Everywhere you look today, inspired people are launching a new craft beer, craft whiskey or my personal ambition, a luxury craft gin. Why do these entrepreneurs believe they can succeed in a crowded market full of regulatory hurdles and low profit margins for their small scale operations? Because it’s a passion and they believe in their hearts their creation will cut through the clutter and other likeminded people will flock to their brilliantly crafted elixir made with love, sweat and tears. Is it a pipedream? Maybe, but thousands of would-be artisans have enough blind faith in their vision to give it a go. Against the odds, I too will plunge into a self-indulgent mission to realize a dream of creating my very own luxury craft gin and successfully introduce Nakal Gin to the world.
From A Passion To The Desire To Make Nakal Gin
For more than 10 years, I fantasized about working in the spirits industry, but I was either excelling in my current job and not compelled to make the jump, or the fit just wasn’t there. My desire to work in spirits is innately driven by my passion to create and entertain, so besides transforming myself into a famous rock star, being able to offer a gin of my own representing, in my mind, a social catalyst that brings people together to have memorable experiences, would be the ultimate satisfaction. In late 2017 after a 6-month roller coaster recruitment process, the planets finally came into perfect alignment and I was offered my dream job with one of the biggest spirits company's in the world. In the beginning, I interviewed for a role that didn’t work out, but I was told in confidence I would be offered a more senior position even better suited for me. Since there are no guarantees in life, I pursued my ambition by exploring the feasibility of starting a gin distillery in the US but the path quickly ended for 2 reasons: 1) it was too financially risky to quit my job and relocate from Geneva to the US to start an operation from scratch with no distilling experience, and 2) I was finally offered my dream job with the spirits company so all my energy was focused on getting up to speed on the latest industry trends and preparing to make yet another international move to Asia. Like a crushing blow to my soul, the deal fell apart at the last minute due to a major change in management. Despite having everything slip through my fingers, my dream never faded, and I declared to my wife: “One day and in one way or another, I will make a gin!”
Fast forward about a year later and I came across a blog post from Sam Priestly who started Pipehouse Gin in the UK. After reading his excellent and highly informative blog on every single step required to launch a gin brand using a contract distiller, I was inspired to realize my dream of creating my own craft gin. I thought, I have the marketing skills, passion and business experience to do this and, well, you only live once so why the hell not? The worst-case scenario would be a great story to share the next time I interviewed for a spirits job other than some blah blah about how my values fit their culture and how well their brands are marketed and all the other standard stuff. The two biggest changes to my previous plan would be that I’d launch my gin from Geneva and seek out an established Swiss distiller to make my gin which would dramatically reduce startup costs, speed up the time to market and most importantly, I’d be able to produce a higher quality gin by leveraging the master distiller’s experience. I would soon learn it would be critical to find the right contract distilling partner to help me realize my ambitious vision. There are plenty of distillers who will make you a “craft” gin but not many that are true artisans who will work with you to create something special, something truly unique.
Now would be a good moment to explain a bit about myself to put this whole adventure into context. I'm an American who moved to Geneva, back in 1996 for a job in the tobacco industry just a few days after graduating from university. I'd never been to Europe and I landed with about 50 dollars in my pocket. Unlike all my friends who were starting normal jobs in the US, I lucked out and was offered a job with the tobacco company I interned with all through university who coincidentally relocated their international HQ to Geneva at the same time I graduated. Immediately, I was plunged into the fast-paced international corporate world and soon became a member of a privileged expat tribe living what looks like a surreal and charmed life to those on the outside. To be honest, there are amazing perks, but the constant pressure of corporate life consumes you and you often feel like a servant to the company and a prisoner of your own success. Until I left corporate life in a tobacco company that spares no expense, I could only count two times when I flew economy class for work and, honestly, I can only remember one occasion when management decided we should all fly to our annual marketing conference in coach and donate the fare difference to charity. (Trust me when I write that we completely made up for the small inconvenience over the next week while living it up at the uber cool W Hotel in Barcelona.) Over 18 years, on an almost unlimited expense account, I traveled to about 40 countries, stayed in the best hotels, ate at the best restaurants and partied in the coolest clubs. W's motto of "Whatever, Whenever" became an expectation in my life. If I could describe myself in a word it would be “adventurous” because I loved travelling and exploring what each new city had to offer, often thinking to myself “I could live here”.
