The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Letherbee Gin Enters Chicago On A Cloudy High

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Aug 6, 2012 7:10PM

We all know Chicago is in the midst of a craft beer renaissance but it’s the influx of local distilleries that has truly captured our attention. With North Shore, Few, and Koval leading the charge an increasing number of bars and restaurants are carrying spirits distilled in the area and around the Midwest.

The latest entry in Chicago’s craft distillery growth is Letherbee Distillers. Their first spirit, a gin, has been on the bars of places like Lula Café, the Violet Hour and Longman & Eagle for months. Last week, Provenance Food & Wine started selling Letherbee retail.

The roots of Letherbee began with a little bit of ingenuity. Engel was making pot still whiskey on a farm in Springfield when he was in a band and running moonshine to Chicago for local gigs. Eventually Engel got a job as a bartender at Lula Café. Matasar was the general manager there at the time.

“I remember asking Brent about his hobbies and he told me about how he was making whiskey at home. I found that fascinating and remember him asking ‘How does that work?’”

Eventually Matasar and Engel started dating and they had the conversation about what their dreams were. “Brent said, ‘the only thing I want to do is make booze,’” Matasar said. So they decided to legitimize the bootlegging and begin the painstaking process of getting registered to distill legally.

But why the switch to a gin? Matasar said part of the reasoning was that it made more sense to do a clear spirit as opposed to an aged spirit. Another reason was that Engel had become more proficient as a bartender and was more interested in gins. After developing the recipe for over a year, Engel found one that’s simple and works across a range of cocktail recipes.

Chuck Sudo/Chicagoist

“Letherbee can work as a martini, an Old Fashioned and a gimlet,” he said. Another aspect about Letherbee drinkers will notice immediately is how it turns cloudy when diluted with ice. Letherbee isn’t chill filtered, meaning the oils from the botanicals are held in suspension in the distillate and, when diluted, the suspension process breaks down before your eyes. “When you chill filter a spirit you’re removing flavor,” Engel said. “that was something we didn’t want to do so we did away with the process.”

I picked up a pronounced anise flavor upon tasting Letherbee, which Engel and Matasar said was actually fennel and licorice. Those are just two of 11 botanicals used to make Letherbee. Engel’s and Matasar’s service industry backgrounds also come into play in the marketing of the gin. The label is a simple strip of paper with the tagline “gin for wellness,” which harkens back to the spirit’s medicinal roots. Engel and Matasar hope to keep bar liters of Letherbee at a price point that makes it affordable for both vendors and customers, and they’ve encouraged accounts to use it as their well gin. “We want to be the anti-craft spirit craft spirit.” Matasar said. “With a lot of spirits the packaging goes into the cost of the bottle, and we didn’t want that,” Engel added.

Engel and Matasar now have a distillery on Ravenswood where they’re producing Letherbee and have plans down the road for an absinthe, aquavit and white whiskeys.

Visit Letherbee Gin's Facebook page for an updated list of locations carrying their gin.