Thursday, February 13, 2014

Wisconsin’s Local Flavors at Middleton’s Death’s Door Spirits

Death's Door Spirits Middleton Wisconsin

Wisconsin spirits?  Isn’t Wisconsin the land of beer?  It’s true; craft brews abound throughout the state.  But Wisconsin also has craft distilleries.  Death’s Door Spirits in Middleton is the largest craft distillery in Wisconsin, and we got the chance to tour the distillery and taste their signature vodka, gin, and white whisky.

Death’s Door Spirits owes its name to Death’s Door Passage, the passage between the thumb of the Wisconsin mainland and Washington Island that connects Green Bay and Lake Michigan.  The distillery is so named because Washington Island is where Death’s Door’s organic hard red winter wheat is grown.  Tom and Ken Koyen, with a view of revitalizing farming on Washington Island, began growing wheat.  Their wheat was first introduced to Capital Brewery, a craft brewery also in Middleton, which uses it for their Wheat Ale, and then Death’s Door Spirits, which uses the brothers’ organic wheat in all of their products.  In fact, everything that goes into Death’s Door spirits is local and organic.  Death’s Door’s focus is on restoring and promoting local sustainable agriculture.

After getting an introduction to the origins of Death’s Door, John Jeffery, Head Distiller, led our tour of the distillery.  John studied at Michigan State University, where he received his Master of Science Degree in Food Science and completed the university’s Artisan Distilled Spirits Program.  I’ll spare you all the nitty gritty details of distilling, but touring the facility with its various areas, each with a different purpose, was quite an education.

Death's Door Spirits Tour Middleton Wisconsin
Head Distiller John Jeffery leads us on our tour of Death's Door Spirits.
The tour of the facility started in the bottling room.  They were currently bottling a seasonal Kringle Cream.  Death’s Door Spirits' bottling operation is small.  They have an automated process that is switched up depending on the type of alcohol.  They also use hand fillers for items like the Kringle Cream.  We also peeked into the explosion proof room used for the proofing process. 

The science room where tests are run on the various spirits was one of the most interesting rooms to me, especially when we learned what a mix of science and personal taste goes into the creation of Death’s Door spirits.  They use the chromatographer to separate the different components of the spirits and the team also works together to sample and taste the spirits for the different components.  Each individual has their specialty, whether it be tasting the sugars or other specific parts of the flavor profile.  One person cannot be relied upon to give input on all pieces of the taste.

The tanks are in the main area of the distillery.  Whether or not you’re interested in or understand the details of distilling, the tanks themselves are a beautiful, shiny, coppery sight.  We learned all about the mash tanks, where the brewing process begins, and then the movement to the fermentation tanks and the special champagne yeast used to give Death’s Door spirits their special flavor.   

Death's Door Spirits Distilling Tanks
Death's Door Spirits' distilling tanks.
After our thorough tour of the distillery we got to the part that really matters, the taste test.  Death’s Door Spirits creates three signature spirits: gin, vodka, and whisky.   Death’s Door vodka contains organic barley from Chilton in addition to the organic wheat from Washington Island.  The vodka is double-distilled and has a really nice slightly sweet and even creamy taste and feel.  Death’s Door vodka was my favorite spirit.

Death’s Door gin starts with left over vodka in the distiller.  Botanicals are added into the vapors to add flavor.  Adding the botanicals through the vapor rather than directly into the alcohol ensures the flavor is added without the tannins and bitterness.  Death’s Door uses juniper, coriander and fennel in its gin.  Because of the use of vapor, the gin does not have that pine tree taste that some gins have.  The botanicals really stand out, starting with juniper up front, continuing with coriander and almost a citrus taste, and ending very faintly with fennel.  I enjoyed the gin and was very curious to see how it would taste in a mixed cocktail.

Death’s Door whisky is a white whisky which quickly passes through uncharred barrels.  Most whiskies obtain their smoky taste from the barrels in which they are aged.  Because Death’s Door barrels are uncharred and because the whisky spends very little time in those barrels, their whisky lacks this signature taste.  Death’s Door whisky tastes more like a good tequila than whisky. 

The next evening I got my wish and was able to taste some mixed drinks with Death’s Door Spirits’ gin.  The verdict?  Death’s Door gin is incredible in a mixed drink!  We had dinner at one of Madison, Wisconsin’s top restaurants, L’Etoile, and I had a chance to sample two drinks using Death’s Door gin.  One was mixed with a house-made vermouth, Cointreau, honey, and Meyer lemon bitters.  The second was mixed with fortified wine and rhubarb bitters.  The botanicals of the gin really paired well with the light sweetness of the cocktails, providing an additional layer of flavor that was prominent but not overpowering. 

While I highly suggest visiting Madison and Middleton and taking a tour of the distillery, you don’t have to travel to Wisconsin to try Death’s Door spirits.  Visit their website to find liquor stores, restaurants and bars near you that sell or serve their spirits.  Why drink mass produced spirits when you can have fine spirits created by people who really care about what they make and use only the finest local organic ingredients to make them?

Thank you to Visit Madison for setting up our tour and to Death’s Door Spirits for providing the tour and tastings.

Katherine Belarmino has been traveling for over ten years on a quest to see as much of the world as possible, experience new cultures, and sample other cuisines and libations. She also writes the travel blog Travel the World, which journals her world travels with her husband Romeo and seeks to encourage others to take the time to travel.