The question I’m most regularly asked is: “What’s your favourite gin?” This is often posed in a subtly challenging tone or with a smirk to suppose that of course I can’t possibly answer such a question.
Of course, I adore the gin category in its entirety, I love trying new products and there genuinely is a gin for every occasion. However, I proudly profess that Death’s Door is my favourite gin.
I didn’t have an epiphany moment. I can’t remember the first time I tried it. All I know is that every time I drink Death’s Door I’m reminded why I love it and hold it as a benchmark for all other gins.
The story of Death’s Door starts with community spirit.
A small 22 square-mile island in Wisconsin, USA is the epicentre of this amazing enterprise. During the 1950s, Washington Island was home to many and renown around the world for its potato farming. The picturesque landscape sees 700 miles of shoreline with secluded coves and acres of rolling hills and open land. The island provides perfect conditions for sustainable agriculture.
Unfortunately, the 1970s saw vertical integration within the potato industry and left the Washington Island farmers without any further contracts. Tourism-based jobs soon began to appeal and many of the islanders moved to the mainland. The island was left quietly dormant until 2005.
A small group of people began to explore Washington Island once more and decided to reinvigorate the farming potential. Led by brothers, Tom and Ken Koyen, the team had enough seed to plant five acres of wheat. By collaborating with the Michael Fields Institute, they pinpointed two varieties of hard red winter wheat which would flourish in the island’s unique maritime climate. The varieties chosen were Harvard and Carlisle.
Initially, the idea was to grind the wheat and produce flour for use in the Washington Island Hotel.
Brian Ellison, (founder of Death’s Door Spirits) has supported the restoring and promoting of agriculture since the beginning. Along with the team at Capital Brewery, he recognised that the wheat would be perfect in brewing and distillation. Together, they have increased the area planted to 1,200 acres and achieved organic certification in 2010.
Brian established Death’s Door Spirits in 2005 when he saw the potential of creating a business which focuses on using sustainable, locally-grown crops. Washington Island is also home to many juniper bushes and the Death’s Door team hold an annual juniper harvesting party, inviting the surrounding community and gin-lovers to participate.
Death’s Door’s state-of-the-art distillery is located on the mainland, (for obvious scale and logistical reasons) in the city of Middleton. It was opened on 4th June 2012 and is the largest craft distillery in Wisconsin with an annual capacity of 250,000 cases.
I recently attended an event hosted by Gin Foundry where they arranged a live Skype-conference with Jason Veal, Death’s Door’s Head Distiller. Jason gave us a virtual tour around the distillery and it is incredible. It is far larger than I had appreciated. Every aspect was considered prior to installation and the distillation processes move seamlessly through the building.
The name Death’s Door is taken from the strait of water between Door County Peninsula and Washington Island. It’s believed to have been named by the Potawatomi and Winnebago tribesmen whilst the French called it “Porte des Morts”, (the port of death) to ward off other traders. There are numerous shipwrecks lying beneath the waves.
Death’s Door Spirits create a range of products including vodka, white whiskey and a Schnapps-style product called Wondermint. However, it’s their gin which first captured my imagination and my heart.
Death’s Door gin uses only three botanicals: juniper, coriander and fennel. The coriander and fennel are sourced from Wisconsin when possible. I love the simplicity this infers and the surprising complexity they form. If you were tasting the gin blind, you would easily list 5 – 10 additional botanicals due to the nuances of flavour the team have achieved.
The base spirit for their gin is in fact their own vodka. They use the hard red winter wheat grown on Washington Island, but also include malted barley grown in partnership with farmers in nearby Chilton. A ratio of 60:40 wheat to malted barley creates a fantastically creamy, rich and soft base. The botanicals are not macerated prior to distillation, instead Death’s Door utilise vapour distillation.
If the incredible start-up story is not valiant enough, since their very first bottle was produced, Death’s Door have donated 1% of their top line revenue to clean water initiatives for the Great Lakes of the United States. As the company has naturally expanded over the years, the question of how to remain ‘local’ was raised. In 2015, Death’s Door, along with hundreds of companies and non-profit organisations, joined the 1% for the Planet campaign. They are still providing clean water and supporting local initiatives, but this can now by in communities across the world from the USA to Europe and Asia.
The bottle itself is eye-catching, sleek and well-designed. The curved shoulders and shape of the bottle were originally designed to reflect the shape of a coffin in another nod to the Death’s Door strait. The bottle has recently been renovated and updated to be more ergonomic and environmentally-friendly. You can read more about this here.
Aromas: Gorgeous, fresh and vibrant aromas of classical juniper with citrus peel and a hint of grassiness/creaminess.
Palate: A smooth and silky texture with fantastic progression of flavours. Definitive layers move fennel and coriander through to juniper and a refreshing citrus finish. Clean with hints of peppery spice. Round and mouth-filling.
With Tonic: Vibrant; bursting with fresh juniper and citrus alongside elegant floral notes. Hints of coriander and pepper on the aftertaste. Incredible delicacy of flavour - brings out subtle nuances. Vanilla, warm orange peel and lime.
Simplicity. Understated elegance. Classical.
As a liquid on its own, Death’s Door gin is outstanding in its purity, complexity and expression. When you consider the entire company with their intrepid starting point, promotion of agriculture and support of local initiatives, you can’t help but be impressed.
There are many other brands with equally fantastic stories and who work tirelessly with environmental issues and I love them too, but something about Death’s Door really resonates with me. I do hold the gin up as a benchmark for what a ‘classic’ London Dry gin should be and as an example for how to achieve complexity without throwing buckets of botanicals into the still.
I hope you enjoy Death’s Door as much as I do!