Is there a connection between making booze and working in economic development consulting? For Brian Ellison, president of Death’s Door Spirits in Washington Island, Wisconsin, one was a natural outgrowth of the other.
“It began with trying to help the local farmers do something with their wheat,” he explains. “We thought of opening a bakery, but there was no money in it. Luckily, we got started just as the craft distilling movement was taking off.”
Washington Island is one of several small bodies of land located in Lake Michigan (Death’s Door is the name of the waterway that separates the Island from Green Bay). The wheat found its way into Death’s Door Vodka; the organic juniper and other botanicals cultivated on the Island became the basis for Death’s Door Gin.
“Making exceptional products is far more important than being local,” he says. “Being exceptional allows us to tell our story.” The Gin is flavored with just three botanicals—juniper, coriander and fennel—and the flavor profile was created by a chef.
“Some gins use a dozen or more botanicals,” says Ellison. “There’s no way anyone’s palate can distinguish and appreciate all those flavors. From a culinary perspective, the flavor of our Gin is very pure. We’re also one of the three or four gins that don’t use citrus, because citrus tends to mask imperfections and take over the taste of the spirit. And we don’t grow lemons in Wisconsin, so it makes sense.”
The Quint family distills the Death’s Door products in nearby Madison. From a very small beginning, the spirits are now distributed in nine states as well as online. It’s not easy competing with the large spirits brands and the multinational beverage conglomerates that own them, but Ellison is energized by the challenge.
“Honestly, it comes down to hustle,” he says. “I spend a lot of time on the street, meeting people, attending events and mixing cocktails. I do as much staff training as I can. You have to get to the bartenders. Obviously, we can’t offer them the same incentives as the large spirits companies, but we sell them on quality. You have to tell a true story with integrity.”