As one of the best bar/restaurant cities in the nation, Chicago has always been a hub of innovation in the culinary, brewing and distilling arts.
Letherbee Distillers is run entirely out of a single unit of a warehouse in the Ravenswood area. These guys are the rebels of the distilling world; it’s their way or the highway. No one tells them how to alter their product other than themselves, and they have built the business entirely from the ground up with their own money, skills and knowledge. The business itself is very hands-on in that each founder works on the product by either being part of the distilling process or packaging and shipping it. The product is special in that there are very few gins and spirits on the market that are as floral and herbal, but still well balanced and pleasant to imbibe. The secret is the immense variety of tea-like herbs and spices that are at the disposal of these long time bartenders and moonshiners.
Even though it is perhaps one of the smallest distilling operations in Chicago, it is also one of the most successful with distribution in 14 states and two European countries. CUSP Magazine was fortunate enough to sit down and drink some absinthe with Letherbee Distillers founder and head distiller Brenton Engle to discuss the business and it’s growth.
CUSP Magazine: What is Letherbee Distillers?
Brenton Engle: We’re a boutique distillery done in a very different way than most. We focus on value and price points and have a very DIY methodology in regards to our equipment and ingredients. There is a cookie-cutter model for smaller distilleries that we purposely shun, even at our own peril.
BE: We primarily make gin, but we also offer a couple of bitters like Besk, Fernet and some barrel-aged Absinthe. Every spring and fall we also do a new recipe of a seasonal gin. The seasonal ones help keep our creative chops up. This spring’s recipe will include honey, chamomile, sea salt and some lemon peel. It’s going to have that kind of homeopathic vibe. I like to keep it simple, two a year is good for us because it keeps us from getting bored and keeps us relevant.
CM: What inspired you to begin distilling?
BE: I was living on a little farm and going through my hippie days; growing a lot of my own fruits and vegetables, but I was also making a lot of my own wine and beer. Making liquor is very much a part of that lifestyle, and at the time I was drinking a lot of whiskey, so I figured I might as well start making it. Anything to save a buck was the concept that laid out the foundation of all this. It taught me the craft of distilling and definitely helped me get the bartending job I used to have.
BE: I needed a job because selling moonshine wasn’t really cutting it for me. This cool place that I lived close to had an opening, and I just walked in one day and got a job. I was playing in a rock n’ roll band at the time, and bartending was an ideal job because of the flexible hours and night shifts.
BE: Bartending is what really opened the doors to me as far as being able to taste all the liquors out there. Back then, bartenders still made their own bitters, and that’s how I got hooked on botanicals and began to fall in love with gin. It was definitely very important, and it still is because Nate, John and Robbie, my partners, still bartend. Bartending is part of the foundation of Letherbee and is what I believe gives us an advantage over other distilleries. Some people open up distilleries because they think it’s a nice investment. When they do it that way, I feel like they miss out on a lot of nuances that go into great spirits.
CM: What separates Letherbee products from everything else on the market?
BE: I think it’s fair to say that the market is divided into mainstream brands and craft brands. The differences between us and the mainstream brands are obvious, but the difference between ourselves and the other craft brands are a little more subtle. There are things that we hold near and dear to ourselves, which comes from our bartending foundation, that is that we make the products with ourselves in mind as the primary customers. We want other bartenders who make $8 cocktails to be using our products all day. Not only use it, but also be glad that the product is available because it is so unique. We’re not trying to present ourselves as this ultra-premium, ultra-exclusive, expensive luxury brand; we’re more small-batch utilitarians. It’s not the quickest way to make money, but that’s not why we do it.
BE: Our gin has a pretty high level of botanical presence. It’s very herbal, not at all a light, wispy, soft, delicate gin. I really like it when people try it and are impressed by the flavor but also realize that it is very clean. The best thing to hear when someone tries it for the first time is that they’ve never had something like that. A lot of brands are often too scared to making something unique, because they want to be accepted by everybody. They tend to water down their ideas in hopes that it’ll appeal to a mass audience. Our approach is more, “Screw it, we’re going to make it our way. And if you don’t like it, there are plenty of other options.”
BE: It’s a great city to drink in, I love the bars here. It’s got a great bootlegging history with Al Capone, and it’s centrally located between both coasts. Beyond that, we could’ve put this business anywhere, but Chicago is a very supportive and generous market to us. People don’t have to buy our products. There are certainly cheaper options, but people are willing to spend an extra couple dollars on a bottle because they support local businesses and they really like it. We do not take that for granted.
BE: Craft brewing is rad, although craft distilling has a long way to go before we reach the level of radness that the brewers have. Distillers have slightly different personalities. It’s more about marketing, brand building and positioning yourself in a much more competitive market. All that’s fine because it’s motivating, but if you go to a brewer’s convention, it’s a lot more fun. The brewers by nature are much more hands on because it’s hard, sweaty, laborious work. Distillers mostly buy bulk bourbon made at MGP in Indiana and put it in their own bottle. To me it’s just not cool, it looks desperate. To me that says you’re just trying to make some easy money and do not value the process. There’s a lot of weirdness in the distilling world like that, and what it really comes down to is if a brewery bought bulk Budweiser and brought it to their own brewery and just canned it in their own cans, their fellow brewers would be pissed off. That happens all the time in the distilling world; they take credit for these products as if they actually made it. It’s phony, and that’s the problem. They see potential in that they can make money, but that makes you a businessman with a marketing strategy, it doesn’t make you a real distiller. The distilling world needs fewer businessmen and more craftsmen.
BE: We try to give back by supporting non-profit events like art galleries or indie music shows, primarily by donating product. It’s hard to do when we’re this small, but when we do people are appreciative. The guys still bartending do their part by fulfilling that hospitality aspect of their respective communities. We’re not exactly on a philanthropic mission here, but if a friend calls me and says he’s having a party to raise money for a noble cause, I am always down.
BE: Don’t be mislead by our website, we really don’t sell a lot of product in Europe. We just started shipping stuff over there last year, and I think growth in Europe is going to be even slower than here because of shipping costs and import taxes. By nature, the product is just going to cost more over there, so it’s not necessarily flying off the shelves. I am very proud that we started our own import company over there, and we’re not just plugging our brand into the mainstream system of distributor networks. We’re building our own from scratch, which no one else has done as far as I know. I am totally willing for it to go slower, because we’re doing it our way.
CM: What does the future hold for Letherbee Distillers?
BE: I wouldn’t mind having a bar or tasting room in the future. At the moment though, the kind of investment that would require is kind of out of the question for us. I’m not too keen on the idea of bringing in investors or outside influences that could potentially reek havoc on our chi. I think the more I do this, the more I realize that things like that are inevitable. We’ll see though, right now we’re happy trying to keep up and grow while having some fun.
BE: Spiteful Brewing is amazing, their business model and the way they got started is very similar to ours in that no other brewer in the world would be as crazy, dedicated and hardworking to pull off what those guys have. Marz Brewing is also an amazing local brewery. Eden, who is a partner at the Violet Hour, makes these awesome syrups. My friend Robbie, who made our Besk recipe and owns Analogue, is always doing some cool stuff at his place. Joe’s Barber Shop is also a really cool, old school place; he pours customers our products and craft beer while they wait to get a haircut.
Letherbee Distillers have proven that with hard work, dedication and a sincere love for what you do, success is always within reach. They have created a unique product that appeals to the bartenders and cocktail drinkers alike, breaking away from the cookie-cutter business formula for something they can genuinely call their own. Letherbee Distillers is worth a try for any curious gin drinker or budding spirit connoisseur ready to indulge in true Chicago craft distilling.