Food And Drink At The Center Of My Life
Since I grew up with a father who was a chef and owner of fine dining restaurants, I’d been exposed to gourmet food all my life. So even though I was an “American” living abroad, I had built a reputation as the guy who knew all the best places to eat, as only a local resident would. When a French colleague asks you for a restaurant recommendation and when the locals in India say you eat more variety and spicier food than they do, you feel proud to have shed the negative stereotypes of American eating habits. Up until 2012, I was based in Europe but I often traveled to Asia for business where I was always eager make a detour for some food tourism to indulge in authentic dishes from places only the locals recommend or from hawker stalls lining the streets of night markets that most Westerners wouldn’t go near. After I moved to KL, my exposure and appreciation for authentic South East Asian cuisine exploded. Unless you’ve lived in Asia and eaten with the locals, it’s impossible to fully appreciate the complexity of Asian cuisine and your palate will never fully develop enough to distinguish the subtle flavors and aromas that make the cuisine authentic. It’s this experience that would later inspire me to use local variations of traditional gin botanicals to bring a distinctive character to my gin. Getting back to liquor, like most guys, beer is the go-to drink but as I matured, gin tonic became my drink of choice, yet long before it became fashionable again. Around 2000, I was back in the US for the holidays visiting family in my home town of Winston-Salem, NC and at this point in my life I was feeling the need to define myself with a more sophisticated drink to be my social wing-man. So, while at a local bar with friends, I asked the middle-aged sassy bartender with a classic southern drawl for a drink recommendation which ended up being obvious after I told her I didn't want beer, whisky or vodka and it needed to be simple but good. Her answer was “Sweetie, that’d be a gin tonic”. From then on, gin tonic was my go-to drink but I didn’t have any preference toward a specific brand until Bombay Sapphire caught my attention and became popular. It was a few years later when I’d upgrade to Hendricks.
The discovery of Hendrick's is when my love for gin shifted into high gear and the fateful day when a colleague introduced it to me will never be forgotten. We had just finished a competitive war gaming workshop at an offsite location in St. Moritz and made ourselves comfortable in the lounge bar to have a drink. When I ordered a gin tonic, my colleague asked if I wanted to try a special gin that he discovered but warned me it wasn’t to everyone’s taste. As I'm always up for trying new things, I took him up on his suggestion. A few minutes later, the bartender produced two expertly prepared Hendrick's and tonic with its defining cucumber garnish. I was all-in from the first sip. The unexpected but delightful cucumber essence intrigued my senses and satisfied my desire for something unique yet delicious and refreshing. From then on, I advocated for Hendrick’s at every occasion and would be disappointed with bars that didn’t carry it. Years later, my love for Hendrick’s reached its peak one night in Mumbai when I brought a bottle to my friend Ze for one of our weekly apero’s before going out to a club. We were both from the same expat tribe who’d bonded over the shared battle to survive in the incredibly chaotic and stressful city. His instant embrace of Hendrick’s as his new favorite gin energized the positive vibes we shared as we perched ourselves like kings presiding over the city from the 32nd floor of his apartment balcony.
The Final Tipping Point
Having worked in marketing for Tobacco, my view of “innovation” was seriously jaded by a category where most of the products are essentially the same. I’m intrigued by a good brand story as much as anyone if it’s genuine, but I’m rather skeptical about brand hype. At home I almost exclusively drank wine and only drank spirits in bars unless I was entertaining, so I was never really drawn to the craft trend in beers and spirits even though I appreciated the trend from a distance. One day in 2017, I was browsing through a ridiculously expensive boutique grocery store in Geneva where I sampled some Ableforth's Bathtub Gin on promotion and was so impressed with how much more interesting and complex the flavor was compared to my precious Hendrick’s. When I returned a few weeks later to pick up a bottle they were out of stock but the sommelier who was assisting me asked if I’d be like to try something special and of course I took him up on the offer. He led me to their tasting area where he brought out a bottle of Seventh Sense, a small batch craft Swiss gin. I usually don’t drink gin neat but this was so rich in local botanicals that I was able to fully appreciate its character and complexity. I liked it so much that I splurged on the inflated price and brought it home where I took it out at nearly every occasion to enjoy as a digestif after dinner parties. It was this journey and recent experience with craft gins that solidified my desire to make my own craft gin which would reflect my life and the experiences I’d had living and travelling around the world.
In the next post, I will explain my inspiration for the name Nakal and delve more into the rationale for creating a gin inspired by the unique and distinctive flavors of South East Asia combined with those of Switzerland and other traditional botanicals. I’ll also be working with my master distiller to create the recipe for Nakal and I’ll also be working with the bottle designer so I hope to share updates on this front as well.