Serious Eats: Drinks
Behind the Scenes at Letherbee Distillers in Chicago
One of the first orders of business after I arrived at the cinder-block-walled production facility of Letherbee Distillers, on a clear-skied recent Monday evening, was for the team to mix me a drink. The gracious young crew has been experimenting with curaçao recipes lately, and I happened to be catching them on Margarita night.
It was a year ago this month that the Chicago-based company released its flagship product, Letherbee Original Label, a 96-proof small-batch gin. As I on-ramped into the conversation with the affable three-man team—who were tying off the last of the afternoon's production runs—Ian Van Veen, a Portland, Oregon, native, handed me a mason jar with a lime wedge pinching the rim. Like his cohorts at Letherbee, Van Veen is an experienced bartender, accustomed to mixing cocktails and generally making people feel welcome. Their collective time behind the stick, the team is convinced, has played an important role in the hometown success Letherbee has so far enjoyed. For one thing, they have worked to keep their gin affordable, in contrast to other micro-distilled spirits, which has allowed several Chicago bars to feature Letherbee in house cocktails. The guys also pointed out that their jobs have given them the opportunity to taste a wide array of spirits, from producers big and small. They've come to develop what they call "cynical palates"—an acute sense not just for constructing flavor profiles in spirits, but also for what they like and dislike.
Since the debut of its Original Label Gin, Letherbee has unveiled a limited-release gin for autumn; a unique "absinthe brun," which aged in a charred oak barrel; and R. Franklin's Original Recipe Malört, an ode to the (in)famous Chicago-centric and wormwood-driven bitter liqueur developed in collaboration with Robby F. Haynes, bar manager at Chicago's first modern craft-cocktail destination, The Violet Hour. While the first run of Malört was exclusively available at The Violet Hour, a second, slightly refined batch is nearly ready for bottling and slated for wider availability.
Given all that output, it comes as a surprise to learn that the distillery isn't more than a smallish rectangular room in the belly of a low-slung industrial building flanked by train tracks in the neighborhood of Ravenswood. Fellow tenants teach immigrants to repair cars and make everything from beer to motorcycles to professional-grade pool cues. Despite the odd mix of crafts, the atmosphere is quite friendly. Some of Letherbee's property, like tabletops and machinery used for bottling, spill out into the hallway in front of the entrance when not in use.
Brenton Engel—leader of the operation, Lula Café bartender, former moonshiner—had told me that he searched for months to find a suitable production space for his fledgling gin outfit. The rent had to be affordable enough so it wouldn't sink the business, which he got off the ground with next to no outside investment. Engel is from southern Illinois, where his grandfather is a grain farmer. ("He's 89 and still works every day on the farm," Engel said.) A few years ago, to earn some extra money Engel was making liquor in his home with an electric hot plate and an improvised still built from a water heater. He dubbed his moonshine Illinois Joy and quietly sold it to friends and fellow bartenders. The popularity of Engel's moonshine encouraged him to professionalize his efforts and ultimately found Letherbee.
Nathan Ozug is the third member of the team. Once a bartender at Chicago's Longman & Eagle, the Indiana native now works at the Boulevard Bikes, next door to Lula. Ozug is a self-described Fernet nerd and will one day likely spearhead the release of a Letherbee amaro. Indeed, the drive for experimentation is palpable on a visit to Letherbee (note: the distillery is not open to the public). Besides the curaçao, there are several other projects in mid-stream: a bourbon-barrel-aged gin; an intensely floral springtime (aka "vernal") gin that will be bottled, Zubrowka-style, along with blades of bison grass; an exclusive house gin for the Promontory, the forthcoming Hyde Park restaurant by the team behind Longman & Eagle; and a sweet vermouth.
It's becomes clear in talking with Engel, Ozug, and Van Veen that the trio approach their endeavor as a labor of love. They largely volunteer their time at the distillery, knowing that a bigger windfall lies in the future. (It was only recently that there was profit that could be put toward paychecks for themselves instead of being reinvested back into the operation.) And while they have every desire to grow (they'd love to have distribution in New York and California), they're by no means willing to do so in a way that negatively impacts the integrity of their spirits. So while that Margarita may have been very tasty, don't expect to see Letherbee Blue Curaçao until they're satisfied that it's met their standards of perfection.
Want a peek behind the scenes? Take a look at Letherbee Distillers' Chicago micro-distillery in the slideshow »