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Spirited production at Death's DoorSpirited production at Death's Door

Jack Mans

March 11, 2015

10 Min Read
Spirited production at Death's Door

Death's Door Distillery is a dream come true. What started as an experiment to see if agriculture could be restored, promoted and conserved on Washington Island, WI, has blossomed into a full-fledged business with the construction of the company's new $3.5 million state-of-the art distillery in Middleton, WI. Completed on June 4, 2012, the facility is the largest craft distillery in Wisconsin and one of the largest in the region with an annual capacity in excess of 250,000 cases of finished product. 

Death's Door Distillery takes its name from the body of water between Door County peninsula and Washington Island. It was named Porte des Morts (the Door of Death) by the French after its discovery in 1643 and has more than lived up to its name. It is said to have more shipwrecks than any other body of fresh water in the world.

"Our focus from the beginning was to support local and sustainable agriculture on Washington Island," says president Brian Ellison. Historically, Washington Island was known for its potato farming, but since the 1970s most of these fields sat fallow. In 2005, agriculture once again returned to the island in the form of five acres of hard red winter wheat. Now more than 1,200 acres of land is under cultivation on the island and all certified as organic.
In addition to wheat, the barley used in Death Door's products is grown organically in Chilton, WI. Also, the botanicals (coriander, fennel and juniper) for the gin are all sourced locally within the state.

"In fact, we work with landowners on Washington Island to pick wild juniper berries," says Ellison. "When our production reached the point that we could justify our own facility, we researched possible locations, and settled on Middleton because it is a location where it is convenient to move our finished products. It's easier to transport our raw ingredients here than to transport finished products from Door County." 

Commitment to sustainability

In addition to a commitment to Washington Island, the Death's Door team has an equal commitment to sustainability. The plant installed a tube-in-tube heat exchange system that re-uses the 170-degree water from the still condenser, cutting down on both heating and processing costs. The facility also uses hydraulic fermenter pumps rather than electric agitators to reduce the amount of energy used to cycle the mash. To reduce waste, the spent mash by-product from the process is delivered to local hog and dairy farms. 

But the company faced a challenge. "As a small start-up distillery, it was initially difficult to convince our financial partners that planning for energy-efficient equipment and building made good economic sense in terms of extended savings and long-term return-on-investment," says Ellison. To address this issue, Ellison worked with Madison Gas and Electric (MGE) to help finance the energy saving equipment at an affordable interest rate (see "Financing energy-saving equipment affordably" sidebar at bottom).
When the product is sold, one percent of top-line revenue goes to charities and causes in the Great Lakes Region for preservation efforts.

Decorative bottles

Death's Door currently produces its own line of alcoholic beverages, which encompass, gin, vodka and white whiskey, and it also contract packages products for other companies. The company packages its products in glass bottles that have been ultraviolet (UV) printed by Loggerhead Deco Inc. to have an etched glass look. The new, patented UV direct screen-printing process uses UV energy-cured organic inks, which are free of heavy metals, cadmium, solvents and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). This creates a carbonless footprint package that can be recycled through traditional processes.

Direct screen printing (sometimes known as applied color labeling or ACL) is a process by which ink is applied directly to the surface of a bottle and cured using ultraviolet light so that the graphics design is imprinted into the glass. Benefits include perfect registration and permanent labels that cannot be torn, scuffed, wrinkled or soaked off the bottle surface. The technology, which eliminates the need for labeling machines, offers multicolor decorating and the potential for 360-degree wraparound designs.

Two packaging lines
Death's Door has two packaging lines: A semi-automatic line that runs products at a rate of 18 bottles per minute and a manual line dedicated to heavily flavored, sugary products that require the equipment to be rigorously cleaned between products. 

Bottles for the semi-automatic line are received on pallets or packed in reshippers from which workers manually place them beneath air blowers to remove any dust. The workers then manually relocate the bottles onto a rotary turntable that discharges to a bottle conveyor that transports them to a six-head, intermittent-motion inline filler. The turntable, conveyor and filler, as well as the turntable at the end of the packaging line, were supplied by Accutek Packaging Equipment Co. Inc. 

Ellison says, "Other contract manufacturers recommended Accutek, which has done an excellent job for us. It helped us develop the line layout and recommended other equipment on the line, and their service is good."

The bottles pass through the filler where a sensor at the exit prompts a bar to extend that holds back the bottles for filling while the conveyor runs continuously. The fill nozzles are adjusted to fit the bottle diameter. A bar containing v-slots that are aligned with the nozzles comes in against the bottles to hold them in place for filling.

When filling six bottles per cycle, 12 bottles are admitted to the filling zone-six under nozzles and the other six between nozzles. When six bottles have been filled, the gate opens and allows one bottle to exit and the six unfilled bottles to move beneath the nozzles for filling. At end of that cycle, the gate opens and allows the 12 filled bottles to exit as 12 more bottles are admitted and the cycle is repeated.

Product to be filled is pumped from a process tank to the overhead filler reservoir. An air-operated pump delivers the product to the fill nozzles. A tank level control opens and shuts a valve to maintain level.

This is a timed fill as product is pumped continuously from the reservoir. The fill nozzles have two openings. When the fill time is reached, a valve in the nozzle closes and the product recycles back to the reservoir. Cycle time is about 20 seconds, so the line is running about 18 bottles/min.

