Less than a year old, Dancing Sands Distillery in Golden Bay is already doing cool, inventive stuff like using manuka as a botanical, barrel-ageing gin and designing a bottle that’s a far cry from the traditional cut-glass look. 1972 talks to managing director Ben Bonoma about his journey.
1972: How did you come to be making gin?
BB: We bought a still and equipment from an existing distillery in Nelson, and their aged rum stock. We thought we would be a rum distillery but we have two gins that have been so popular they make up the majority of our sales. Since launching in August last year, we’ve grown pretty impressively. In the last two weeks, we’ve added 35 new liquor stores, something like that. A lot of it is down to hard work. I get on a plane most days and I’m doing this one liquor store at a time.
1972: Are Kiwis big gin drinkers?
BB: It’s on the up and up. The UK are the leaders in terms of consumption, they have something like 350 or 400 gin producers there, and sales over the last five years has gone up, where most other categories are flat.
When I talk to liquor store owners here, the premium gin shelf is one of the biggest movers. In the high end, whisky sells the most, lower end bourbons always move and premium gin is right up there, too.
1972: I’d rather drink a cheap bourbon than a cheap gin.
BB: I’m with you.
1972: What does your gin taste like?
BB: Our Sacred Spring is a dry gin, smooth and well balanced. It has a little bit of a spicy profile to it. We use cardamom, coriander and peppercorns, so you get a bit of an Indian spice. We also use licorice root so you get a really nice, refreshing aftertaste, and we use almonds to make it silky and a little bit oily.
1972: How did you come to be in New Zealand?
BB: I grew up in Boston and was working in IT business consulting in New York, mostly for big corporates that were Fortune 100 companies. Long hours, big projects, big teams, lots of selling your soul. Then I met Sarah, who’s now my wife, in London. We commuted back and forth between the US and the UK for a bit.
The visa situation was pretty challenging. We looked for an English-speaking country with a good IT market and that had good work-life balance. There’s actually surprisingly few of those.
We had heard great things about New Zealand. So we just moved here. We sold up our stuff — I think we had six boxes between the two of us — and started fresh.
The business culture here is really good. The openness of Kiwi businesses looking to support other Kiwi businesses certainly helps open the door. It doesn’t make the sale but it means I don’t get hung up on. I actually think daily about how blessed I am to be in New Zealand versus trying to do the same thing in the US, where I would have gotten more resistance.
1972: Using manuka as a botanical is a great idea.
BB: I think we were the first ones on the block to put it in, but in the eight months since we’ve been going, there’s probably been eight or nine gin brands that have come out, so there’s now a couple of people who do it. A common theme with gin is to mix some traditional botanicals with local, so manuka is an obvious choice.
We make what we like, and we do it by making small amounts until we’re really happy with it, then we scale it up. We spent the best part of four months every day making three or four different gins a day.
1972: You can make a gin in a day?
BB: There’s different ways to do the infusion. Without going into detail, alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water, so you’re effectively boiling alcohol, which then turns into steam, and you steam the botanicals and collect the condensation.
1972: And you have a gin you barrel-age?
BB: Yes. It’s New Zealand’s first barrel-aged gin. There’s a trend for hardcore gin drinkers to branch out into barrel-aged, which is something you find in mature gin markets — the UK, the US, Australia. It really changes the gin and takes it closer to a dark spirit.
1972: Your Dancing Sands gin bottle is pretty psychedelic. I’ve never seen gin packaged like that before.
BB: That’s right. That was the whole idea. The colours are symbolic of the botanicals swirling in the gin. We bought a whole bunch of gins, lined them up and saw that no one was really celebrating colour. A lot of gins put pictures of their botanicals on the bottle, but even as a gin fan, I don’t really care what a juniper bush looks like, or a peppercorn.
1972: What’s your favourite way of drinking gin?
BB: I’m a gin and tonic man. I like my gin and tonics very strong, though.
1972: Half and half?
BB: Three quarters, one quarter.
1972: Three quarters gin?
BB: If I’m honest. It really allows you to taste the gin.
1972: So it’s just gin spiked with tonic water?
BB: The tonic takes a little bit of the edge off, and a good tonic will really complement the gin.
1972: Right. And some tonics are better than others.
BB: Exactly. Our favourite is a brand called East Imperial. That’s what we stock in the distillery.
1972: I know it. I went to dinner at a beautiful restaurant in Auckland called Sidart and wasn’t drinking so I had East Imperial’s yuzu tonic water all night.
BB: That’s my favourite. That’s the tonic we recommend with our dry gin, with an orange twist. It’s just divine. The sweetness of the orange works well with the cardamom, and the yuzu just rounds it all out. If you get it nice and strong, it’s even better.
Recently I’ve also been drinking the barrel-aged gin with East Imperial grapefruit tonic. The tartness works really well. The other way I drink the barrel-aged gin — and one of the reasons I made it — is in a negroni.
Generally I’ll have a gin at the end of the work day, sitting outside: you’re done with work and you’re now into the evening, shutting down, switching off and enjoying life.
You can taste Dancing Sands’ Sacred Springs gin when you book an executive cut or shave at your local Barkers Groom Room.