartender in Chicago’s Lula Café, but having already successfully moonshined his way into gaining a cult following, he still wanted to make spirits for a living. Along with business partner Miriam Matasar (Lula’s General Manager at the time), he decided to legitimize the operation and begin the painstaking process of getting registered to distil legally. The signature concoction would be a distinctive yet versatile gin, made from a recipe developed by Brent and fine-tuned based on feedback from colleagues through the Chicago bar scene.
With a small budget they went one hoop at a time, talking one challenge after the next until the final paperwork arrived and the still was built. Limited resources meant that there wasn’t the option of buying in a ready-made still fresh off the craft production line from a boutique German manufacturer either…
The Letherbee still is a very simple pot still. Nothing fancy, no bubble plates, no rectification and no extremely special shape per se. The simplicity of the equipment lies in Engel’s belief that a good craftsman should be able to make great results with basic tools, rather than relying on expensive equipment.
Incidentally, for those wondering, the still holds about 950-1000L and was made by a welder in the state of Maine.
Three years on, a small but dedicated team of bartenders at Letherbee now distil and produce a range of craft botanical spirits including the flagship Letherbee Gin, seasonal variants released semi-annually (Spring and Autumn), a barrel-aged Absinthe, Fernet, and more.
The flagship gin was a year in the making as Engel searched for a balance of botanicals that could hold their own in a Martini, a Gimlet or an old fashioned. As the spirit evolved, Engel tested it with bartenders around Chicago. He settled on a combination of classic botanicals such as juniper, coriander, angelica root, cinnamon, orange and lemon, combined with almonds, cubeb pepper, cardamom, fennel and liquorice root.
The end result, bottled at 48% ABV, is juniper-forward, but Letherbee’s 11 botanicals create a complex spirit that remains well balanced in both a Gin and Tonic as well as a Martini. The gin is juniper centred on both the nose and on first taste, but it has a distinct fresh, verdant note hinting at the cardamom and fennel to come. The fennel merges with coriander seed and citrus on the palate while cubeb berries bring a touch of cracked pepper towards the end. There’s a hint of ginger which zings on the finish, rounding off a complete flavour journey.
Letherbee Gin is not chill-filtered and while this is not unique, the fact that the gin louches dramatically when you add a touch of water, ice or tonic is quite rarely seen in such an intense fashion as it is for Letherbee. Louching (a clouding effect of botanical oils falling out of solution that is commonly associated with absinthe) isn’t just a visual effect either.
Louching means that when the dissolved oils come out of suspension, the character of the spirit can change dramatically. This is not necessarily a bad thing, more that one has to be slightly judicious whilst looking at ratios when pouring it. Moreover, Letherbee Gin will taste differently in a Gin and Tonic than it will in a Martini due to the dilution involved (almost two different gins). Incidentally, with added water (or with a small amount of tonic) Letherbee Gin is nuttier and the fennel more prominent, whilst the coriander is more noticeable on the nose. Perhaps because of the reduced ABV or because of the suspended oils we found the gin offered more aroma upfront but less balance overall.
Flavour geekery aside, it is worth noting that you need not worry if you have a misty G&T – this is normal for Letherbee Gin. It’s disconcerting when you first see it, but it’s not because your batch is “spoiled.” This will happen with all of their bottles of Gin.
In the making of Letherbee, the team strived to create a drinkable spirit and they have definitely accomplished this. However, they also wanted to make a gin that bartenders would actually use. In other words, this meant that it needed to be offered at an affordable price point.
There’s a lot that has been said and written about Letherbee Gin having been created as the “anti craft, craft gin”. Perhaps this is because of Engel’s punk rock leanings and moonshine origins, alongside the way they’ve described what they make. We’ve interpreted it more as a desire to be considered honest and good value as opposed to falling under the “we are craft and therefore expensive” banner. Their aim was and is to create an affordable, high quality gin whose main use is to be poured at bars and to become the house pour at restaurants.
Sold for around $30 a bottle, it would seem that in the USA, they have achieved this. While price might seem like it is a minor point in the wider scheme of things, it’s worth noting here as the main reason for the “anti-craft” statement surrounds affordability and not falling into the elitist small batch marketing talk and expensive price tags.
It’s a nice sentiment, however it is made a little redundant, given many of those gins who do position themselves as “elite craft” in that sense, are now sold at a very similar price point. Perhaps it’s just a sign of how far the category has moved since 2012 and how fierce the competition is. Moreover, for export markets such as the UK, a retail price of £37+ makes them £15 too expensive to be competitive with any of the smaller craft gins being considered for house pours. Ironically, at that price they are actually more expensive than most boutique small batch, artisanal gins who admit they can’t compete to become the default gin on a bar due to price. As always – duty costs and transport need to be factored in but at that rate, it renders the original proposition of “affordable but well crafted” mute. Hopefully, as both supply and accessibility grow, this will drop considerably to make good on the initial brand aspirations.
Letherbee also make seasonal gins. With only around 140 cases made for each seasonal batch, don’t expect to find them around for long so try it whilst you still have a chance. At the time of writing – the last gin the team had released was their 2014 Autumnal Gin (part of a semi-annual seasonal gin). The Autumn gin contained all the 11 original botanicals as well as roasted hazelnut, black walnut, and cocoa nibs and was bottled at 48% ABV. Delicate with a warm, toasted nut flavours – it accentuated some of the inherent Letherbee flavours well, while also presenting a new facet. Perfect for a Negroni made using a heavier Sweet Vermouth for that added depth to see you through those Arctic winter nights.
So what’s next for this burgeoning distillery? With Chicago being the home of many craft spirits and an array of internationally recognised cocktail bars, competition is fierce to become “Chicago’s Gin”. The prize at stake is equally very high as doing so would propel any brand into the eyes of an internationally interested audience, keen to see what the likes of bars such as the Aviary, Three Dots and a Dash etc… are making and what they are pouring. Letherbee has the liquid to do this however bartender power is only half the equation and whilst they have adopted the gin – we fear that to grow much bigger (nationally) Letherbee may need to re-assess their packaging.
We understand that the entire point of the flagship Letherbee bottle is to not focus on what the actual bottle looks like so to say it’s underwhelming is almost akin to stating they have achieved what they were looking for. They made it so that it was affordable and in use on a speed rack in bars, not to stand unused on a shelf behind all of the action.
Unfortunately – with fierce completion by local rivals who now have price parity, a similar quality spirit and sexier looking bottles which take up space both on a back bar and on the rack – who knows who will win out. We genuinely wish them luck as Letherbee Gin has soul, an interesting backstory and is made with the core sentiment of being enjoyed, served and to facilitate good times.
There are no plans for a big push internationally at present although it is being imported to the UK in very small batches. So, for the time being there are ten states in the US where it is available, but if you do venture to the Windy City – look out for them and let us know what you think!
For more information about Letherbee Gin, visit their website: www.letherbee.com
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