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Sustainable Spirits: Liquor for the Locavore

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deaths door bottleLiquor may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term "eating local."  But distilleries in the Madison, Wisconsin area are helping to expand our notions of what can be made and consumed locally.  These artisanal distillers are crafting spirits using locally-sourced ingredients like wheat for whiskey, apples for brandy and juniper for gin.   Similar to area chefs that seek out homegrown foods for their recipes or the organizers of Madison's bustling farmers market, these spirit-makers are committed to supporting the region's small agricultural producers.

Even knowing that, I was surprised to find a booth promoting community-supported agriculture at one of these distilleries during a recent visit.  But there it was, right next to the kombucha stand, at Death’s Door Distillery in Middleton, WI.  The occasion was the one year anniversary party for this state of the art facility that makes fine alcohols from locally-sourced organic grains.

“They’ve just been a really big supporter of our farms and of our organization as we try to connect growers and eaters,” Erika Jones of Fair Share CSA Coalition told me.

“And drinkers!” she added when I reminded her of the setting.

Brian Ellison, Founder, Death's Door Distillery
Brian Ellison, Founder, Death's Door Distillery

Supporting local farms is at the heart of Death’s Door’s mission. “My background is in economic development — rural economic development,” explains founder Brian Ellison.  “I got involved in this project to help restore agriculture back to Washington Island as part of a sustainable economy.”


Washington Island lies just off the tip of Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula, the “thumb” of Wisconsin that juts into Lake Michigan.  Death’s Door is the name of the sometimes treacherous passage between the two.  Door County is sometimes called Wisconsin’s Cape Cod, which makes Washington Island something like Nantucket.  And like that more famous island, Washington Island’s economy has become ever more dependent on tourism. But it wasn’t always this way.

Death's Door passage, Washington Island, Wisconsin
Death's Door passage, Washington Island, Wisconsin

At one time, the island had a thriving agricultural economy based on potatoes that were well known up and down the Lake Michigan coast.  As transportation systems improved and produce was moved easily and cheaply across country, the island-grown potatoes couldn’t compete.  The potato fields became vacation home lots.

There are at least 1,200 acres that won’t go into development anytime soon, however.  Those are the fields where brothers Tom and Ken Koyne, fifth-generation islanders, grow organic red wheat for use in Death’s Door whiskey, gin and vodka.

Using organic ingredients for alcohol presents special challenges according to chief distiller John Jeffrey, “Because it’s organic, it tends to come in with a much higher microbial load than commercial grain.” Without the chemical pesticides used on many commercial crops, microbes are free to flourish. Those microbes sometimes compete with Death's Door's signature yeast, which is added to a mash made of island wheat and other grains during the fermentation process.  It’s the yeast’s job to feast on the sugars in the grain mash and produce ethanol, the chemical compound that gives liquor its intoxicating punch.  But other microbes may also be eating those sugars, making it more difficult for the mixture to reach the required alcohol content.

 Liquid chromatography measures ethanol and sugar peaks during fermentation. Click to enlarge.
Liquid chromatography measures ethanol and sugar peaks during fermentation. Click to enlarge.

To ensure the consistency of each batch, Jeffrey carefully monitors the process using liquid chromatography, a chemistry technique that allows him to separate and measure each chemical component of the fermenting mixture. “We’re watching our ethanol peak go up and our sugar peak go down and making decisions about whether it’s time to pull it out because the bacteria are out-competing our yeast,” Jeffrey explains. “We run that line in every fermentation because we’re committed to this grain.”

It’s that commitment to Washington Island grain that founder Ellison says sets Death’s Door apart. There are artisanal distilleries sprouting up all over the country,  many of which are using locally-sourced ingredients.  But it’s unlikely that many have such a strong association with a particular place.

“People are relieved when they hear that Death’s Door is named after a real place and that there’s real people involved and real farming,” says Ellison. “It’s a story of real growth and a story of real rebirth in a rural place in America.”

Wheat growing on Washington Island
Wheat growing on Washington Island. Photo Courtesy of Death's Door Distillery.




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