In a move familiar to any Wisconsinite, Leah Caplan held up her hand, palm in, thumb splayed. "Where's Washington Island?" she asked. Well, if her hand were Wisconsin, she went on, then her thumb would be Door County. "And this," she said, poking at the air about an inch off the tip of her thumb, "is Washington Island."
It was a performance Caplan, speaking to a small crowd from behind the bar at Lush Wine and Spirits in University Village, would repeat many times over the course of the week. The chef and proprietor of the Washington Hotel, Restaurant & Culinary School, a sustainable-minded enterprise that I first wrote about for the Reader in 2004, she was in town to promote her latest project: Death's Door Spirits.
Death's Door vodka and gin, distilled from wheat grown on Washington Island, made their Illinois debut last month. (Whiskey's next, Caplan says, but for obvious reasons it'll be a few years.) The distinctive spirits have much to recommend them—the vodka's clean and refreshing and the gin, flavored with regionally grown coriander and fennel and Washington Island wild juniper, packs a heady herbal punch. But what the company's selling isn't just a suspension of botanicals in alcohol. As Caplan and Death's Door president Brian Ellison made the rounds at promotional events last week, it became clear that at the artisanal level the adult beverage industry is as much about storytelling as distillation or distribution.
Here's their story: In 2001 a Madison-based architect and urban planner named Brian Vandewalle bought the 100-year-old Washington Hotel, once a center of island life and a haven for captains sailing the Great Lakes. Caplan, a longtime champion of local, seasonal cooking—she's one of the founders of Home Grown Wisconsin, a distribution co-op that supplies restaurants like Alinea, North Pond, and Lula with organic Wisconsin produce—came on board shortly thereafter.
The renovated hotel opened in 2003, but from the beginning Vandewalle and Caplan envisioned the business as much more than just an inn. Washington Island has a year-round population of about 650, and in such a small, isolated community it's hard to make a living farming, since most of any crop would typically have to be shipped to the mainland to be sold. As a result, by the end of the 20th century the island economy was almost exclusively based on summer tourism, and hundreds of acres of arable land lay fallow. Caplan and Vandewalle wanted to jump-start an agricultural renaissance on the island, with the hotel as a primary market for island-grown crops—specifically wheat.
At Caplan's behest Tom Koyen, a lifelong islander who'd worked for years pouring cement, planted 30 acres of winter wheat on his family's former dairy farm and sold the crop to Caplan for use in the hotel's baked goods. The following year his brother Ken, one of the island's two remaining commercial fishermen, got in on the act as well.
The blockbuster crop that resulted so dramatically exceeded the needs of the hotel that Washington Island Brands, the umbrella under which some of Vandewalle and Caplan's endeavors are incorporated, decided to play grain broker. Ellison—a land-use planner with Vandewalle's firm who thought the hotel was a cool idea and had volunteered to help however he could—hooked the Koyens up with Capital Brewing in Middleton, Wisconsin. In a serendipitous turn that I wouldn't believe if I hadn't verified it myself with Capital's brewmaster, it just so happened the brewery was at that very moment on the hunt for a reliable source of regionally grown grain to use in a new beer. The Koyens' surplus became the namesake ingredient in what's now Capital's best-selling product, Island Wheat Ale.
The wheat is a hardy red winter variety that thrives in Washington Island's brisk maritime climate and is cultivated without chemicals or pesticides—organic certification is in the works. The Koyens now ship half a million pounds a year to the brewery, and while Washington Island Brands has no investment in Island Wheat Ale, Caplan and Vandewalle have found other ways to capitalize on their neighbors' expanding harvest. They produce wheat bread, pastries, granola, pancake mix, dog biscuits, and even artisanal wheat-based bath goodies, all available at the hotel and at the Washington Hotel Coffee Room in Madison.
And they make gin and vodka. They commission Capital to turn batches of wheat into a beer wash—basically an uncarbonated beer—which is in turn distilled into vodka, which is infused to become gin. Caplan drew on her culinary background and collaborated with Cedar Ridge, a small distillery owned by the Quint family in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to fine-tune the recipes.
"I wanted vodka as basically another food product created from wheat," she says. "And I wanted it to taste good and to taste good with food." For the gin, she wanted something clean and simple. "There's a range of gin flavors, from pure juniper to violet, lavender, and lime. And I like those, but because I'm a purist I wanted something very pure."
The line gets its name from the body of water that separates Washington Island from the mainland. The Porte des Mortes passage is one of the most treacherous shipping corridors in the Great Lakes, and the bones of some of Lake Michigan's most famous shipwrecks rest in its depths. The vodka launched last New Year's Eve with a party at Ken Koyen's bar, the Granary, that people on the island still recall with rueful grins. The gin came out in June to somewhat less fanfare. Both are widely available across Wisconsin—though not, ironically, at the Washington Hotel, which doesn't have a license to sell hard liquor. But it wasn't until a relative of the Quints decided to open his own small-batch distillery in Madison that Death's Door was able to consider expanding into Chicago.
Since Caplan and Ellison started making sales calls last month, their spirits have been picked up by Avec, Blackbird, Sonotheque, and the Violet Hour. They're also available at both Lush stores (the other's in Roscoe Village), In Fine Spirits in Andersonville, and Taste Food and Wine, a new Rogers Park shop a stone's throw from the Jarvis Red Line stop.
Early last week Ellison held court at Taste, which is run by Jamie and Debbie Evans of Evanston's Celtic Knot along with chef Eric Aubriot and five other partners. The store is only a month old, but its free Monday-night tastings have already developed a following, and that night, as the train disgorged each batch of pink-cheeked commuters into the frosty night, a few would gravitate toward the door. Every time, Ellison would pour nips into martini glasses and launch into his spiel. "This is Death's Door vodka, made with wheat grown on Washington Island, Wisconsin. We work with local farmers..."
"That's all real interesting," interrupted a white-haired man who'd been to the Washington Hotel and declared it to have "pretty good food for Wisconsin." "But let me know when you get a liquor license."
Other customers weren't as tough. "Wow, thanks!" said a young, dark-haired woman as Ellison wrapped up his pitch, which included an iPhone slide show of the Koyens in the field. "That's really interesting!"
"We want to teach you something before I push alcohol on you," said Ellison, reaching for a bottle. "Now—back to the alcohol part."v
For more on food and drink, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.