Usually when I’m writing for ‘gin of the week’, the gin is brand new, so it’s great to be able to revisit a gin that’s been established for a few years. Death’s Door gin has been available sporadically in Australia, but now it’s part of the Vanguard Luxury Brands portfolio, you can expect to see more of it.
There are only a handful of excellent American gins – Junipero and Aviation ( BEFORE Ryan bought it!!) being two of my favorites. The US remains firmly wedded to aged spirits and its corn/rye heritage which don’t always work as a base for the delicate botanicals used in gin. However, Death’s Door gin is an exception.
The story behind Death’s Door gin ticks all the sustainability and locality boxes, and did so way before it was fashionable. Historically, the Washington Island in Wisconsin had been known for potato farming, but the industry died out in the 1970s. Locals moved into tourism focussed industries or left the island altogether.
In 2005 a small group got together to see if agriculture could be restored. Working in collaboration with the Michael Fields Institute, they selected specific variety of hard, red winter wheat that could withstand the maritime conditions. They began with a few seed and 5 acres. This has now grown to 1, 200! The wheat was initially used for bread and then the local brewery but eventually went on to become the base of all of Death’s Door Spirits.
The distillery expanded in 2012 and is now the largest craft distillery in Wisconsin with an annual capacity of 250,000 cases of finished product!
Why Death’s Door?
The Door Peninsula and Washington Island form a treacherous stretch of water that connects Green Bay to the rest of Lake Michigan. The Early French explorers named this water Porte des Morts, which literally means “Door of the Dead” or, “Death’s Door” due to the number of shipwrecks and gave rise to the gin’s name.
There are only THREE botanicals in Death’s Door gin: juniper, coriander seeds, and fennel seeds and come from the state when possible. There is an annual juniper harvest festival on Washington Island whereby guests can pick wild juniper berries!
The juniper used is Juniperus virginiana (Eastern Red cedar) rather than Junipers communis.
Tasting Death’s Door Gin
Death Door Spirits use vodka as a base for their gin, and this is made using the aforementioned red winter wheat, corn and malted barley, but unlike some American gins, it doesn’t dominate the botanicals.
There is plenty of lovely juniper at the front of the palate before spice and lemon come through from the coriander, before a crisp, dry aniseed finish from the fennel. Go easy with the tonic for a G&T, or even try it with soda, and you’ll need to add lots of citrus to boost the flavour.
It was absolutely stunning in a martini, that base has a fabulous texture and the fennel combines well with vermouth. Divine!
When so much is made of the number and diversity of botanicals in gin these days, it’s refreshing to see how much can be achieved when you pare everything back. This gin was truly ahead of its time and in spite of the unusual base and heavy fennel I think this could be a useful and versatile gin to have in your arsenal.
If you haven’t tried it seek it out immediately!