Washington Island, Wisconsin has a year round population of 700 residents, and agriculture has always been important—the only other major contributor to the economy is tourism. But since the 1970s, local farms have struggled. As part of an effort to revitalize local agriculture, the planning firm that Brian Ellison worked for purchased 25 acres of land to begin growing wheat. But they began to run out of places to sell that wheat, and that's when Ellison, founder and president of Death's Door Distillery, got the idea to start distilling it.
Up until the new distillery opened in June, Death's Door had been contracting out all of its vodka, gin, and whiskey to other distilleries. On a recent visit to Wisconsin, I toured the new 25,000-square-foot space which houses their 34-foot, 2000-liter still from Germany.
Death's Door sources organic hard winter wheat and organic juniper from farms in Washington Island, coriander and fennel from 20 miles away in Brooklyn, Wisconsin, and barley from 100 miles away in Chilton. Their white whisky, made primarily from Washington Island wheat, is double distilled and then rested for 72 hours in un-charred Minnesota oak barrels. They describe it as one part 'South of the Border', a spirit a bit like tequila or cachaça; and one part 'Eastern', like shochu or earthy sake. It won't remind you much of the smokey, caramel flavors of whiskey aged in charred oak, but it has hints of fruit and a fresh, grainy flavor.
Death's Door gin is flavored with juniper, coriander, and fennel, giving it a strong pine aroma and a citrusy, licorice-inflected finish. The vodka's made from wheat and malted barley. It has a sweet aroma and impressively smooth texture. While you'll only see white whiskey, gin, and vodka for now, keep an eye out for upcoming barrel-aged spirits from the folks at Death's Door.