Letherbee - A Gin for the People

July 21 2012 - 11:51 AM

Brent Engel laments the ethos characterizing some of today’s small distillers that craft immediately implies better, and that better must mean expensive. “Some people wield their product as a moral tool. They say, ‘If you don’t buy it, you’re an asshole.’ But the market is becoming saturated quickly.”

With so many of today’s craft spirits carrying hefty price tags, Engel and partner Miriam Matasar saw an overlooked niche – quality spirits that shine equally well on their own as in cocktails, but priced so that professional bartenders will actually use them.  “If something’s too expensive, you can’t make drinks with it and it ends up on the back wall,” Matasar says. “How do you sell it when you’re pushing house cocktails and everything else?” Engel continues, “I hear bartenders say ‘I bought this because it was made in Milwaukee, but I don’t use it.’ A lot of these craft distilleries aren’t going to last.”

letherbee logo wide

Engel and Matasar met when the two worked at Logan Square’s Lula Café (where Engel still tends bar) and brought that experience on the cocktail front lines to bear in creating Letherbee Gin. Described by its loving parents as “utilitarian,” the spirit is aimed at the bartender’s well, not the back shelf. It’s affordable and versatile, yet decidedly distinctive and it’s developing a ferocious local following.

The duo used their network of industry friends to quickly get Letherbee behind the bar at spots around Logan Square. But before long, love for the gin spread and bottles can now be found as far afield as Premise, Sable, Nightwood and even suburban Standard Market. Derek Alexander, beverage director at Longman & Eagle, explains the reason. “When your staff gets excited about something, it’s easy to sell.”  Longman has crafted two original drinks around the spirit and the Violoet Buck – Letherbee, lime, ginger beer and byrrh —  is especially popular. “It’s our bestselling drink right now,” Alexander says. “We’re going through two cases of Letherbee a week.”

violoet buck and letherbee shot

The Violoet Buck and a nearly empty (Whoops!) shot of Letherbee at Longman & Eagle

Letherbee Gin debuted in April, but it was more than a year in the making. “Brent worked on the recipe every day,” Matasar says, “and I told him he was tweeking it too much.” Indeed, once the new pot still was up and running, Engel made a different 25 gallon batch about once every three days for six or seven months, each at a cost of several hundred dollars a pop. But, it was important to work with realistically-sized productions. “I don’t have a tabletop still and the recipes don’t scale up anyway.”

Engel continues, “The interplay of spices is really interesting. Changes don’t occur linearly. You can add the tiniest amount of something and immediately taste it, but adding a lot might barely make a difference.” As results improved, the new spirit underwent test after test with help from bartenders around the city. “I needed the gin to work in a martini, a gimlet and a gin old fashioned,” Engel says. “If it worked in those three drinks, it was versatile enough for anything.”

The obsession at the heart of it all seems part of Engel’s personality and his dedicated tinkering is colored by his time spent as a musician. “I’m a firm believer that it’s all about the recipe [and not the equipment],” he says. “Look. Jimmy Hendrix can still fucking rock on a shitty guitar. Miles Davis would kill it with the trumpet I have under my bed. It’s about the recipe.”

So, for all this background, what’s the gin taste like? At a sturdy 96 proof, Letherbee is surprisingly smooth. Juniper forward on both the nose and first taste, it has a cooling, green herb vibe hinting at cardamom and faint fennel. Also, somewhat uniquely, the gin is not chill-filtered; adding an ice cube causes a louche, the clouding effect of botanical oils falling out of solution that is commonly associated with absinthe. “It’s a testament to the high level of botanical flavor,” Matasar says, to which Engel simply adds, “I like it.”

While the gin is the immediate focus, there are more Letherbee products to come. A limited edition autumn gin incorporating baking spices like dark clove, allspice and nutmeg is in the works, as is a spring edition poised to be “floral, fruity and ethereal.” They hope to debut an absinthe by Christmas and are even exploring the possibility of a barrel-aged fernet in collaboration with another bartender. “That’s going to be at least as hard as the gin,” Engel admits. “You can’t just use five ingredients. An amaro somehow brings together many flavors, but strikes one note.”

–David McCowan