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It seemed appropriate to wrap up these three days of immersion in local foods with a local cocktail, so I made my final stop of the expo at the panel on "drinking locally."
The last couple of years have been booming for Chicago brewers and distillers. Half Acre opened its own brewery in Lincoln Square, Metropolitan Brewing and neighboring Koval Distillery both hit the ground running in 2009, and Revolution Brewing threw open its doors last month to almost unmanageable crowds. As moderator and Goose Island brewmaster Greg Hall pointed out, the last time the city's seen this many brewery and booze start-ups was probably right after the repeal of Prohibition.
Panelist Adam Seger's another newbie. Best known as the award-winning mixologist behind Nacional 27's innovative cocktail program, he recently got into the production side of things with something called Hum Spirit. I'm late to the party on this one—Chicagoist and Tasting Table can tell you more—but basically it's rum (distilled by North Shore Distillery) infused with cardamom, hibiscus, kaffir lime, and ginger. Potent, peppery, and herbal (think amaro) it's probably best served, as Seger recommends, on the rocks with lime and soda, but today, mixed with some Matilda, it made for one tasty beer-tail.
But, while I was taken with Seger's product, I was more curious about his innovative recycling strategy. Hall's often noted that keg beer is the greenest alcohol around, as it goes straight from the brewery into a keg and off to a bar; when the keg is empty, it's returned home to be refilled. Using that as a model, Seger's started urging restaurants that stock Hum to hold onto the bottles; when he swings through to drop off new stock he picks up the old bottles and returns them to the distillery to be washed and refilled. He's able to do this because his scale is so small (Hum's only available in Chicago) and his distillery is so close (North Shore's in Lake Bluff). As he expands production and heads into retail outlets, Seger's talking with milk distributors to figure out how people can recycle their own bottles, just as they would return an empty milk bottle to the store for a deposit. It doesn't get much greener than that.
Also on the panel: Joy Neighbors, of White Owl Winery in downstate Birds, and Brian Ellison, president of Madison-based Death's Door Spirits. I'd never heard of White Owl and, honestly, I'm not so much a fan of fruit wines, which may make me one of the snobs Neighbors says she spends her days trying to convert. But I've been following Death's Door for years, and it was nice—if jarring—to hear Hall refer to company president Brian Ellison as a "big dog" in the field of local spirits.
But, it's true. While the Washington Island hotel that spawned Death's Door closed its doors in January, the spirits company is booming. Death's Door vodka, gin, and white whiskey—distilled from wheat grown on the island — is in 14 states now and Ellison hopes to soon be in a whopping 39. They just rolled out some spiffy new bottles (I was on-island for the annual Juniper Fest, and the grand unveiling of the new designs at wheat farmer Ken Koyen's bar, the Granary), and are picking up both mad press and prestigious accounts: Staying at the Hard Rock Hotel? You can now find Death's Door in your minibar.
So, Ellison was in a good place to answer a pertinent question from the audience.
"Do you ever worry about getting too big and not being local anymore?"
"It's funny," he replied, "While of course we want run with the momentum, we're always questioning our motivations and trying to figure out how business decisions fit in with our overall philosophy. And, what it all comes down to, is we got into this business because we wanted to help small farmers make a living.
When he finds himself balking at expansion, at another week on the road, another cocktail demo at another bar, he says, "I always run it by the kitchen table test. Can I go up to the island and sit down with Tom and Ken [Koyen, the farmers who grow the wheat used in Death's Door products] and say, 'Hey, they want us in San Francisco, but we're not going to do that because we don't believe in it. We want to stay local.' And you, know, they would look at me like I was crazy, and say GO TO SAN FRANCISCO."
And with that, it was time for happy hour.