At Death’s Door
Preserving land while producing spirits
“I’d like to order a Washington Islander,” Brian Ellison tells the bartender at The Branded Butcher in downtown Athens.
The drink, made with Death’s Door vodka, goes down easy for Ellison. As it should. The owner of Death’s Door Distillery in Madison, Wis., Ellison (BLA ’96) knows only the best ingredients go into the liquor in the drink.
The drink is named for the island in northeast Wisconsin where the organic red winter wheat is grown to make vodka, gin, whiskey and white whiskey. The brand is named after the strait separating the island from the mainland: Death’s Door Passage. This treacherous body of water in northern Lake Michigan is responsible for nearly 350 shipwrecks.
Since the operation began in 2007, the business has grown into a an international brand, selling in 40 states and a half dozen countries, including Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, France and Singapore.
Making liquor was not on Ellison’s mind as a child growing up on a farm raising sheep and rabbits in McHenry County, Ill., northwest of Chicago. In fact, Ellison says he had no intention of ever moving back to the Midwest after coming to UGA for his degree in landscape architecture.
And for a while he didn’t. He held jobs in North Carolina, Colorado, Wyoming, Patagonia, Chile and even on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska before he became ill and found out he had a tumor in his brain.
After a successful surgery, he decided it was time to get serious about his future. He received an MBA in Barcelona, Spain, and worked for several years directing a nonprofit organization focused on international development. However, with a pregnant wife, Ellison moved to Madison, Wis., despite his intention of never moving back to the Midwest. It was here that he continued his work in economic development.
One of his assignments included traveling to Washington Island to determine whether something could be done to help the 700 or so people living up there. Once a big potato producing area, farming had died out in the 1970s and many of the people remaining on the land were living well below the poverty level.
He met brothers Tom and Ken Koyen, who were anxious to do something with their land, and they agreed to grow organic red winter wheat, a hearty grain that withstands the harsh Midwestern winters. They used the grain to make bread and pizza dough to sell to the limited hotels and restaurants on the island.
“There was no money there,” Ellison says. “We were not going to restore this island with bake sales.”
He took a bag of the wheat to a brewery in Wisconsin and asked the owners if they would use it to make beer. At first they said no, but after awhile began brewing “Island Wheat Ale.”
The new product prompted the Koyen brothers to increase their wheat production from five to 100 acres.
Ellison then began thinking of using the wheat to make liquor. He enrolled in a distilling program at Michigan State University to learn about the process and found a distillery in Iowa that would let him use its facilities.
He joined a group of investors willing to build a 5,000-square-foot distillery near Madison and got the operation going closer to home. Demand for the liquor has increased so much that the wheat fields now cover nearly 1,000 acres—all certified organic—and Death’s Door Spirits has a state-of-the-art, 25,000-square-foot distillery, the largest craft facility, Ellison says, in the state of Wisconsin.
The Washington Islanders are seeing the results of Ellison’s success. Farming again is feeding the local economy and the beauty of the land is protected. And with its rapidly growing brand, more and more people are beginning to learn about the 35-square-mile island.
“It’s a product of integrity,” Ellison says of Death’s Door. ‘Everything we’re doing is intentional.”