A few years ago I encountered an unfamiliar bottle of gin at my local NYC liquor store. It was called Death’s Door and upon closer inspection I saw that it was produced in my family’s home state of Wisconsin. It gets its name from the narrow, rough water straight that separates Washington Island from the peninsula of Door County. This was enough to get me to try it so I picked up a bottle. It was clean and uncomplicated but also hit all of the traditional gin notes I like most. It quickly became my favorite gin.
While we were on Washington Island last week we saw one of the farms that produces the grain used to make the gin and I found out the distillery was in Middleton, WI. A few days later I stopped by the facility, booked a tour for the following week and picked up a couple bottles of gin at a good price.
The evening of my tour I met John in the lobby and he walked me through the growing distillery, starting at the beginning. Historically, Washington Island was known for farming and the community grew around that. In the 1970’s farming gave way to the support of tourism and a great deal of the land went unused. In 2005 two brothers, Tom and Ken Koyen, changed that by bringing farming back. They started with a few acres of organic wheat for beer making which led to distillation and that gin I fell in love with. You can read the whole story here.
The distillery is made up of primarily four parts: the pantry where the grains and botanicals are stored and mixed, the cooking room where the mash is fermented and distilled, the blending room where the spirits are combined into their final incarnation and the clean room where the spirits are bottled. Everything about the operation is clean and well executed, from the water treatment all the way through to the bottling.
At the completion of the tour John gave me a tasting of the three current products: vodka, gin and their unique white whiskey. The first two are fine examples in their class and the third is unlike any spirit I’ve tried before. It’s technically a whiskey but the time mingling with the oak is VERY brief so what’s bottled is an interesting liquor that touches on the flavors of moonshine, cachça, tequila and hungarian grappa. Death’s Door doesn’t yet produce any aged spirits but that is changing soon as plans are in motion for an aged whiskey. I look forward to trying it in four or five years. Their plan is to barrel age it on Washington Island where it will be the only whiskey to be aged in the cool air of a freshwater sea (Lake Michigan).
I’ll end this post with my favorite Death’s Door gin cocktail, the Perfect Martini:
This martini is WET. Dry martini’s are a casualty of the ’90s cocktail culture that suffered from the popular notion that a proper martini is as dry as possible. Seriously, try some more vermouth, you’ll be glad you did.
Add a good amount of ice to a shaker and pour in:
2 oz. Death’s Door gin
1/2 oz. Noilly Prat sweet vermouth
1/2 oz. Noilly Prat dry vermouth
Shake to combine and produce a creamy texture. You can also simply stir it but I like the added air.
Pour into a chilled martini glass and add as many olives as you like. I take two.
This martini will have a bit of blush from the sweet vermouth and that’s a good thing. Enjoy it.