Kicked back in a leather couch at a distillery on Sydney’s north shore, a refreshing Rockmelon Collins in hand, I listen as London bartender turned international gintrepreneur Leon ‘The Gin Boss’ Dalloway tells me how he went from pouring drinks for a living to getting paid to drink them.
How did you get into the gin biz? I know you started as a bartender?
I think like most people you fall into bartending from just needing a job, you know? I enjoyed the night time society and I kind of fell in love with service and showing people a good time. I also fell in love with bartending, making drinks, making people happy through the drinks I was creating and just really finding how cool spirits were through that. I was working as a bartender in Manchester, which was loads of fun, and then I decided to move to London, the place where I thought I might be able to further my career. I was entering cocktail competitions in London and doing quite well. For a bartender, that’s the best stepping stone to making a bit of a profile about yourself. If you’re creating drinks, you’re presenting. I also liked the teaching side of it but my Dad, who was a teacher, said to me, “Whatever you do, don’t be a teacher”. So I thought, I’m going to teach people about booze instead. So I moved to London to work in a distillery and I started doing lots of gin masterclasses. I’d worked for a gin brand and was selling a bit of gin, as well as doing food and cocktail pairing and I realised that there was a real appetite for this. Then I looked at the world of booze tourism and then I thought, there’s a Kentucky Bourbon Trail. If people go to France, they do a wine tour. If people come to Australia, you go to the Barossa and do a vineyard tour. I was like, well why doesn’t gin have that in London? Because London is the home of gin. It’s had a bit of a tumultuous romantic past but London’s what people associate with gin.
Did gin tours exist in London at the time?
There were distillery tours, which were fun, but I wanted to do my own little twist on it. I love going to great cocktail bars, I love going to distilleries, I love great cocktails and I love tasting gin. The world’s got some incredible gins right now, so I figured, why not bring all of this together and launch The Gin Journey. I decided to create a posh bar crawl for cocktail and gin enthusiasts and luckily enough, it worked.
What kind of people do you see on The Gin Journey?
We get all sorts. Our demographic is super wide. We get people for their 18th bday right up to 90 year olds who’ve loved gin all their life. We get people who like going out for a nice meal and don’t mind spending a bit on a decent bottle of wine. Plus there’s also a cult of gin lovers out there right now. Now you can see people’s social media profiles and so often I see: Loves baking cakes, mother of two… gin lover. Now that’s what I want to see.
Where has this Gin resurgence come from?
Gin’s gone big. It’s never just one thing. It’s always a bit of a perfect storm of a few different things coming together. One of those was the changing of licensing and distillation in the UK. Pre-2009 you had to use a certain size still. Your still had to be 1500 litres big or above, so you had to produce a certain amount of gin every run. So that means you had to buy an expensive still and you also had to invest a lot into the alcohol that went into the still. So if you messed it up, you’re screwed. Then the licensing changed, so you can buy a small still, you could buy a still 200 litres big, which meant then that you don’t have to invest as much in the alcohol. It made distilling more accessible and it meant you could make it more profitable. But also I think that gin drinkers have become more educated, in that they want to know more. We know more about what we’re eating and drinking than ever before. I think gin really lends to that, especially when it comes to the exoticness of the botanicals. Vodka was the clear spirit of choice from the 1960’s right up until the turn of the millennium. It was seen as cool and a little bit mysterious, whereas gin was always more quirky and interesting. Plus it’s also about the people who are creating local gins. These distillers have really brought that locality back to gin distillation. We’re in Manly now, so we’ll drink Manly gin. It’s really brought that locality back to it, which gin kind of had in the 1800’s in the UK. These days, distilling is such a global phenomena that people can do it anywhere. Now you’ve got all these passionate people; a lot of people who have maybe been working banking, insurance or whatever for years; maybe they’ve lost their job and they think, well what can I do? I’ve got a bit of money, I’m going to set up a distillery. It can be done. People have seen it can be done and they’re following suit and carving out a life for themselves.
