Juniper picking at Greengate Farm (image: Jacob Dunn)
It’s a stunning robin’s-egg-blue morning on Washington Island, Wis., and Greengate Farm owner Susan Ulm is watching over 40 bartenders from across the country pick, pluck and snatch at juniper berries from her property’s bushes. “The Death’s Door [Spirits] people are awesome,” Ulm says as we watch teams bring in bucket after bucket sloshing with the tiny navy-hued berries. “They have a vested interest in our island because of the wheat they grow here [for their whiskey] and, now, the juniper.”
Ulm didn’t always recognize just how valuable the fields could be, though, and perhaps for good reason. Even with heavy-duty gloves, harvesting juniper by hand is a sticky, prickly and (at times) downright tedious experience. “Years ago, I knew we had this juniper field, but I thought they were weeds and needed to get rid of them! Little did I know that this is an agricultural opportunity, and now a lot of people are out here using the fields to learn about how gin is made.”
Juniper collection at Greengate Farm (image: Jacob Dunn)
Each September, for almost a decade, the team from Death’s Door Spirits has made a pilgrimage across its namesake waterway, Death’s Door (as you might imagine, it was once home to plenty of shipwrecks) for the annual Juniper Harvest Festival, a celebration of all things distillation, community farming and the spirit of Washington Island. This 22-square-mile retreat is so remote cell phone service is practically nonexistent, and Washington Island’s picturesque qualities are matched only by how important the island is to the past, present and future of Death’s Door Spirits.
In 2005, Death’s Door founder Brian Ellison was looking for a way to bring sustainable agriculture back to Washington Island (which was, historically, known for potato farming), and his mind turned toward wheat. “We were, and are, interested in working with agriculture and crops that are going to both provide for human need while also restoring the land,” he says.
Death’s Door Spirits makes a white whiskey, as well as the bottlings above: gin, Wondermint schnapps liqueur and vodka, from left. (image: Jacob Dunn)
Eventually, he settled upon hard red winter wheat, a crop that would eventually become the basis for Death’s Door’s white whiskey. Today, up to 1,200 acres of wheat can be grown on the island each year, and other sustainable farming industries, such as lavender fields, have started to trickle onto the island as well.
It’s the wild juniper, though, at this annual picking ritual that comprises the most fascinating field-to-bottle process. This year, Death’s Door partnered with Lush Life Productions to give service industry professionals the chance to get just a little bit closer to nature and experience a truly behind-the-scenes look at gin production before it hits the back bar.
Juniper weighing at Greengate Farm (image: Jacob Dunn)
This full-sensory dive began at the Death’s Door facility in Middleton, Wis., the largest craft distillery in the state, where bartenders donned hairnets (and beard nets, as the case may be) to take part in a specially arranged tour of the distillery. In addition to filling, sealing and boxing of bottles along the production line, bartenders were able to build their own heaping blends of juniper, fennel and coriander (the three botanicals used at Death’s Door) for a forthcoming bottling.
An accompanying “botanical training” at the distillery spotlighted the complexity and diversity of gin’s base flavors, with participants sampling a number of botanical-only distillates popularly used in gin (citrus, angelica root, cardamom), then matching them up with the brands that most prominently feature each flavor. The results were enlightening, driving home just how much attention should be paid to which type of gin is being used for cocktail construction. You don’t want to use a gin with rose notes in a Red Snapper cocktail, after all.
Juniper sorting at Death’s Door Spirits distillery (image: Jacob Dunn)
Along the way, plenty of opportunity for polka music, Wisconsin Old Fashioneds and cheese curds found their way into the five-day rotation. One evening, during the official gin-based Wisconsin Old Fashioned competition, a professional cheese carver even fashioned a gin luge out of cheese in the shape of, of course, a gin bottle.
The capstone, though, was the morning spent harvesting the wild maritime juniper by hand: a botanical that will eventually become part of a future Death’s Door bottling. The event found everyone involved gaining a deeper appreciation for just how closely linked craft spirits can be to the land from which they originate and the profound beauty therein. The juniper plant, it turns out, is both feisty and delicate, not unlike the spirit it produces. And after the harvest, everyone—exhausted, sore and grateful—clinked their glasses of Death’s Door happily, honored to be a part of such a uniquely Wisconsin tradition.