Provisions: Letherbee Spirits

We head to Chicago's Lost Lake to learn about a new take on a classic cocktail.
June 19, 2017Words by John PeabodyPhotos by Clayton Hauck

It’s been said before, but these days we’re living in the golden age of food and drink culture. Never before have the two been so celebrated. Never before have new offerings been so abundant. And never before have so many spirits been available to experiment with in pursuit of new cocktails. 

Chicago’s Letherbee distillery is one small batch spirit maker taking a cue from chefs who develop their recipes based on seasonal and fresh ingredients. Everything they make is in the realm of “botanical spirits,” with the Original Gin, the flagship product leading the way, but they’re heavily focused on creating seasonal offerings as well. 

“It’s a really, really simple drink, you can definitely make this at home.”

Along with the Original Gin, there’s an American absinthe (aged for six months in American oak casks), a Fernet (a smoother version of the spirit with eucalyptus and spearmint notes), the Bësk (a Swedish wormwood liquor) and seasonal gins, in this case, the Vernal Gin, a seasonal offering made with lemongrass stalk that give the spirit a greenish color and a minty citrus snap.

“When I started, I set out to make gin and absinthe,“ says founder Brenton Engel. “Bartending at a seasonally driven, farm-to-table restaurant, I was always working with in-season produce and the idea of Seasonal Gin was very obvious to me.”

 

What was obvious to Engel, hasn’t been to so many other smaller batch distillers. Unlike wine, mass-produced spirits are not usually meant to change with the year. Seasonal varieties are not usually celebrated. Also, it can be hard to plan a business around shifting ingredients, so a lot of newer distilleries, understandably, have focused on creating one or two strong products. By going after seasonal ingredients to create small batch offerings, Letherbee has turned the traditional spirits model on its head.

The distillery put a limit of 2,500 bottles on their 2016 Autumnal Gin. The 2016 Vernal came in at 270 cases. This is all to say, there’s a scarcity factor and like so many good things of the season that come and go quickly, it’s best to grab these sorts of things when you can. Nature doesn’t reward hesitation. It’s not surprising there are a few good stories behind the Letherbee approach.

Engel started the small brand after moonshining on a small farm in Illinois. He did a stint in a band, then at a bar, and that led to his current Letherbee partnerships. “My friend, Robert Haynes (R. Franklin) was making tiny batches of the Bësk recipe as manager of a bar called The Violet Hour. Robby's customers were really digging it and as Robby and I have been friends from years before playing in punk bands, he naturally approached me about the idea of producing his recipe on a commercial scale," he says.    

“There’s so much going on with this gin that I didn’t want to muddle it with other flavors.”

“Nathan Ozug really did most of the work formulating our Fernet recipe. He was coming around the distillery on his days off and helping out when he could.  As amaro lovers, he and I eventually decided to make a library of tinctures that we could use to create new amaro recipes.”

Tips for Creating New Cocktails

1. A dash of Absinthe or Bësk for a slow finish. 

2. Don’t fear the garnish.

3. You’re not reinventing the wheel. “Try to make it simple and clean!” 

Good things happen naturally, and the spirits at Letherbee are no exception. Each spirit is the result of a friendship and a little curiosity. The 2017 Vernal, and the recipe for the ’17 Swizzle both share such an origin. For the 2-17 Vernal, Engel partnered with Tai Spendley, chef/owner of Rooster and the Pig in Palm Springs, California. 

“Tai is half Vietnamese and cooks Vietnamese food,” says Engel. “So, he suggested a grouping of herbs to use and a vague hierarchy or order in which he imagined their flavors stacking up. The result is a Vernal Gin that we simply describe as being inspired by Southeast Asia.” 

As for how to imbibe the 2017 Vernal? Engel teamed up with another friend, Paul McGee, owner of the Chicago bar Lost Lake and Beverage Director at Land and See Department, to create something new. 

“Right away I knew the gin was going to work in a refreshing drink that had lime juice and a little bit of sugar," he says. “There’s so much going on with this gin that I didn’t want to muddle it with other flavors.”

The drink is a new take on a classic: the swizzle. 

“With a swizzle you build everything in the glass you're serving it in and then you take a stick and agitate the ice so it gets really, really cold and stays cold,” says McGee. “It’s a really, really simple drink, you can definitely make this at home.”  

McGee’s swizzle features pineapple and big bouquet of mint to “bury your nose in” and of course, the Vernal 2017 with its long pepper, ginger and lemongrass flavors.

And even if lemongrass isn’t typically one of the botanicals you think of when they think of gin, that’s just one more reason why we’re in a golden age of spirits. Think about it: A former punk bassist teams up with a half Vietnamese chef in California and an award-winning bartender in Chicago to create a lemongrass gin swizzle? This is food and drink in 2017 and it’s never been better. [H]

The Recipe

In a collins glass, muddle:

- 6 large mint leaves

- 6 chunks of fresh pineapple


Add:

- .75 oz fresh lime juice

- .75 oz simple syrup

- 2 oz Letherbee Vernal Gin 2017 Release

- 1 d Letherbee Besk

- 1 d Letherbee Absinthe

- 1 cup crushed ice


Finishing Touches:

- Swizzle

- Top with more crushed ice

- Garnish with a mint bouquet, orchid and swizzle stick


 

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