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Interview: Brian Ellison, President and CEO of Death’s Door Spirits

August 10, 2012

Wisconsin-based craft distiller Death’s Door Spirits was founded in 2005 and has quickly made a name for itself. While its headquarters is in Middleton (outside Madison), the company’s focus is Washington Island, an unspoiled island lying 250 miles to the north. Once renowned for its potato farming, Washington Island’s agricultural base has lately been revitalized thanks to wheat production—specifically an organic red hard winter wheat that’s used to distill Death’s Door products. The company is named after Death’s Door, a body of water separating Washington Island from the Wisconsin mainland.

Last year, Death’s Door signed a long-term, national distribution and marketing agreement with Serrallés USA, the U.S. unit of Puerto Rico-based Destilería Serrallés. The two partners have since unveiled a new 25,000-square-foot craft distillery in Middleton that features a 2,000-liter still and six 3,100-gallon fermentation tanks. The new facility will bring Death’s Door’s capacity to 200,000 six-bottle cases. Last year the company’s total volume was around 16,300 six-bottle cases. Shanken News Daily spoke with Death’s Door president and CEO Brian Ellison to get an update on progress.

SND: What’s the typical consumer reaction to your company’s name?

Ellison: People react either with delight, skepticism or scorn. But when they learn that the name comes from a real place, they can’t wait to tell the story. When they also learn that we work directly with farmers to source select grains from fields and that we’ve helped restore a small island economy, they’re touched. They then sample the products and appreciate the flavors, nuance and approach, and become ardent fans.

SND: What’s in the current portfolio?

Ellison: The current lineup is Death’s Door vodka ($29.99 a 750-ml.), Death’s Door gin ($29.99) and Death’s Door white whisky ($34.99). They’re all made predominantly with hard red winter wheat grown on Washington Island, Wisconsin. We’ve also started production of an aged whisky, but that won’t be available for three to four years.

SND: What’s the biggest brand and what are your main trade channels?

Ellison: The gin comprises 50% of our sales, vodka over 30% and white whisky under 20%. All are growing strongly, both in the on- and off-premise. We always enter a market through the on-premise, where people become activated to buy in stores. But large metro area stores and chains usually carry us, because their buyers know they’re expected to be savvy and bring us in.

SND: What does the future hold for craft spirits and craft distilling?

Ellison: Look at craft beers—that’s where craft distilling is heading. Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, Yuengling and New Belgium Brewing are all examples of large craft producers. Like New Belgium, our intent is to grow in size but not lose our connection to our farmers, the community of Washington Island and the employees of Death’s Door Spirits. There’s a lot of “noise” in the industry right now, with numerous players jumping in with little experience and no clear plan. There’s an expectation that they can sell anything based on a story, and not necessarily on quality. This is setting the industry on a collision course with a shakeout. Our hope is that we, at Death’s Door spirits, have differentiated ourselves enough as a craft distiller and will be big enough to survive that shakeout.

 

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