July 2012

The Middle Way


Founder and President of Death’s Door Spirits Brian Ellison stands by his trusty 1997 Volvo wagon, which he formerly used to transport mash to an Iowa winery for making Death’s Door Vodka.

Although Death’s Door Spirits takes its name from treacherous straits between Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula and Washington Island, its origin might be indirectly traced to the experiences of founder and President Brian Ellison.

No, it wasn’t that the driven and enthusiastic craft distiller had some chilling premonition that spirits would be the only route to professional and personal survival. Rather, Ellison’s experiences with making something flourish where blight and despair once ruled truly illuminates how he and the team at Death’s Door Spirits have built the largest craft distillery in Wisconsin.

Brian Ellison, Founder and President of Death’s Door Spirits, enthusiastically cuts the ceremonial ribbon, declaring Death’s Door Distillery open for business.
“It all started in 2005 with five acres of wheat on Washington Island,” says Ellison. While the original purpose was to restore farming there and provide bread for a local hotel, there was very little monetary “bread.” After selling a bag of wheat to nearby Capital Brewery in Middleton, Wisconsin, Ellison found where his wheat would thrive best: grain-based beverages. Death’s Door Spirits now has an award-winning gin—the company’s flagship—plus a vodka and a white whiskey.

Recently, Death’s Door Spirits cut the ribbon on a new 25,000-square-foot facility in Middleton, Wis., featuring a 34-foot, 2,000-liter still, huge fermentation tanks and a 12-inch, double-reinforced concrete floor. This will give Death’s Door the ability to produce 200,000 six-bottle cases (2011 sales: 16,285 cases). Several hundred people attended the event, and most didn’t just imbibe the spirit of grain; many were keen to learn about not only state-of-the-art facility and its gleaming equipment, but how the passionate, erudite and experienced brain trust of Death’s Door Spirits would establish a mid-cap category in craft distilling.

Members of the Death’s Door Spirits brain trust celebrate the grand opening of the new Death’s Door Distillery. From left to right: John Kinder, Director of Sales; Brian Ellison, founder and President; April Bevars, Marketing Administration Coordinator; Mike Reiber, Director of Operations; John Jeffery, Head Distiller.

“This is where the craft spirits industry needs to go,” says Ellison. “We look forward to many years here,” he added, cutting the ceremonial ribbon with gusto. “We realize that it’s possible to be bigger, but still make the highest-quality products, be consistent and source your ingredients deliberately.”
Even with its own facility, the growth that was to be Death’s Door’s destiny needed better national distribution to take the brand to the next level. John Eason, Vice President and National Sales Manager at Serrallés USA, an legendary Puerto Rican rum producer, wanted to create a more portfolio-based company. When asking distributor contacts about non-competing brands to take on, Danny Wirtz of Wirtz Beverage Group suggested Death’s Door Spirits.

The strategic partnership that resulted between Serrallés and Death’s Door in 2011 meant that the sales team increased tenfold. Ellison and Death Door’s Director of Sales John Kinder now weren’t doing all the sales on their own. “It was fantastic to have lots of boots on the ground, with 23 sales people, Ellison recalled. “Serrallés is like a big brother, making sure that, as a small spirits company, we’re taken more seriously and available to a much broader base of consumers.”

With a solid team in its corner, and a new home that will allow the brand to continue to develop its signature sustainable style, Death’s Door looks forward to a bright future. Says Head Distiller John Jeffry proudly, “We’re creating a whole new segment within the craft spirits industry; we’re really setting ourselves up as the main player in a burgeoning mid-cap sized distillery space, able to consistently craft America’s first great gin and our other world-class products.”   

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