If you were a fan of the band Pool of Frogs a few years back you might have had a little taste of bassist Brenton Engel's Illinois Joy. At the time, Engel was living on a farm downstate near Springfield and commuting up to Chicago once a week for practice and classes at Columbia College. "We were whiskey-drinking hippies," he says. "We thought to save money we could start making our own and learn about the possibility of making fuel for motors and engines."
He got hold of an old corn-sugar recipe, rigged up a still on the farm, and to impart barrel flavor began steeping the small batches he ran off with wood chips. Before long he had aged whiskey. And not long after that he was running moonshine into Chicago, and passing the bottle into crowds when he played out.
"We'd take bottles to shows and people would start e-mailing me wanting to buy them. I was getting orders for multiple gallons at a time," Engel says. He later moved to town and got a job behind the bar at Lula, where he met his girlfriend, Miriam Matasar, then the general manager. His whiskey remained popular: bottles were passed among chefs around town, and a certain boutique even placed labeled jars discreetly on its shelves for sale to the public.
But once he and Matasar decided to apply for a legitimate distiller's license and go into business, he stopped making moonshine. I wrote about them last year in a story about the growing number of local microdistillers, just as they were wading into the labyrinthine process of getting right with the Feds.
That process is now complete. After a year spent developing a gin recipe, not to mention getting label approval and jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops required to become a legitimate distillery, Engel and Matasar started running spirit from the pot still in their Ravenswood HQ. Last week the first two cases of Letherbee Gin were delivered to Lula and Longman & Eagle.
The slogan "Gin for wellness" isn't some holistic hoo-ha. It's an allusion to the spirit's medicinal roots, says Engel, as well as their marketing niche. They're trying to keep it at a low enough price point in liter handles so bartenders will use it as a well gin.
I tasted some stirred and poured up at Lula the other night and the first thing I noticed was a pronounced anise note, which was interesting because it turned milky the instant it hit the ice the same way raki, ouzo, or absinthe do when they're diluted. Engel confirms the presence of licorice and fennel (and nine other botanicals) and says the cloudiness occurs because the gin is not chill filtered, a process that removes a lot of botanical oils. So when the spirit is diluted, the oil that remains falls out of suspension—basically undissolving before your eyes.
"The idea was to make a classic flavored gin with a little bit more spice content and higher proof," says Engel. (It's 48 percent ABV). "It's designed to stand up in a negroni, or even like a gin Old Fashioned. It took like six months and thousands of dollars worth of spices and alcohol. It pretty much bankrupted me."
Matasar says they're shooting to get 750 ml bottles on liquor store shelves in two to three weeks, probably retailing for around $30. Right now it's in the restaurant at the new Standard Market in Westmont, and at Longman. And Lula bar manager Jeff Hansen has already put a cocktail on the menu there. He hasn't given it a name yet but he did share the recipe:
2 oz Letherbee gin
1/2 t chopped Anaheim or finger chilies
8-10 cilantro leaves
2 slices cucumber
1/4 oz lime juice
Splash simple syrup
Muddle everything but the gin. Add gin. Pour over ice and shake well. Double strain into double rocks glass over ice. Top with a splash of soda. Drink three or four and relax. Don’t drive.