John Jeffery guesses he got into the Food Science graduate program at the University of Michigan because he wouldn’t stop pestering his professor. We’re pretty sure he got in because that same professor presented him with a quarter of a million dollars worth of distilling equipment and said he was welcome to use it during grad school if he could make himself a salary with it.
Jeffery started a small production distillery, and developed a consulting service to offer research and troubleshooting to distillers. And in his free time he wrote his thesis on barrel-aging in alternative size barrels. He graduated after three years from the Artisan Distilled Spirits Program with a masters degree in fermentation and distillation.
One of the distilleries that used Jeffery’s consulting services was Death’s Door Spirits. “Brian Ellison [the company founder] showed up with two bottles of cloudy whiskey and tears in his eyes,” says Jeffery. He was busy with finals and other projects, but he managed to go out for a beer with Ellison, and the rest is history.
In 2011, Ellison brought Jeffery on as the Head Distiller of Death’s Door, which today is Wisconsin’s largest craft distillery. They just moved into a new 150,000 square-foot production space in the Middleton Business Park where they make vodka, gin, and white whiskey. The grain for their spirits comes from nearby Washington Island.
Washington Island was once heralded for its potato production that tapered off in the 1970s. In 2005 “local fisherman were looking to reinvigorate the island,” says Jeffrey. They planted a fresh crop of hard red winter wheat. Ellison, who was then working at a land planning firm, suggested that this wheat be used to make luxury products. The farmers sold it to Capital Brewery — whose Island Wheat Ale is now their best selling beer — and to Death’s Door Spirits, named after the waterway between Door County peninsula and Washington Island. “This company started as an economic development program,” says Jeffery.
Ever-expanding Death’s Door Spirits is forging ahead full-speed. They plan to give tours, host guests at a tasting room, and build a gift shop at the new distillery. They’re working to acquire organic certification, and plan on training every employee for sensory evaluation of spirits. And they’re employing some of the most cutting-edge sustainable practices in the industry. The building is designed to conserve summertime heat and redirect it in the winter, it operates on reverse osmosis water, and much of their equipment uses heat exchange for energy efficiency. “We’re leading a revolution with our facility,” says Director of Operations Mike Reiber.
Jeffrey likens the distillery to “the New Belgium of craft distilling.” New Belgium is the third-largest producer of craft beer in the United States. The employee-owned company operates out of an environmentally conscious, state-of-the-art facility, and integral to the brewery’s success is a highly scientific sensory analysis team that regulates the quality of every single beer produced.
Much like New Belgium, Death’s Door Spirits employs some savvy scientists and engineers: proof that when you get a bunch of left brains who like to drink in the same room (or warehouse), you’ll end up with some damn fine spirits.