By Kevin Brownlee
How we navigate our decisions and what we do to foster the opportunities that are created along the way will help determine which of our ideas and inspirations we find ourselves attracted to most. There is passage in one’s mind that must be crossed in order to fulfill desire; my goal everyday is to create translations from my experiences out of the memories I’ve formed, so that the words that come from my mind have meaning, and resonate with whomever I’m speaking with.
This is not an article about a meta-stream boat trip. This is a short article about a certain gin, and we’re heading out across a big cold lake that lies 90 miles north of Green Bay, off the northern-most peninsula in the state of Wisconsin, across Door County, between Washington Island, on Lake Michigan, at Ports des Morts: Death’s Door Passage.
It was time for the annual Death’s Door Spirits Juniper Harvest, in September, and I was selected to participate in this four-day adventure that takes all the elements of what makes the Midwest so incredible and rolls it into this amazing gin-fueled educational experience, where bartenders from across North America come together to share in the experience of the heart and soul of Wisconsin’s spirits community, with Death’s Door Spirits.
Remember that time in the mid-17th century when the canoes of Potawatami warriors advanced in canoes on their offensive steer over from Detroit Island in the second phase of their attack on the Winnebego, only to perish in the Great Lake during a wicked storm?
Well, neither did I, and this was years before French trappers and fishermen arrived to give this passage its namesake, but it is believed that many a storm on the lake swallowed up hundreds of Winnebego and Potawatami warriors during their fierce tribal battles. The Illinois, who had a bitter history with the Winnebego yet were sympathetic towards their plight following these events, came to lend aid and support with resources, but the Winnebego, untrusting of the Illinois and their intentions at this time, decided to cannibalize their scouts and set the empty canoes out to sea. It did not end well for the Winnebego, as the Illinois returned shortly thereafter and not for support.
So the passage, which has played part in numerous deaths over the years, is aptly named Death’s Door.
History can be fascinating, but for me it is Brian Ellison’s forward-thinking approach to embracing the culture of the Midwest, its stories and the people who live there today that truly made this experience—and to a greater extent, the products he creates with the people of the State—so good. The man is an absolute gem of a human. He’s down to earth, has a great sense of humor and has created a product out of sheer desire to work with the land, its people and the knowledge that he seeks.
This was the first Juniper Harvest open to bartenders from across North America. Shawn Layton made the trip last year, with a much smaller group, and he was the one who inspired me to check out what this all about. I hope that more Canadians apply next year because Lush Life Productions, who put together the Bar Institute seminars and another great spirited camp experience with Camp Runamok, are incredibly organized, well-managed and did a wonderful job of selecting and organizing campers best suited for their program.
Our itinerary was chalk-full of entertaining, educational and uniquely Midwestern activities.
We were greeted at our hotel by the University of Madison-Wisconsin’s marching band. It was a bit weird, but it was honest and it looked like fun. We were organized into our cabin groups and then loaded onto buses to head out for some polka and bratwurst at a little German clubhouse, the Dorf Haus. This was our chance to meet some of the people we’d be spending the next four days with and what better way to kick things off that with sausages and Wisconsin gin Old Fashions.
The Wisconsin Old Fashion is muddled sugar, orange, topped with gin and soda and garnished with an orange and a cherry. Knocking back a couple of these while enjoying a plate full of meat with my new friends really does put a man in his happy place.
The cocktail scene in the town of Madison is stronger than that of the Dorf Haus. It is thriving and creative, tight-knit and welcoming. We were greeted graciously at each of the four bars on the tour and it felt genuine, very much like what I expected of the whole experience.
For anyone who hasn’t spent any time on the prairies, or in the Midwest, authenticity is in every aspect of life here, especially, in September. You need to find a way to experience sunset under the canvas of a crimson prairie sky if you have not yet done so in your life. It had been a good few years for me since I was last in the prairies at this time of year, and it was so refreshing to back where the sky seems endless.
From Madison, the next day we were on route to Middleton, where we visited Capital Brewing, the national Mustard Museum and the distillery at Death’s Door Spirits.
A mustard museum, you ask? That’s right and Mr. Mustard is a boss. Again, true to form in all of his Wisconsin-ness, he wore his heart on his sleeve, the toupée on his head, and his very own Poupon U University-branded sweatshirt. I’m not much for mustard at the best of times, let alone at 11 am with a wicked hangover, but this guy made it a pretty special hangover.
