Where creativity meets opportunity
Living off the grid comes with unmatched perks. For Andi Ross, Head Distiller at Island Gin on New Zealand’s Great Barrier Island, they come in the form of solitude, serenity and one of the most visually stunning places on the planet. But when it comes to running a business, particularly a gin distillery that has numerous moving parts, getting an idea off the ground can be challenging – no matter how delicious that idea tastes in a G&T.
“The most challenging element has been to get our bottles, labels and all the equipment set up on the island, which happens to be totally off-grid,” Andi says. “It is a five-hour barge trip across to the island east of Auckland, and sometimes the boat won’t sail due to bad weather. You need to be thinking and planning ahead by a few months to ensure nothing goes wrong.”
The former Creative Director has always been fascinated by gin. Its flavour, its diversity of botanicals, and particularly the alchemy required to turn a neutral spirit into something truly unique. But when Andi started playing around with a two-litre alembic copper pot still, she didn’t think it would go anywhere beyond experimentation. Maybe she’d gift a few bottles to friends and family and they would be able to enjoy the fruits of her labour.
Fortunately for Andi, who has since been nicknamed ‘Madame Distiller’ by her cavalry of willing gin tasters, her prowess with a still goes well beyond the amateur home distiller.
“I discovered that I really enjoyed toying around with island botanicals and started to get serious about creating my own gin. The lightbulb switched on when I added locally harvested Manuka and bush honey from a terrific island apiarist. I then worked with as many people as I could on distilling.
“Once I had finalised the gin profile, I did a proof-of-concept run of 100 bottles and took them to our local island bottle store, The Rocks in Claris. The owner, Tiddles, happily supported Island Gin and it quickly sold out. That’s what gave me the courage to launch my own gin brand.”
No time to waste
Despite her immediate success locally, Andi couldn’t have chosen a worse time to take her brand beyond Great Barrier Island’s borders. It was November 2019 when she began, and COVID-19 was just a few short months from sweeping the planet. Not exactly the ideal time to penetrate new markets.
But, determined as ever, Andi decided to turn the pandemic to her advantage. Namely, by shaping the brand of Island Gin and drawing an intrigued customer base her to spirits via completely online means.
“Being on-island, we were essentially marooned here until borders opened up. This gave me the opportunity to focus entirely on distilling and creating the business. In a strange way it helped us – a lot of our customers found us online and we were able to send their bottles of Island Gin off the island with contactless delivery.”
Great Barrier Island was closed off to visitors from virtually the first case of COVID, and for Andi it feel like she was stationed on the last paradise on Earth. Then she won a NZ Spirits Award for Innovation in 2020.
“We were all still in lockdown so there was no physical awards ceremony, but that accolade put us on the map with bespoke wine and spirits stores across New Zealand. I enjoy working with these types of businesses because they can spend time discussing the merit of our gin with their customers, much like you would a bottle of fine wine.”
Taking the gin world by storm
That award wouldn’t be Island Gin’s last. In fact, just days ago she received word her Original Island Gin snagged the most prestigious award in the world of gin: Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2022.
“To win a Double Gold means the judges have unanimously agreed on the excellence of the product. For a growing brand like ours, this is a significant win against a highly competitive field of entrants from all over the world.
“It’s an outstanding result for our off-grid boutique distillery, and we were the only gin from New Zealand to win a Double Gold this year. Additionally, our Navy Strength won a Gold too. Needless to say we are super excited!”
Off the back of her biggest gong yet, Andi is excited about what the future holds for Island Gin.
“The future is really exciting because those awards put us in rarefied company. We would like to extend our reach beyond New Zealand, and we are currently searching for likeminded collaborators who will help us grow in a considered way.
“It's early days – we have only just finished our second year in business. We are here to create and maintain a world-class offering.”
But even if she were to suddenly stop producing gin today, Andi says she has already far exceeded her own humble expectations.
“I can pretty much die happy now that we have won a coveted Double Gold in San Francisco.”
The Island Gin distillery set-up
Once she knew she was onto a winner with her finely tuned recipe, Andi swapped out her two-litre alembic for a 220-litre copper pot still with a column. And it’s here that the gin truly takes on a life of its own.
“I use the column in my distillation process instead of just the traditional lyne-arm approach,” she says. “It imparts a more delicate gin, which is what I am after for my profile.
“Island Gin has a definite louche – in winter or colder environments, the gin will cloud. There are a lot of botanical oils that I get across in my distillation run, so it’s nothing to be concerned about. You will notice that if you place your bottle in a sunny place, that cloudiness will clear.”
While some brands use an opaque bottle design to shroud the louche, Andi embraces it.
“It's an endothermic reaction – the gin takes on the conditions external to itself. So we choose not to hide it. Basically, it means the gin is packed with more flavour and aroma. Some distillers chill-filter these out, but they also end up removing the flavour through this process.”
Botanicals of Original Island Gin
- Macedonian juniper
- New Zealand coriander
- Great Barrier Island Manuka and bush honey
- Organic angelica root
- …and a few more delicate (secret) botanicals.
Andi’s desert island gins
Roots Marlborough Dry Gin (Elemental Distillers)
“I recently spent time with Ben at Elemental, and our love of all things gin and science brings out the gin geek in us.” A crisp and robust ‘London Dry’ style gin. Produced on estate at the Elemental Distillery, in the heart of the Marlborough wine region. https://www.elementaldistillerscom
Never Never Juniper Freak
“What Tim has created is the first gin I really fell in love with.” An aromatic, flavoursome gin. At 58% abv, the juniper leaps from the bottle. https://neverneverdistilling.com.au
Tarquin’s Cornish Gin
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