Death’s Door Gin is named after the treacherous strait of water separating the Door County peninsula from Washington Island, Wisconsin: Death’s Door Passage. It’s on this island where Death’s Door Spirits sources organic wheat for its spirits.
Found in Lake Michigan, Death’s Door Passage is the deadliest body of water in the Great Lakes with over 350 ships having sunk in its waters.
Washington Island, Wisconsin, is at the heart of everything produced by Death’s Door Spirits. This 22 square mile island hosts 700 year-round residents and all the amenities of a quaint town. Washington Island also has miles of beautiful uninterrupted shoreline, protected coves and inlets, and acres upon acres of open land with rolling hills and hardwood forests.
Washington Island used to be known for its prized potatoes before vertical integration in the potato industry left Washington Island farmers without contracts to grow their unique crops. In an attempt to bring back local farms and support sustainable agriculture, Tom and Key Koyen agreed to grow 5 acres of wheat in 2005 for the Washington Island Hotel, Restaurant & Culinary School.
Through the assistance of the Michael Fields Institute, specific varieties of wheat were selected for the island that would grow well in the unique maritime conditions on the Island. The two very distinct varieties of hard, red winter wheat were selected; Harvard and Carlisle.
The first year's crop produced an abundance of wheat, far more than the restaurant and culinary school could use. Entrepreneur Brian Ellison stepped in to help the local famers and contacted Capital Brewery (Middleton, Wis.). After an introduction to the island and its grain, the award winning brewery (a traditional German lager house) quickly went from never using wheat in their brews to exclusively utilizing Washington Island wheat in its production of ‘Island Wheat Ale’.
Emboldened by the success of the beer, Ellison began exploring using the wheat in distilled spirits and after a crash course in distilling and hanging around enough distilleries to perfect his recipes for vodka, gin and “white whisky”, Death’s Door Spirits was born.
In June 2012, Death’s Door Spirits moved into a new 25,000 sqft facility with a production output of approximately 300,000 cases and the capacity to double that.
Unusually, Death’s Door Spirits distills a base spirit from a mix of organic wheat from Washington Island and organic malted barley from Chilton, Wisconsin (most gin distillers buy their base neutral spirits from third-party distillers). The hard red winter wheat is grown by two brothers, Tom and Ken Koyen, whose family has lived on the island since 1850s.