We followed up the museum tour with a quick trip to the Capital Brewery to crush some pints and get the rundown on their beer operation. This was a midway point in the day, and a perfect little spot to enjoy some tacos and beer before heading over to the main event at the distillery.
There are no corners cut at the Death’s Door distillery. Every little detail has been given full attentive reason and the operation is dialed in. The technology is next-level, and these guys are punching well above the weight of their small artisanal brand because Brian, who is such a forward-thinking individual and all about sustainability in a shared economy, knew that in order to create a product unique to Wisconsin he needed to work with the people of Wisconsin to help tell the story. He gave himself and the brand room to grow. There is little to no waste created at the distillery, as everything gets reused or distributed back to the farmers. The gin itself is only three botanicals: juniper, coriander and fennel seed. The base grain is a red winter wheat that is grown on Washington Island, and unlike more commonly planted wheat, this grain is put in the earth in the autumn and harvested in the spring.
So here I am, standing next to their copper pot still, staring at its beauty, thinking to myself how fortunate I am to have navigated my decisions correctly to end up here on this wonderful opportunity. Sure, I paid my own way here and I’m not making money for it, but it’s rarely about that for me. It is really about taking a chance and putting your name out there. Learning as you go and listening to the universe, because it will often respond to our requests and I just have to thank the girls at Lush Life, Brian Ellison and Catherine Manning for exploring a way to further grow their business by having bartenders from across North America come to their distillery and spend time in their world. Oh right, and I’m the only Canadian here.
The next day we were given a private tour of Lambeau Field, in Green Bay. Lambeau leaps were not allowed, sadly. We did, however, get to walk out of the player’s tunnel on to the area surrounding the field. It’s a pretty powerful experience to look around the stadium from the different perspectives we were shown.
Over the course of our brand immersion, for me, the highlight had to be the time spent on Washington Island. You cross a historic passage like this one at Death’s Door and you start to think about the past. I think the only thing they’re not doing with their stills at the distillery is traveling time, because if you could, I doubt that anyone would want to go back to the fateful days of travel by sea, in a canoe, when today we’ve got ferries with engines to do the hard work for us.
When we landed on Washington Island we were greeted by the Cherry Train, which is a Chevy 2500 series diesel truck pulling five train cars behind it. That was our ticket to ride. We were driven over to the local school to help out for a few hours of housekeeping duties, which was a real treat. Some groups painted the woodworking room, others organized books in the library, and my crew were tasked with cleaning up the gymnasium. It was quite the feeling to see how much of an effect the group of us had on the administrator and his staff, who were all so grateful for having us pitch in. Then we were off to our cabins, which were spread out over the small island, and given a few hours to chill before our ‘games night’ at the local bar. Some of the crew napped while I played football and crushed some beers with the boys.
At our games night there was a traditional fish boil, Wisconsin’s most famous cheese carver turning huge blocks of cheddar into works of art, an open bar, amazing people, and a cocktail competition (which my cabin won). It was a great night and time didn’t pass so quickly that I thought there was anything I missed.
Sunday was the big day. The Cherry Train took us over to the farm that grows some of the juniper used in Death’s Door’s gin, where we were fed a big field breakfast and amazing coffee. Juniper grows in 18-month cycles, and as such, this fall was not optimal for yield. Picking juniper is extremely labour intensive and if you have sensitive skin and don’t like climbing into the bushes, or don’t like spiders, then this probably isn’t going to be your favorite part of the trip. It was a hot day, but we were competing again, so everything gets turned up a little bit. This time our goal was to collect more juniper than the other cabin groups over the course of two and a half hours.
While we didn’t win the competition for the harvest, every single person on that trip had a blast, and following our hard labour we had a lesson in the agricultural history of the island.
The overwhelming consensus from our group was that this trip was so well thought out and managed it really just felt like going to summer camp with alcohol and education as the motivating factors. The people always make the trip and I’m so thankful to Layton for sharing the experience he had the year prior, which inspired me to put my name in the mix; to Brian and Catherine of Death’s Door who opened their world up to us; to Brittney and Lindsay at Lush Life, who work so hard to keep the seams from coming apart for a bunch of alcohol enthusiasts and all the counselors who motivated each of the cabins. This was the most well-organized trip a bartender could participate in and I would recommend taking the time to consider your options and see where your inspirations and motivations will take you next.