“Sure why not? I could open my own craft distillery…” – a statement built on an incurable disease known to all career bartenders as ‘getting old’.
I’d paid my dues in late nights, stupid customers, malnutrition and a bank overdraft. Tended bar in clubs, moved into cocktails, entered competitions, progressed to management, opened venues, began event bartending, became a Brand Ambassador, started a blog, grew a beard and then woke up… old.
In the infinite words of Groucho Marx,
“Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana”
And so came that inevitable day when your subconscious asks the haunting question – what now? With no money, and no formal training (other than a library of books and a weak liver) I reached the natural conclusion that what I really needed was my own craft distillery.
This is my journey.
Part 1: “Try”
The year was 2014 and I began by focusing my massively tenacious yet grossly unrealistic plan into a single vice known as ‘aromatic cocktail bitters’.
Accumulating a collection of maceration jars with overly complicated labels produced on a ripped-off Russian version of Photoshop (FYI – ‘спасти’ means save), I steeped weird and inaccurately reasoned botanical concoctions in Austrian overproof rum while imagining the fame that would derive from my many ingenious concoctions. Some two months later and all I knew was that raw celery and pink pepper turn into diarrhetic mush when not dehydrated in advance and that no amount of stocktaking tweaks would allow me to hide the volumes of undrinkable alcohol lost in error.
So I hit the books, spoke to those with real experience, bought a notebook and started again. This time independently macerating each trial ingredient recording variables in ratios, rates and methods of extraction. More importantly I learnt my botanicals. The difference between cassia bark vs cinnamon and mace vs nutmeg etc.
The total process and eventual results were documented online in Bitters or Bust: Part 1 & Part 2. And while international fame is yet to follow, the outcome was positive with a single batch of 430 bottles and three varieties under the name ‘Regency Bitters’, found for sale online in the UK, US and Europe just 6 months later. And all for a production costs of less than GBP£2,000 (and minor levels of gentian poisoning). I call that a first win.
Fast forward three years and I’ve now returned to the home of my birth, driven by a desire to complete the mission started three years prior – with a craft distillery of my very own.
But first things first. Buy a new notebook and start a checklist;
- Move to a sunnier clime – check!
- Get a job that pays the bills – check!
- Re-launch a new brand of bitters bigger and better than before – check!
- Use these bitters to create online brand content and recruit followers (not a cult thing) – check!
- Find someone
foolishsmart enough to invest – check!
- Buy a still, make a gin, become globally famous – ….pending!
It’s now 2017, I’m a little greyer, obsessed with Tim Tam’s [it’s a biscuit thing] and finally ready for Step 6.
To set the scene – I sit at my laptop (listening to Alt-J on repeat) at my rented flat in Marlborough, New Zealand. The same region known internationally for Sauvignon Blanc wine, big green shelled mussels and sporadic earthquakes. I’ve a rusty barbecue, a tomato plant name ‘Barry’ and an insulated double garage licenced as a customs free zone. It was here I relaunched my new bitters brand – Elemental Bitters – and it is here the distillery dream will begin in earnest.
We all dream of one day meeting a blind investor with the handshake of King Midas. And while money does talk, I was fortunate enough to meet someone not only with an interest in investing, but with vast experience in export, marketing and more importantly a like-minded passion for the unique and boutique. Yes, luck was involved but I had just moved to a new town and knew no one. So I got out there and spread the word.
Prior to this however I needed to prove I was worth investing in, and relaunching a new brand of bitters on my own dime was the litmus test. And while money may be our number one excuse for not doing something, it’s amazing what you can archive with patience, time and a sh*t load of coffee.
My website was created on a WordPress platform, built into a gantry system with pre-loaded theme. A small amount of base coding does wonders to lift a site and adds another string to your geek bow. Truth is, it’s not that hard, it’s all online, learn as you go.
Photography was always vital as I’m a believer in the power of visual content for both social media and general marketing. I have a ten year old DSLR camera, two lenses, a light cube and digital editing software from Adobe Creative Cloud. And all for less than the cost of a Latte at Harrys Bar in Venice (just don’t order a Bellini).
The rest was ample research, spreadsheets and importantly, collaboration. Two exceptionally talented design and illustration students did wonders with my very vague brand vision. A creative built around a periodic table of elements, steam punk botanicals and a bunch of random cocktail and distilling equipment. The resultant content spectacular and taught me to never underestimate the potential of a passionate uni graduate.
Sooo where does all of this deliver us?
I have a brand, my first product, a website, a plan, financial projections, an investor and a Tim Tam (you wont understand until you’ve had one). What I don’t have is a distillery but what I do have is a Whippet.
Whippet is a young distillers best friend. She’s a 2.75 litre Portuguese copper pot still. And like her namesake, she’s small, fast and at times a bit stroppy. She has is gas powered with a condenser plumbed into my washing machine (can’t use both at the same time). She may be small, but is perfect for single distillation experiments. One litre of 55% base spirit with botanicals will deliver me around 360ml of gin at 76% vol rectified from the heart cut. Once rehydrated to an imbibable 45% vol, you have a sample to test, tweak and titillate in equal fashion.
One additionally unforeseen conundrum back in 2014 is the effect hyperfertility has on ones plans for the future. In two months time, I will have a little bubba to dedicate my time to alongside an evolving craft distillery. In a failed attempt to keep this article purely in the realms of drink – I’m super excited about being a Dad and believe that no manner of digestive explosions or regurgitated lactate could prevent me from achieving the status of both a great father and skilled distiller in equal rights. After all, how difficult could either of these two things be? [insert ignorant hurrumph here]
Expertly compartmentalising my rationality, I boldly progress to the next stage of my cunning plan. One that involves juniper, Marlborough grape spirit and some foraged native ingredients. But first, we need a recipe and that means Whippet is in overdrive while I relearn my botanicals, one rectified ingredient at a time.
My distillery is called Elemental, this is my journey. I hope you enjoy the ride.
Distillery or Death: Part 2 – COMING SOON