story by Laura Broullire photos by heidi hodges
pre-dates the Roaring ’20s, and the legends connecting the area with alcohol go together like gin and tonic.
From the covert stills operated by Chicago-born bootleggers to the secret speakeasies and shots of bitters served at Washington Island’s historic Nelsen’s Hall, Door County and drink have had a long and lengthy love affair. So it’s not surprising that in just over a decade, two new distilleries have emerged with ties to the region.
Door County Distillery,
Door County Distillery Cherry Brandy Old-Fashioned
•1 ounce Cherry Brandy
•.5 ounces Cherry Bluff Infusion
•1 teaspoon sugar
Muddle orange slice, cherries, sugar and Cherry Bluff Infusion in a glass. Add ice, brandy and Sprite.
•1 ounce Cherry Moonshine
•1.5 ounces triple sec
•1 ounce lime juice
•3 ounces sour mix
Combine all ingredients in shaker with ice. Pour into salted margarita glass.
Death’s Door Spirits Corpse Reviver No. 2
•¾ oz. Death’s Door gin
•¾ oz. orange liqueur
•¾ oz. Lillet or Cocchi Americano
•¾ oz. fresh lemon juice
Place all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake and then strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a lemon peel.
They began with clear liquors made in a 150-gallon copper still from Germany, said distiller Kyle Thomas. A victim of its own success, demand for the products grew, and the company couldn’t keep up. So, in late 2016, the distillery underwent a major expansion to accommodate a 600-gallon Italian still, as well as a craft cocktail tasting bar where patrons can sample such offerings as an award-winning single malt whiskey, flavored brandy, moonshine or cherry bluff infusion bitters.
“Probably our gin is the most nationally acclaimed,” said Rob Peterson, also on the marketing team.
Levendusky is quick to recommend the gin mojito. “Our gin is very citrusy. It has a juniper presence, but it’s not overwhelming. I’ve been known to enjoy a gin Bloody Mary.”
Guests of the Carlsville distillery and adjacent winery and gift shop seem perpetually curious about the cherry brandy, Levendusky said.
“It’s made with 100 percent Door County cherries,” said Peterson, adding that all cherries, apples and pears used in production come from local orchards. Their grain is all Wisconsin-grown and processed in Chilton, Thomas adds.
“That’s one of the biggest priorities for the winery and the distillery,” Levendusky said, “to use as many products as possible from Door County and Wisconsin.”
The distillery’s commitment to regional agriculture helped earn them an association with the Green Bay Packers. “If you go to a Packer game and you order a cocktail, that’s our vodka and gin at Lambeau Field—inside and out,” Levendusky said. “They are moving away from supporting big corporations and keeping it local.”
While it’s still a relatively young distillery, Thomas is looking to the future by keeping some whiskey on reserve until it reaches the five-year mark. In the meantime, “might as well have a go at a rum,” Thomas said. They’ll start experimenting with clear rum before hopefully adding barrel-aged golden rum and, eventually, spiced rum to the lineup.
Of the peninsula itself, Thomas can’t imagine a better place to work. He points out that the groundwater that emerges from Door County’s limestone foundation has an ideal mineral content for making top-of-the-line spirits. “It’s a pretty unique atmosphere,” he said. “The scenery alone is worth the trip.”
Death’s Door Spirits
An old proverb cautions not to put the cart before the horse. But in founding Death’s Door Spirits, Brian Ellison put the wheat before the liquor.
Ellison, who grew up in Illinois, not-so-fondly remembers coming to Door County almost every summer. “I used to go up to Washington Island as a child, as my parents had a wool textiles business on our sheep farm,” Ellison recalls. “Sievers School was always the destination, and I thought the island was horribly boring.”
The prospect, however, of helping Washington Island families restore commercial farming and reinvigorating then-barren potato fields in 2005 was anything but boring.
“Brian wanted to find an economic future through farming for island residents,” said Margaret Ebeling, marketing director. She said he started growing an organic hard red winter wheat—one specifically suited to the 22-square-mile island’s maritime climate. The first bakery endeavor failed to be profitable, so Ellison looked to beer; thus Island Wheat beer was born and, until 2015, was produced by Capital Brewery near Madison.
But Ellison had his eye on craft distilleries, which, in 2007, were starting to pick up steam. He recalls having an “Aha!” moment when he found out the popular Grey Goose vodka is made from wheat. “I thought, ‘We can certainly do something better than this.’”
Distilling degree in hand, Ellison began making gin, vodka and white whiskey at a distillery in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Production and distribution increased and, in 2012, the company’s current 25,000-square-foot distillery opened in Middleton.
Some things have changed—the addition of Wondermint Schnapps Liqueur in 2014, for one. But using wheat grown on Washington Island and shipped across the company’s namesake Death’s Door passage remains the same, Ebeling said. “We do, in fact, use all the wheat grown on the island,” she said, adding they’ve expanded from five to 1,200 acres. “Given our size, however, we must source (grain) from other locations.”
Their commitment to Washington Island’s agricultural and economic success continues, Ebeling said, pointing to new efforts to grow and harvest rye for a rye whiskey as well as the planting of two juniper test farms. “We see this as a pilot program to get more farmers to commercially grow juniper across the state,” Ebeling said.
Introducing Washington Island’s juniper crop to an international crowd is the goal of the annual Juniper Harvest Festival, in which 50 bar industry professionals are brought in for an immersive, five-day experience.
“These bartenders actually help pick the juniper used in our gin,” Ebeling said.
The name of the distillery has led to some confusion from patrons, Ellison conceded. “We’ve actually gotten some phone calls from people on the ferry asking directions to the distillery.”
Confusion aside, Ellison is proud of the distillery that has such a strong Door County connection. “Honestly, the best part (about the job) is sharing our story and commitment to Washington Island with people around the globe. We are also ambassadors for all things Wisconsin as we share stories, songs and jokes that come from our great state,” he said.
“Wisconsin has a lot to be proud of.”