Death's Door runs both screw-capped and bar-top (cork) bottles. When running bottles with screw caps, workers place caps onto bottles as they exit the filler, after which another worker manually inserts one bottle at a time into a Stelvin single-head cap threader that tightens the cap. The Stelvin cap threader is supplied by St. Patricks of Texas.
When running bar-top bottles that require corks, worker manually place corks into the bottle and then place capsules over the tops of the bottles. The bottles then travel through an electric heating tunnel supplied by Accutek that melts the capsule onto the bottle. 

The capped or corked bottles travel past a Macsa Model K1030 Plus laser etcher that applies a lot code. ID Technology, powered by Pro Mach, is the exclusive North American representative for Macsa. The 30 Watt air-cooled, CO2 laser coder can print vector or dot matrix formats on the bottles.

Workers manually erect shippers for six or 12 bottles and, after loading bottles into the shippers, deliver them to a 3M Matic top and bottom taper. The shippers then travel past a Model 250 print-and-appy labeler from ID Technology. The unit incorporates a thermal transfer printer from Datamax-O'Neil to print the labels, which are then applied to the cases by a swing arm.

The cases are manually palletized and are then conveyed to a Model WCA Smart stretch wrapper from Wulftec Intl. In this operation, the pallet is placed on the infeed conveyor, which transfers the pallet onto the rotating platform, where the film is applied as the pallet rotates. The unit features Wulftec's patented No-Thread powered prestretch carriage for quick, easy and safe film loading.
Manual line
Death's Door installed two Model 8.6BC8 6-head manual fillers built by Mori Luigi SAS to run heavily flavored, sugary products that would be difficult to clean on the semi-automatic line. Mori Luigi SAS is represented in the U.S. by TCW Equipment.
Each fill spout on the table-top gravity filling machine operates individually. A worker pushes an empty bottle onto the rubber tip of the spout to start filling. The spouts are articulated so that they can move when the operator is placing the bottle and then move back into the vertical position for filling.

The spout has a valve at its discharge end; pushing the bottle onto the spout pushes this valve up into the open position to start the product flowing. The spout has two openings; the product flows through one opening and air is vented through the other opening up to the fill hopper. When the bottle is full, the operator removes it from the nozzle and repeats the process. 

For a skilled operator, this is a two-handed operation. The operator removes the full bottle with one hand and places the empty bottle into position with the other hand. Once the rhythm is established, the procedure of filling the bottles in sequence proceeds smoothly.

The filled bottles from this line are capped or corked on the equipment installed on the semi-automatic line and then proceed along that line through casing, taping, labeling and stretch wrapping as described earlier.
"We tried to design systems that were easy, straightforward and expandable to allow for future growth," explains Ellison. "We are committed to a process that mirrors the passion we have in the bottle: simple, local and exceptional from the ground to the glass." 

3M, 651-733-1107

Accutek Packaging Equipment Co. Inc.,

Datamax-O'Neil, 800-816-9649

ID Technology, powered by Pro Mach,

Loggerhead Deco Inc., 630-206-3747

Macsa ID S.A., +34 902 101 828

St. Patricks of Texas, 210-402-7326

TCW Equipment, 707-963-9681

Wulftec Intl., 877-985-3832

Sidebar: Financing energy-saving equipment affordably 

Death's Door Distillery has integrated sustainable business practices into each stage of sourcing and production. But the company faced a challenge when it built its new facility. 

"As a small start-up distillery, it was initially difficult to convince our financial partners that planning for energy-efficient equipment and building made good economic sense in terms of extended savings and long-term return-on-investment," says Brian Ellison, president of Death's Door and one of its founders.

Enter Madison Gas and Electric (MGE) and its Shared Savings program. MGE's Shared Savings program helps companies finance energy-saving equipment at an affordable interest rate. In this program, the customer or their contractor provides a project cost estimate for the energy-efficient equipment. MGE collaborates with the owner and their contractors to estimate the energy savings that the project can create. If the project meets MGE's Shared Savings qualifications, MGE will finance an agreed-upon portion of the project's up-front costs. 

Targeted equipment at Death's Door include:
Boilers: Two high-efficiency 4.4 MBTU boilers from a Japanese manufacturer provide access to on-demand steam in just nine minutes vs the four-to-five hour time that most units required. That saves energy, time and manpower because no one has to be at the facility four hours early to get the boilers up and running. They run on affordable natural gas, reduce chemical costs by two-thirds and create water with a lower pH level.
Estimated annual savings: 18,745 therms and $9,372 in energy costs.

Heat exchange and reclamation: To optimize energy use, the company captures heat at two points along the production process: after the wort (that is, liquid extracted from the mashing process during brewing) is cooked but before it goes into the fermentation process and during the distilling process. Captured heat is then fed back into the processor water and used for cleaning, sanitation and process water makeup.
Estimated annual savings: 12,229 therms and $8,462 in energy costs.

Windows and lighting: Windows are a prominent feature of the facility so day lighting is common. The company upgraded to high-efficiency lighting fixtures and added motion-sensing devices throughout and replaced halide fixtures in the production areas with new ballasts and high-efficiency fluorescent lamps and fixtures that are also equipped with motion- and light-detection features.
Estimated annual savings: 63,668 kWh and $5,730 in energy costs. 

Visit www.packagingdigest.com/energy to view the complete story about MGE's involvement at Death's Door Distillery.


About the Author(s)

Jack Mans

Plant Operations Editor

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