Tuesday, July 29, 2008
The Curious Case of Death's Door Gin
You could have knocked me down with a feather when Brian Ellison handed me a bottle of Death's Door Gin at "Tales of the Cocktail." Pasted right there on the bottle was a map of a land I've known since my childhood: Wisconsin's Door County peninsula and Washington Island. What did the Badger State's version of Cape Cod have to do with gin? Fish boils, sure. Cherry wine, certainly. But gin?
It got stranger. Death's Door Gin (named after the treacherous strait of water that separates the tip of Door County from Washington Island, and which has sunk many a ship in its time) is a recent product, made solely from wheat grown on Washington Island as well as juniper berries picked on the sparsely populated, largely rural isle. The wheat is grown by father and son farmers Tom and Ken Koyan, whose ancestors have lived on the island since the 1850s. It's distilled at the Cedar Ridge Vineyards, Winery & Distillery in Cedar Rapids, WI, and extension distilleries in Madison, WI. And the whole enterprise is connected with the Washington Hotel, Restaurant and Culinary School on the island, where chef Leah Caplan created the flavor profile of the gin. Brian and his sister-in-law Jill are on the marketing end.
I spoke to Brian, who said, oddly enough, that Death's Door's goal is to be a regional product, available mainly in the Midwest. Curiously and refreshingly modest. (Death's Door fits right in in a state where the odd drinking traditions include the Brandy Old Fashioned and drinking Angostura Bitters by the glassful.) Death's Door also makes vodka and a wheat ale.
Armed with only the mini-bottle given to me, I experimented at home with the liquor. Death's Door being a seemingly laudable enterprise, supporting local farmers and all, and hailing from my home state, I wanted to like it. The gin appears to belong to the relatively new category of gins called "botanical gins," called so because the makers get creative with the botanicals, not relying as heavily on the traditional and defining element of juniper. I got lavender, fennel and cardamom from Death's Door, along with a fuller body than one associates with, say, the London Dry style.
I only had a couple ounces to work with. That meant my experimenting was limited to one drink. And what drink do you make gin with, if not a Martini? I built it up, four parts to one of vermouth. Sorry to say, Death's Door does not make a good Martini. The odd botanical profile threw the drink out of whack. It was a Martini that wouldn't stand up stand. It was a confused drink.
To be fair to Death's Door, I will experiment more (if I can find a way to get the stuff in NYC). The website offers several recipes (tellingly, one of them is not a Martini). But I have begun to wonder about the new wave of gins. Gin has two bedrock drinks, historically: the Martini and the Gin & Tonic. If a new gin is not good at making those drinks, why is it around? Why not just give the job to vodka, the odd-job spirit of the booze world?