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Letherbee Distillers | Chicago Bitter

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Letherbee Gin $12 / 200mL
Letherbee Fernet $12 / 200mL
Letherbee R. Franklin's Original Recipe Besk $12 / 200mL

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Letherbee distills straightforward spirits geared specifically for making cocktails. They package these spirits in very cool bottles with minimalist labels. They look good, taste great, and they aren't expensive. Who the hell do these guys think they are?

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Letherbee Distillers is the project of Chicago bartender Brenton Engel, who founded the company in response to the cult popularity of his homemade moonshine.

The flagship gin soon became a favorite of local barkeeps around Chicago — including Robby Haynes of The Violet Hour. Its two major features are a) its affordability and b) its humble aspirations as a well made house gin. This is a craft spirit that does not want to be precious. It's loud, balanced, and makes perfect simple gin drinks like a gin + tonic or a gimlet. This is a gin drinker's gin. High proof, with juniper and citrus dominating. One that wants only to be on your shelf, quenching your late summer thirst without pretense.

From there, Letherbee branched out into the world of bitter liqueurs known collectively as amari. For my taste, this is where they shine best, not only because they're making spirits that just a handful of Americans are making, but because they're doing such a solid, hit-the-mark job of it.

The Fernet is minty and bitter and strong, but the bitterness is cut by a fruity cola sweetness that softens it for greater drinkability than, say, Branca. Medicinal, yes, but allow your palate to adjust and the rewards are many.

The R. Franklin's Original Recipe Besk is perhaps Letherbee's most distinctive spirit. Born from a collaboration between founder Engel and pal Robby Haynes (Robert Franklin Haynes, that it) of The Violet Hour, this wormwood amaro is based on recipes for Swedish malört. Malört has long been a favorite in the heavily Scandanavian neighborhoods of Chicago. But the oldest American distiller of the spirit, Jeppson's, trademarked the word for their own version. Besk is the word for the brandy made from malört, translated as wormwood.

Call it what you want, this intensely bitter spirit leads with big anise and liquorice notes and finishes something like Campari. It blasts you with bitterness and grows ever more delicate as it lingers, but for those of you who have had Jeppson's or seen anyone make what's become known as Malört face, Letherbee Besk is much softer, much more drinkable, and far more friendly to cocktails. See what The Violet Hour is doing on their menu here (scroll down to bitters).

All in all Letherbee spirits come in handsome, minimalist bottles, and they don't break the bank. But most importantly, these are solidly made spirits that are essential for the cocktail enthusiast of 2015. Bitter is where it's at folks. And no one's doing bitter quite like Letherbee.