Field trip: Death’s Door Spirits distillery tour

Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Due to the great planning of a friend (you rock, L!), J and I got to take a tour of the recently opened distillery of Death’s Door Spirits in Middleton, Wisconsin. As Kenneth Burns reported for Isthmus back in 2008,

Death’s Door Spirits … is named for the narrow water passage between mainland Door County and Washington Island. The company is part of Washington Island Brands, a group that promotes sustainably grown Washington Island wheat. All of the Death’s Door liquors are made from the wheat…. Washington Island wheat also is in Capital Brewery’s Island Wheat Ale….

Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

As Lindsay Christians reported this spring for 77 Square,

Death’s Door introduced its vodka in February 2007. A dry gin came in the summer, and in February 2008, Death’s Door White Whisky appeared in Dane County….

The new Death’s Door facility is located just west of where the Beltline crosses University Avenue (U.S. 14), on Eagle Drive near Costco. Inside are massive fermentation tanks on a 12-inch, double-reinforced concrete floor, stacks of American oak barrels from Puerto Rico, a grain handling room, a fermentation room and a “Hazard Level 3” room with sprinklers to protect the stored alcohol from fire.

The first still, made in Germany by a company called CARL, is modular, so it can make fruit spirits as well as whiskey, vodka and gin. A second still is set to arrive in six to eight months. When it does, Death’s Door will go from 24,000 six-bottle cases (the output from 2011) to having the capacity for 200,000 cases a year of both their own products and spirits made on contract.

The copper still—the biggest that CARL has shipped to the US—is an absolutely beautiful piece of equipment to behold, and we got to see it up close on our visit. Our tour group was quite small, comprising our friends, J and me, plus a four-pack of 20-somethings who came together. Our leader was the engaging and incredibly informative John Kinder, national sales director for Death’s Door. I scrambled to take notes on my phone of all the interesting facts he shared as he walked us through the facility and described their manufacturing process, as well as the company’s history and future plans.

Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Their organic Washington Island wheat is milled in Delavan; the organic barley comes from Chilton; and the grain arrives at the distillery in giant bags milled and blended to their specs. Their bottling line, which currently fills about 12 bottles per minute, is being upgraded to an automatic bottler in the next couple weeks, dramatically increasing their capacity. In fact, that seems to be one of the major goals of the facility: to give them plenty of room to increase capacity while continuing their extraordinarily high level of commitment to quality and sustainability. For example, their water, which comes from one of the Middleton wells that’s high in mineral content, goes through a rigorous process of purification that includes reverse osmosis, deionization, carbon filtration, and UV disinfection. They also cycle the water through various sections of the plant to use it (and the heat generated in the distilling process) most efficiently.

They have had big success with their spirits, including making major inroads in the UK lately with their smooth, dry gin. As production of their own vodka, gin, and white whisky continues to ramp up, they have also taken on contract work for other companies to keep the distillery and workers busy; for example, we passed pallets full of Travis Hasse’s Original Cow Pie Liqueur in the warehouse. We also saw the 55-gallon bourbon and rum barrels that they’ll be using as they begin to produce aged whisky. The plan is to house the barrels on Washington Island in order to mimic in a freshwater maritime setting some of the climatic conditions experienced by spirits aged in Scotland and Ireland. At the end of our walk-through, John conducted a thoughtful tasting of all three of their delicious products.

I can’t recommend the tour highly enough. To enjoy one yourself, check out the Death’s Door website, which currently lists the following:

Death’s Door Distillery Tour Schedule (through September 15):

Thursdays (6pm), Fridays (6pm) and Saturdays (11am); $5

Call to reserve your spot (608-831-1083)

In the meantime, head to the Death’s Door blog, which offers a series of photos as the still was installed and great entries from head distiller John Jeffery (@itsnotalchemy) on oak aging and how he tastes spirits. Then watch the gorgeous video below (available in full 1080p hi-def) from The Hooch Life. It features Jeffery describing the company’s history and their approach to craft spirits and sustainability, along with John Kinder mixing up a fantastic-looking cocktail.


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