The Spirits of Door County
Wisconsin may be best known for its cheese, beer, and football team, but the Badger State is also seeing a growing movement in artisanal spirits.
Wisconsin may be best known for its cheese, beer, and football team, but the Badger State is also seeing a growing movement in artisanal spirits and craft brewing. In Door County, a picturesque peninsula flanked by Lake Michigan on the east and Green Bay on the west, this translates to unique products like cherry brandy and apple-cherry cider.
With nearly 300 miles of shoreline, Door County is often referred to as "The Cape Cod of the Midwest," an ideal destination for adventure seekers and nature lovers. But Door County is also known for its many family-owned and operated orchards and farm stands, selling seasonal products made from their famous cherries and apples. A popular visitor destination in Carlsville, Door County Distillery is housed in a roadside complex that includes a gift shop and a tasting room for Door Peninsula Winery.
Founded in 2011, Door County Distillery began making just gin and vodka, and now produces 14 different spirits including single-malt whiskey, bourbon, rye, barrel-aged gin, and their signature apple and cherry brandies, made from 100% Door County fruit. The fresh fruit is juiced and fermented at the winery, then transferred to a 600-gallon copper still for a first wine run that yields high-proof alcohol. The second distillation, known as the Brandy run, goes through a 150-gallon CARL German copper still to eliminate the heads and tails, followed by a third process to filter to the required 70 proof. Both cherry and apple brandies are bottled clear; since there is no need to age them in oak barrels, the brandies are ready in 4-6 weeks from juice to bottle.
Master Distiller Kyle Thomas seeks to preserve and showcase the flavors of Door County in his spirits, using a mixture of local Empire, Cortland, Honeycrisp, and Macintosh apples for the apple brandy, and fruit from the 2,000 acres of Montmorency tart cherry orchards that dot the area. The cherry brandy, which received the gold medal at the annual International East Meets West Wine Challenge in 2014, is light, with aromatic fruit-forward notes and a smooth, slightly sweet finish. But his most unique creation is the Cherry Bluff Infusion, a version of cherry bitters that starts as a neutral grain spirit made from Wisconsin wheat and corn.
The inspiration for this product came from Thomas’ bartending years. “Instead of muddling oranges, cherries, and sugar in the bottom of the glass, this spirit essentially replaces that process while adding in different herbs as well,” says Rob Peterson, marketing director for the distillery. Thomas calls this liquor a drink enhancer that blends smoothly into many craft cocktails. “Since Old-Fashioned's are so popular in Wisconsin and are usually made with bitters, cherries and citrus, it seemed like a fitting idea to make the Cherry Bluff Infusion,” adds Peterson.
Currently, Door County Distillery’s products are only available in Wisconsin, but they produce year-round and will ship within the U.S. from their online store. The tasting room is open every day in the summer and on weekends in winter, and visitors can taste the spirits next door at Door Peninsula Winery when the distillery is closed. Peak time is in the summer, from July to September, as well as October weekends when the leaves start changing colors and the spectacularly beautiful Door County goes into fall festival mode.
Nothing captures the spirit of Door County’s favorite fall crop better than Island Orchard Cider. Owners Bob and Yannique Purman specialize in handcrafted, traditional Normandy-style cider made from apples grown on their Washington Island farm, just across Death’s Door passage from mainland Door County. While visiting Yannique’s family in Brittany, Bob discovered — and fell in love with — dry, crisp and refreshing ciders enjoyed with meals throughout the country.
Inspired, Bob returned to the farm, where a few old and forgotten apple trees grew among sweeping vistas of Lake Michigan, and began planting cider cultivars from France, England, and the United States, testing the types that would work best with the island’s climate and rocky limestone soil. The freshly-pressed juice is fermented with Champagne yeast, yielding ciders that are both light and complex, brimming with freshness and fruit aromas, natural tannins and sugars, with a higher acidity than most commercially produced ciders. And at just 6.9%, they are not only delicious but pleasantly quaffable.
At the Cider House in Ellison Bay, originally built in the 1930s as a transfer building for a fishery and an orchard, visitors can enjoy and purchase the ciders, including a few that are available only at certain times of the year. “In the spring, our classic ciders like Brut Apple, Apple Cherry, and Pear will have just been bottled,” says Yannique. “By June, the Oak Aged Brut Apple will have finished fermenting and is ready to go. During the summer, the Apple Lavender Cider and the bottle-conditioned reserve ciders will start being released. At the same time, the Ice Cider has completed processing from the winter and is made available. In the fall, we release the Oak Age Brut Apple Reserve along with 'Wild Thing,' a small batched keeved cider. Having said that schedule, it frequently changes as Bob keeps mixing it up, creating new flavors which are only available on draft at the Cider House. We do release some of the specialty ciders to our wholesalers, but not often, as they sell out in the tasting room.”
Especially outstanding, the Apple Lavender, Apple Cherry, and Ice ciders are the Purman’s most unique offerings. Infused with fresh lavender from the famous Washington Island farms, this summer specialty is lightly perfumed and juicy, suitable for drinking by itself or accompanying a variety of foods. The lovely color of the apple cherry cider resembles a drier version of a Provençal rosé, with a beautiful cherry bouquet and subtle palate. The ice cider is made like ice wine, using overripe fruit that has frozen on the trees. It is a stunning dessert cider that is not cloyingly sweet and is delightful by itself or paired with other fruit desserts and baked goods.
Island Orchard’s cider house is open until mid-December, and closed until the start of next year’s season in April. For now, Island Orchard Ciders are only available in southern Wisconsin, but not sold out of state — a huge incentive to visit this lovely part of the country.
Door County Old Fashioned
“The Cherry Brandy and Cherry Bluff Infusion blend perfectly to make our signature cocktail,” says Door County Distillery’s Rob Peterson.
- 1 oz Cherry Brandy
- 0.5 oz Cherry Bluff Infusion
- one orange slice
- 2 cherries
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- Sprite/sparkling water
Directions: Muddle the orange slice, cherries, sugar and Cherry Bluff Infusion in a glass. Add ice, Cherry Brandy, and fill with Sprite. If you want it less sweet, substitute Sprite for sparkling water.