While every microbrewery and small-batch distiller in America was busy looking for a charming, antique background story to bolster their brand, Brian Ellison, founder of Death’s Door Spirits in Wisconsin, accidentally became an illegal moonshiner by transporting mash across state lines.
Ellison began working as a consultant on economic development for Washington Island, Wisconsin, once a successful agricultural hub that took a hit in the 1970s when potato farming became almost entirely industrialized. In an attempt to revitalize the local economy and agricultural tradition, Ellison worked with two brothers on the island to grow wheat.
“We used the wheat for bread, and sold it to hotels and made pizza crusts, but we started looking for other ways to use it,” he says.
Ellison devised a plan to sell the wheat to a local brewery, and soon began supplying the island’s wheat to the celebrated Capitol Brewery. It introduced a beer called Island Wheat, now one of region’s most famous brews.
Still looking to use Washington Island’s wheat in other ways, Ellison began to explore spirit-making, something of a risk at a time when there were hardly more than 70 distilleries in the United States. Today, roughly 10 years later, there are nearly 700 stateside distilleries.
“For a long time, I was unable to find anyone interested in using the island wheat and turning it into mash,” says Ellison.
Eventually, he found a distiller in Cedar Rapids, Iowa with a 35-gallon pot still and some spare time to work with Ellison on the weekends. Ellison decided to take the mash produced in Wisconsin, load it in 55-gallon drums into the back of a rental truck, and then drive it himself to Iowa.
“It was a good idea, except what I proposed right there is totally illegal,” he says.
It was an error he only discovered while looking to apply for a tax identification number. “I wanted to find a way to do it right, and obviously I didn’t want to break any laws.”
The distiller and his stepson, however, had been looking to open a brewery in Madison, Wisconsin for some time, and offered to produce mash for Ellison’s spirits at their new location.
Ellison’s knowledge of spirit-crafting has grown alongside his company. Death’s Door’s gin is a sophisticated spirit, engineered not only with very careful attention to what makes a good gin, but also from Ellison’s decision to use high-quality grains for his base spirits: Washington Island’s organic winter wheat, malted barley from Wisconsin, and corn from farmers in Minnesota.
“The wheat and barley give the distillant structure, sweetness, and flavor, and the corn gives it the alcohol,” he reveals.
A base spirit for gin, like vodka, must be neutral, and while many distillers simply use wheat or a single type of grain, Ellison wanted to meet the expectations of neutrality while also ensuring that the spirit be “discernibly different.”
The grains enter a mash vessel to which hot water is added, along with enzymes to break down the grains from starches to sugars, and then further enzymes to break complex sugars into simple sugars. Yeast is then added to the mix, which eats the sugars and produces alcohol. This process takes four to five days, and must be carefully monitored to keep the yeast from heating up and burning itself out.
The fermented mash is then put into a continuous stripping still which separates the mash into raw alcohol.
“It’s raw, but it’s a very, very good alcohol because we use good grains,” says Ellison.
The process of distilling the mash is complicated, and takes place in two very large 28-foot tanks at the new Death’s Door distilling plant in Middleton, Wisconsin. The mash is heated and eventually pushed to the top, vaporizing the alcohol from the mash as the mixture rises. Each tank contains a series of 21 plates that sit in water. As the mixture rises and reaches each plate, the pressure increases further and the boiling point goes down. Water vapor drops off at each level, which means that during this process, the raw spirit goes from roughly 75 percent alcohol to 95 percent.
Three different cuts of alcohol come out of the tanks.
“The heads are the higher alcohol, the hearts are the middle alcohol—they’re good-tasting and we want to retain those—and tails, which have some alcohol, but mainly oils and acids we don’t want,” Ellison explains.
Tails are removed, and the heads and hearts are balanced out to produce a very fine, high-proof spirit.
While many gins contain a large number of botanicals—from the highly-aromatic Bombay Sapphire to the smaller batch gins like Brooklyn, both essentially too soft and too floral to be taken seriously as gins—Death’s Door Gin has only three botanicals: juniper, coriander, and fennel. Ellison’s gin does not contain citrus—one of only five gins that does not—and has the fewest botanicals of any gin.
These botanicals are infused into the spirit when the spirit is pushed through as a vapor through an extraction chamber. In this process, the vapor takes on the flavors of the botanicals and produces a lower proof but drinkable spirit. Many gin distillers boil botanicals into gins, or allow the botanicals to steep in the mixture for roughly 24 hours.
Although coriander and juniper are staples in gin, fennel is a rarer note.
“There is so much Scandinavian and German heritage here, and fennel is so simple, and so good, but also very prevalent in the foods we eat,” Ellison says, describing sausages flavored with fennel. He chose fennel not only for its surprising role as an effective gin botanical, but also for its unabashedly Wisconsin personality.
“Juniper is a pain in the ass to harvest,” Ellison says, laughing as he describes the plant. “It’s super invasive, covered in small needles, and in very low bushes.”
Although Ellison wanted to source as much of the ingredients locally, and to choose botanicals that could all be grown in Wisconsin, Juniper’s finicky, invasive personality has made it so that Death’s Door must occasionally turn to other states to provide organic-certified juniper. And yet, for those hoping to keep Death’s Door entirely local, Ellison, the relentless thinker and seasoned problem-solver, has engineered a solution for that too: a two-day drinking festival in September, where fans of the spirit can travel to Washington Island and harvest juniper for 48 hours.