Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Death’s Door

Michael Nagrant / 06.23.09

Artisanal spirits are the new micro-brew. It seems as if small-scale liquor dudes are rivaling celebrity deaths in number these days. Unfortunately, I’ve found that most of these booze-artisans are pretty much snake-oil salesman capitalizing on the human penchant for the little guy while passing off bad-to-mediocre vodka.

I pretty much expected the same thing when I toured Wisconsin’s Death’s Door Spirits last week. (My apologies to owner Brian Ellison and his team for the assumption.) But I was pleasantly surprised. Ellison is one of those dudes who reminds you of the great chefs, a guy who works according to a personal standard that exceeds most, essentially competing against himself. From his website to his marketing materials to the quality of his product, there’s a ridiculously high quality apparent in everything about Death’s Door.

Indeed, the liquors, vodka, gin, and white whiskey produced by Death’s Door have a great story, using only local inputs from farmers on Washington Island–but it’s the taste that matters most on this one.

Instead of tossing in every herb in the kitchen cabinet, as is the standard in the gin market these days, Washington Hotel chef Leah Kaplan and Ellison chose a smart, focused herbal bouquet of coriander, fennel, and juniper. The result is a clean, satisfying drink that bests the muddled flavors of other gin makers. Likewise, Death’s Door’s white whiskey, though unaged, displays mature, almost tequila-like characteristics.

I imagine that, just as I thought, “Great, another micro-liquor,” many bar owners and spirit retailers feel the same way. But they shouldn’t–nor should any consumers who see the stuff locally on the shelves at Lush Spirits and Wine or Sam’s here in Chicago.