Interview: Death’s Door distiller Brian Ellison

Distiller Wisconsin

Brian Ellison is part of a new guard of artisan distillers that are using local ingredients to produce premium, handcrafted spirits. We met at First & Hope for the first L.A. stop for Domaine Select‘s Classic & Vintage Artisanal Spirits roadshow, where the founders of brands like Death’s Door Spirits and The Bitter Truth showcased their products in cocktails. He subsequently discussed his brand, his background and his approach.

What distinguishes Death’s Door from other distilleries?

We work directly with farmers on Washington Island, Wisconsin by having them grow two unique varieties of hard red winter wheat for us that we bring by ferry across Death’s Door passage to the Wisconsin mainland where we distill in small batches at our distillery In Madison, WI.

How did you become so interested in spirits?

I was working with the farmers on Washington Island to help restore agriculture on the island. After the first year of growing wheat on the Island, it became clear that we needed to find products that: a) told a story of the Island and the special place that it was; b) we could make better than anyone else, or at least be one of the best; and, c) brought a good margin and high return as with limited land the product had to be premium. We first started making beer with Capital Brewery out of Madison, WI and the success of their beer encouraged us to explore further into other products. Distilled spirits seemed like a logical choice based on the above parameters, so I started studying distilling and became caught up in the idea of creating spirits products with the wheat from the Island.

Do you have a first spirit memory?

My Great Aunt Agnes used to come to visit at my grandparent’s house and after two Manhattans would take out her teeth and sing Auld Tannebaum, regardless of the season.

How did Death’s Door come about, and why the name?

Death’s Door is the passage of water between Washington Island and the Wisconsin mainland. All of our wheat comes across the passage by ferry and it only seemed appropriate to name our products after this “spirited” stretch of water.

Do you have any mentors? If so, who are they?

Brian Vandewalle of Vandewalle & Associates in Madison, WI was a strong mentor for many years as I moved this project forward. His sensibilities towards shaping change and places by highlighting and leveraging local assets was an inspiration as well as a guiding force in making Death’s Door a reality. His patience and passion have always been an inspiration. Other than that, I like to think that i am mentored by the creative commons-meeting with many people, talking with as many people that I can to explore and innovate. I try to not pass up the opportunities to meet with people who have been successful about things that inspire them personally and the others around them.

What was your major in college?

My undergraduate from the Univeristy of Georgia was a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture with a minor in Horticulture. I received by MBA from IESE in Barcelona, Spain.

Do you think that helps you in your position as a distiller and ambassador for Death’s Door?

Everything we do comes back to the land and the people working on it. I think my background in Landscape Architecture has allowed me to approach business problems seeing the bigger end goal and understand how things have to be cultivated into an end goal. Design versus pure art requires developing something as creative and unique as possible under constraints imposed by others. The spirits business is very regulated and constrained, and I feel that we have found ways to thrive under those constraints.

Who are some other distillers who you respect?

Ralph and Gable at Tuthilltown Spirits
Lance and George at St George Spirits
Steve McCarthy at Clear Creek Distillery
Derek and Sonja of North Shore Distillery
Robert and Sonnet at Koval Distillery
Jeff Quint at Cedar Ridge Vineyards

What are some bars that you enjoy drinking at?

I enjoy drinking at any bar that serves Death’s Door Spirits and even
then, I find my way to others…:-)
Here’s where I went last week:
Miami: Casa Tua
Chicago: Double A in Mercadito, Gilt Bar, The Roof at the Wit Hotel,
Nightwood, Pops for Champagne, Epic
SFO- Absinthe, NOPA, Rye, Heaven’s Dog, Smuggler’s Cove
LA- First & Hope, La Descarga, Las Perlas
Denver- TAG Restaurant, Steuben’s

What’s upcoming for Death’s Door?

I’m hoping to get some aged whisky into the market by the end of the year. We’ve got new labels planned for the white whisky and will have the vodka and gin in both 50ml and 1.75L sizes this summer.

If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would it be and why?

The Ramos Gin Fizz is a personal favorite and I never seem to grow tired of it. With citrus, cream and egg in the ingredients, it’s almost like a sports shake…:-)


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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