Written by John Williams
“Gin has been around for around for over 300 years,” he says. “Its reputation is pretty old English and serious, and most of the brands in the market talk to mum, dad, nana granddad. For us, we saw an opportunity and a challenge in creating a non-traditional gin in a traditional category.”
That was three-and-a-half years ago, and now, along with his co-founders, brother-in-law Daniel Mclauglin and family friend Richard Bourke, Neal has moved Rogue Society into new, purpose-designed headquarters on McKelvie Street, Grey Lynn, that include their own bottling line.
“It’s important for us to be in this part of town because some of the city’s best mixologists are up on the Ponsonby Road strip, and we need to be the face of our brand, and we’ve got to be in front of those guys regularly,” he says. “Also, having provenance is important these days, so establishing ourselves as Ponsonby locals was really important for the brand.”
On the question of a gin bar opening in Auckland, Neal says it’s almost inevitable – after all, the city already has a handful of other spirit-themed bars, devoted to whiskey and vodka.
“Every country we go to has gin bars, so it’s only a matter of time before we see them popping up here,” he says.“Just a few years ago there were only a handful of gin brands available in Auckland bars, now there are literally dozens. The category is still really young in New Zealand, but it’s growing rapidly.”
“Gin, as a category, wasn’t really around 10 years ago. Now, in every market we go into, gin is the most buoyant spirit – and we are seeing double-digit growth in the super-premium category – that’s where Rogue Society sits.”
The high-end gin market is being driven through the global trends of moderation and premiumisation, following the same route as the craft beer movement, where people are drinking less, but what they are drinking is of better quality. People want to know where it comes from and the source of the base products, says Neal.
However, part of the success of their premium gin, Scapegrace – named after an old English word meaning rogue or wayward person – can be directly attributed to the careful development of its brand.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to selling product,” says Neal.“And over the three-and-a-half years we’ve spent developing the liquid, we’ve spent an equal amount of time on creating the brand. For instance, we decided to design the bottle ourselves, which is quite rare, as most manufacturers will choose a stock bottle.”
Based on an old Genever bottle from the 19th century, its slightly tapered, grey-glass form is reminiscent of the traditional-shaped bottle that gin used to come in, complete with the name, Scapegrace, embossed in relief down one side.
“The metal disc on the front of the bottle represents a compass, with New Zealand at the bottom and, printed on the paper seal over the cork stopper, we have quotes from rogues in history,” says Neal, picking up a bottle.“This one says ‘a good friend will always stab you in the front’ – that’s Oscar Wilde,” he says, smiling.
The four-pointed crest on the back of the bottle signifies the meeting of liquid and people, highlighting the botanical blend, tradition moved on, bravery above all, and curiosity.
“From a liquid perspective, there’s an image of our still, which is over 120 years old,” he says. “The juniper bush represents our blend of botanicals; the sword and armour talk about where gin has come from – Dutch Courage, where troops were given gin before battle in the 15th century; then there’s the monkey playing cards, and he’s the social, rogue-like character.”
Branding is one thing, but you have to have the product to back it up – and Scapegrace certainly delivers the goods, having picked up numerous awards in the past two years, including Gold at the London International Wine & Spirits Competition, and Double Gold at the San Francisco Wine & Spirits Competition.
So, what makes a good gin? According to Neal, four factors need to come together, and each one has to hit the mark – pure water, a clean grain spirit, an experienced distiller, and the very best botanicals.
“Our distillery is in Kaiapoi, just north of Christchurch; we use glacial water direct from the Southern Alps that has taken around 80 years to emerge... and as soon as it does, it goes straight into our still,” he says. “The other raw ingredient needed to create the very purest spirit is a clean, wheat-based grain, and we source this from Iowa, across in the US, as it’s the best we can get.”
Kaiapoi might seem like a random choice, but there is good reason behind the decision as it already had a small distillery, set up back in the 1970s – and, importantly, that’s where their ‘alchemist’ is based.
“He’s a local, from South Canterbury, and he uses a hand-beaten copper whiskey still that was brought into New Zealand in the 70s,” says Neal.“His son does most of the distilling nowadays, taught by his old man. They’re both real purists.”
The process for making Rogue Society gin needs constant fine-tuning, because the quality and the flavours of the botanicals can differ subtly from batch to batch and year to year.
“We choose the best botanicals from the best regions in the world – our nutmeg’s from the Grenada Islands, the orris root, liquorice root and juniper berries are from Italy, the dried tangerine is from Morocco, the cloves from Comoros Island, and cardamom from Guatemala.”
The result is a classically citrus, super-smooth gin that amplifies the higher notes of its flavour – orange, lemon and coriander – yet still has good depth through the mid-range floral and spices – think juniper, cardamom, angelica root, and liquorice root – and the base notes of orris root, cinnamon sticks and cassia bark.
“With classic cocktails, like martinis with a twist and negronis with orange, citrus is usually your friend, so our product suits all these drinks well,” says Neal. “Or simply pour it over ice, add a splash of tonic and a slice of orange, and you’re good to go.”
Sounds like summer in a glass!
Rogue Society Cocktail Creations
Rogue Society X Tonic
30ml Scapegrace Gin
Pour gin over ice, top with tonic, garnish with an orange wheel (blood orange, when in season).
45ml Scapegrace Gin
25ml lemon juice
2tsp raspberry syrup/jam
1 fresh egg white
Shake, double strain, then garnish with freeze-dried berries.
40ml Scapegrace Gin Gold
10ml maraschino liqueur
25ml lemon juice
10ml simple syrup
2 dashes of orange bitters
Shake with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with edible flowers.
30ml Scapegrace Gold