When Death’s Door Spirits opens its new facility in Middleton on Monday, June 4, it will be the largest craft distillery in Wisconsin and one of the most state-of-the-art facilities in the country.
An unlikely path into distilling has led Death’s Door to this 25,000-square-foot space, which houses production for gin, vodka and whiskey in a 2,000-liter, 34-foot still.
“I’m an entrepreneur,” said Death’s Door president Brian Ellison. “I look at it with an irrational passion and enthusiasm about what we’re going to be able to do.”
Following a resurgence in microbreweries and craft beers, small-scale distilleries have flourished. Since 2006, six craft distillers have launched in Wisconsin: Great Lakes in Milwaukee, 45th Parallel in New Richmond (near Minneapolis), Door County Distillery and Lo-Artisan in Sturgeon Bay, and Yahara Bay, Old Sugar and Death’s Door distilleries, all in Madison.
Death’s Door’s opening is part of a nationwide trend, said Bill Owens, founder of the American Distilling Institute (ADI) in Hayward, Calif. There were 68 people at ADI’s first conference in 2003. This April, ADI hosted 620 people.
Three Madison distillers hope that, like craft beer, they can capture a market share from the big companies and build an audience for local liquor.
“There are no true mid-size players in distilling. We see ourselves becoming the New Belgium Brewing of distilling,” Ellison said of the Colorado microbrewery that has expanded greatly in recent years. “We want to make good, high-quality products at higher volume.”
Death’s Door Spirits was born out of a farming project on Washington Island, a small parcel of land off the tip of Door County on Lake Michigan.
Ellison, a businessman with experience in nonprofits, came to Madison in 2003 to work for Vandewalle and Associates, a Madison planning firm.
Brian Vandewalle, who runs the firm, also owns the Washington Hotel and Culinary School in Door County. Ellison quickly signed on as a partner to Vandewalle’s dream — to employ local farmers to grow wheat for the hotel’s bread and baked goods. But there was a hiccup in the plan.
“We recognized that the biggest issue was that there was just too much wheat,” Ellison said. “We couldn’t just do bread and pasta and dog biscuits.
“So instead we had this big meeting and I said I think we should do beer and vodka. ... I took a bag of wheat and went to Capital Brewery.”
Capital Brewery launched Island Wheat in 2005, which proved so popular the brewery expanded a year later to meet demand.
But Ellison was still interested in distilling. When wheat farming expanded from 20 to 100 acres on the island, he saw an opportunity.
“Craft distilling at the time wasn’t really happening much,” Ellison said. “There wasn’t a ton going on in the region.”
So Ellison took some “nights and weekends” classes at Michigan State University and contracted with a distillery in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to make vodka using whatever Washington Island wheat was available.
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.
That’s also the year that Yahara Bay began producing some of Death’s Door spirits on contract.
“All along, we had the idea that we would either grow really big together, or that, depending on who went where … we’d get to a size that we’d have to open our own facility,” Ellison said of their relationship to Yahara Bay.
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.
“We want to be an incubator,” said head distiller John D.E. Jeffery. “We want to help other brands get launched like we did.”
When the distillery opens, there will be a tasting room with a bar (made by Jamie Stanek, who designed the interior of Nostrano and made the bar at Tempest). The company also has plans for tours and a gift shop.
“We are getting to the size and reputation that we are an indicator. When people walk into a (liquor) store and see Death’s Door spirits, they think ‘Oh wow, cool, they have good local brands.’”
Death’s Door products are distributed in 38 states and the United Kingdom. This year it’s adding distribution in the rest of Europe, Canada and Australia.
In 2015-16, Death’s Door plans to release an aged whiskey. Jeffery plans to ship the barrels to Washington Island to let them mature for a few years in the chilly, marine air.
“My goal with this whiskey is to do something that approximates an aging process of the British Isles,” Jeffery said. “I’ll have a subset of barrels for oak extract — new char, new toast and used bourbon barrels. All of those blended together will give us something akin to an Irish-style whiskey.”
While Death’s Door focuses on a few liquors, other small craft distilleries have diversified.
Under the Yahara Bay label are some 16 liquors and liqueurs, including vodka, gin, “lemoncella” and apple brandy, produced in a German still on Madison’s south side.
“Distilleries open up to try and be another Grey Goose,” owner Nick Quint said of the French vodka brand sold to Bacardi for $2.2 billion. “I knew better than that.
“But I wanted a bigger share of the local market … to do that you need a lot of products.”
Quint, who has a background in water softeners and appliance installation, used his retirement money to build a still.
“I just didn’t want to die wondering if this might have worked or not,” Quint said. “I saw what the wineries did and the brewpubs did, and I thought, these (distilleries) could do the same thing.”
Since Yahara Bay opened in 2007, Quint and his stepson, Lars Forde, have experimented with marketing techniques, like a rainbow-decorated “pride” vodka, and new products, like jams made with liquor.
The distillery received recent approvals from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to release a chai tea vodka, a coffee liqueur made with locally roasted Ancora beans and a whiskey liqueur. Also coming soon are a rye whiskey, a 3-year aged bourbon, a “super hot” vodka made with spicy peppers and an aged gin.
Quint hopes to grow Yahara’s aged products — whiskey, rye, bourbon and rum — explaining they already “have more liqueurs than we planned on.”
The bulk of its business is still contract distilling. Last year, Yahara Bay produced about 15,000 six-bottle cases, about 3,000 of which were its own product.
Nathan Greenawalt never expected his tasting room to take off like it has. But Greenawalt’s Old Sugar Distillery, located in a warehouse on East Main Street, has become a hot spot on the near east side for whiskey lovers.
“I never expected the night scene to be so busy,” Greenawalt said. “I wasn’t sure if we should get a couple couches and a pool table. … We just opened our doors, saw how many people showed up and just kept adding tables and chairs. It’s good.”
The tasting room is open Thursdays through Saturdays, and everyone who’s new to the distillery gets a free sample. Within the next month, Old Sugar plans to open a 4,000-square-foot brick patio with seating for 50.
Old Sugar has grown slowly since it opened in 2010. Greenawalt makes a rum called Cane & Abe, Queen Jennie sorghum whiskey (currently out of stock), honey liqueur and ouzo, both made from local beet sugar, and brandy, brandy liqueur and grappa, all from concord grapes he harvests himself.
“Two years ago we picked about 1,200 pounds of grapes at Mitchell Vineyard” in nearby Oregon, Greenawalt said. “It went really well and I was happy with the brandy we got out of it. So this past fall, we picked 20,000 pounds. ”
Old Sugar produced about 2,700 cases of liquor (16,000 bottles) this past year. Greenawalt is maintaining that level of production, but wants to double his distribution from 10,000 to 20,000 bottles.
“Our whiskey has been really popular,” he said. It will return in July and likely sell out before it’s bottled again in November.
The craft distilling industry “is like the microbrewery boom,” Greenawalt said. “I think it’s going to just continue to grow, as more people become interested in buying local products. Right now I feel like the main goal should be to educate the public about who we are, that there are opportunities to buy locally made spirits.
“Most people just go to the store and get a bottle of Jack Daniels without really thinking about it, and that’s how it used to be with beer.
“But once it catches on, I think it’s here to stay.”