At the event, nearly everyone is drinking one. It's an orangeish-pink-hued cocktail, pressed to the sides of a rocks glass by an enormous hunk of ice that looks less like an ice cube and more like a frozen asteroid. On this night in mid-May, this is the featured cocktail at Scofflaw, a gin-focused bar on the fringes of Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. It's a vernal negroni, and the main component is Letherbee Distillers’ vernal gin, an aromatic gin salute to springtime—and the guest of honor at the evening’s event. Behind the bright green label of the bottle, a single blade of sweet prairie grass imbues the otherwise clear spirit with an ethereal yellow-green color. Stirred with Campari and Dolin Rouge sweet vermouth (I can smell the gin from a few feet away as the bartender builds the drink in a mixing glass), it's garnished with a wide ribbon of orange peel that curls against the ice. The herbaceous gin cuts the toe-curling bitterness of the Campari, emerging as a surprisingly refreshing, less pungent version of a standard negroni. I drink three of them.
Back in March, I first met Brenton Engel—who dreamed up and created Letherbee—at the tiny distillery: a small, windowless room in the corner of an old factory in Ravenswood. Just outside the unlabeled door lay odds and ends from the distilling process, stuff like hand-built oak barrels and industrial tubing. Inside, a small copper still sat between four huge tanks, and a nearby drum read 48 gal. Malort. In one corner, Engel pointed to the "beginning of their spice library," a dizzying array of tinctures in eyedroppers, a rainbow of liquids in Ball jars, and dried botanicals, which ranged from anise seeds and pungent wormwood to fragile saffron threads and dried juniper berries.
The way things have unfolded for Engel—and his two bartending cohorts-cum-distilling partners, Nathan Ozug and Ian Van Veen—is no matter of chance. Rather, their success in the fragile, trendy arena of craft cocktailing is the result of a complicated web of well-connected friends, most from the food and beverage industry. "Chicago is a small town," he said during our second interview, this time over coffee at Reno in Logan Square. And the city is even smaller for someone like Engel, a self-professed lover of making stuff, since almost all of his connections are with other creative types. "Everything is very incestuous," he said, laughing.
The concept was born about three years ago, when Engel opted to legitimize his love for distilling moonshine in the basement of his family's downstate farm. For a while, he traveled back and forth before he eventually moved to Chicago. The bootlegged whiskey, while wildly popular among friends, had been a labor of love. “I went three months with no job,” Engel said. “It was hard. I had some money saved up, but I was just, like, slinging 'shine outside of the Whirlaway out of my coat pocket.” But then he acquired Letherbee's space, where he honed his palate while he waited for his permits to be approved. “My whole world was the flavors of gin.” During that time, he would take samples around to bartenders and try to get feedback, one of whom was Robby Haynes, the bar manager at the Violet Hour in Wicker Park.
He's the guy who told me,” Engel said. “And this was invaluable—he said, 'I believe a good gin should be able to stand up in an old-fashioned, make a good martini, and a good gimlet.' … He set up my framework for developing the recipe." For two years he toiled over the recipe while working full time at Lula Cafe in Logan Square. He dedicated his two free days to perfecting the gin—buying all of his ingredients with the money he made behind the bar, since Letherbee had, and still has, no investors (a point Engel stresses was a personal choice, and one he'll stick to). He worked constantly, unsure if all the effort he was making would ever pan out or return his own investment. Eventually, he circled back to Haynes. “He helped me seal the deal,” Engel said. “I worked on this fuckin' thing so hard for six months, I was like, ‘I think I got it. I’m gonna take this to Robby and he’s gonna give me the thumbs up.’” Engel recounted this meeting, impersonating Haynes sipping on the gin, saying: “It’s missing something. I think it’s missing—" he paused, miming Haynes staring off, thinking. "Almond.” What Engel didn’t tell Haynes at the time was that he had been wrestling with almonds for months, struggling to extract its oils. “Because they were such a pain to work with, I ditched them," Engel said. "So I went back, had to figure out how to get the almond in there, and that took me another few months.” Eventually, he arrived at an 11-ingredient gin recipe, one he could successfully scale to a large volume worthy of bottling, packing into cases, and sending to local bars, including Lula and Longman & Eagle.
The main aim of the distillery has always been to create spirits that satisfy on a number of levels, both for drinkers and drink-makers, inspired by the Letherbee trio’s own experiences on both sides of the bar. Though the square liter bottles fit easily in a bar's well, the quality is far beyond what most conjure up when ordering a well drink—namely, brutally piney gin that sips like a rotten Christmas tree, soda-gun tonic, and a tiny lime wedge, all mingling pathetically in a plastic cup. But Engel cautioned me against knocking the basic gin and tonic: "Our gin makes shitty tonic taste good." At a time when craft cocktails and the people who make them have never been more popular, Letherbee has a few advantages that most other small distilleries don't. "Being in the industry,” Engel said, “you've got your finger on the pulse.” Seated in the front row, it's easy for the three bartenders to see the winds of trend shifting before the rest of us even feel the breeze. And on Letherbee’s small scale, they always have numerous experiments in the wings, simultaneously. "As a bartender—and none of them would probably tell you this—the one thing they really have to offer the world is introducing something new to somebody," he said. In Engel's case, that new thing isn't an original cocktail, it's just a component. Letherbee isn't following trends— it's aiming to set them. Part of that is doing something unusual, like make a blue curaçao. "It's fun to be the weirdos,” he said. “We're really excited about the idea of making a blue curaçao. No one else in the world would think that’s a good idea. That's why, to me, it's a great idea."
A few affirming milestones have given them the breathing room to focus on outside-the-box spirits like the blue curaçao. Big Star, the taco bar from award-winning chef Paul Kahan (Avec, Blackbird, The Publican, Publican Quality Meats), focuses almost exclusively on tequilas and whiskeys. Around two months ago, the Wicker Park bar adopted Letherbee as its only gin. Again, its only gin. Additionally, La Sirena Clandestina recently started pouring Letherbee’s gin, and it’s also the main component of the addictive negroni slushy at Parson’s Chicken & Fish, whose highly anticipated opening was just last week. Snags like bottle availability and logistic glitches with their distribution company—which is equally small and still in its infancy—provide endless opportunities for growing and learning. Letherbee is still "trying to get more on top of growing gracefully," Engel admitted, though it isn’t a bad problem to have.
A final testament to how his priorities have shifted as the success of his small business swells: Engel only works two days a week now at Lula. Most days, he can be found toiling over new experiments, or watching the results dribble out of the copper still. "Some days are dramatically different than others,” Engel said. “Some days we're distilling and it's crazy and busy and dangerous, and then other days we're sitting in here very quietly, very carefully mixing and writing stuff. Some days are totally rock and roll. Some days it's like being in a library. The rock and roll days are fun. Today might have to be a rock and roll day.”
Image courtesy of Letherbee Distillers