Do you think there’s a difference in the way gin is consumed or made in the UK versus in Australia?
I think Australia has one of the most exciting gin scenes in the world. I look at Scotland and Australia and I see them as quite similar. The reason being is that they both use unique indigenous botanicals in their gin. I think Manly Spirits use seaweed, for example. There’s gins in Scotland that might use Rowan berries from down the road. Australia has a unique style of distillation in that people are using botanicals from just down the road. I think a couple of Aussie gins use lemon myrtle and finger limes which are both native to Australia. These gins show character from where they’re from, which I think is super exciting and wasn’t happening 20 years ago.
Should you drink gin straight?
Ooh… good question. Do whatever you want, it’s your call, but you wouldn’t find me really drinking a room temperature gin. We, on our tours, recommend it, because we want people to try the different gins. If you’ve brought a bottle of gin at home, if you want to try it before you mix it with anything, I’d say you should. Although generally, I wouldn’t say it’s the drink that you have straight. Drinking is social and is about how it tastes just as much as how it feels. I like drinking a Martini in a posh Martini glass. You want the mouthfeel of the cold glass and you want to smell an amazing aroma from the zest of the finger lime. I recommend trying the gin with a little dash of water, just like you would with Whisky. That opens up the oils. Have a little taste and think about what you taste. What do you want to put with it? Has it got orange in it? Then put orange in your gin and tonic. Is it herbal? Stick a sprig of rosemary in it. Tasting the gin straight allows you to understand it a bit more before you have fun with it and make some tasty drinks.
Whisky has that reputation of being collectable. Do you think Gin will ever get to that stage?
I think gin is getting there. Big time. I get a lot of tweets from people showing me their gin collection. I think the great thing about gin is that it’s the kind of drink you can invite your friends over for, but what I really like about gin is that it’s become a couples drink. It’s not predominantly male or predominantly female. Couples are drinking it. With vodka and whisky for example, it’s not really something couples share. I’m really seeing a lot of couples building a nice gin collection together. When they have friends over, it’s like, check out my new gin. There’s also been a rise of gin clubs, where people are getting subscriptions for people to have gin arrive regularly at their door. There’s a gin advent calendar that’s going crazy. A magazine in the UK did an article on one I work with regularly and they sold like 70,000 calendars in two hours. They had to package quick. So it’s blowing up. It’s exploding. There’s so much cool stuff in the gin world. It’s an exciting time.
As a gin judge, what do you look for when judging gin?
I look for uniqueness. How’s it a little bit different? What’s it trying to be? What’s its character? What’s its personality? Is it classic London dry style of gin, which would be predominantly juniper forward, with citrus and some spice below. Or is it like doing something a little big different. Is it flavoured? Is it going to work in a gin and tonic and is it going to work in a gin martini are the two main things I look for.
Is there a common mistake that new distillers make?
I think sometimes trying to be too unique is a problem. A gin needs to be a gin. It needs to be juniper forward. Without it being juniper forward, it’s not really a gin… it’s more of a flavoured vodka. As boundary pushing and modern as it can be, you still need to hold true to the history of gin. There’s been a few gin car crashes recently with people launching a gin and you can tell it’s not a distillery, it’s more of a PR company stunt and you can see through that immediately. I’ve seen a few get called out immediately and then suddenly the brand’s twitter account closes. The gin that got taken down was called 'Skinny Gin' and they made up BS about using a specific botanical mix to make it less calorific which was absolute bollocks. I don’t like to be nasty to people but I saw them get taken down and thought, that’s quite funny.
What’s your cocktail of the moment?
Well, I’m a classic cocktail man. I like my martinis. A gin martini with some vermouth and a pickled onion. I think pickles and savoury drinks are coming back in a big way. I think we’ve gone past the overly sweet cocktails time. That’s when I got scared off cocktails for a few years. I was so used to getting cocktails that would make your mouth all claggy. I think people like that clean, crisp, drink that you can have a few of and it’s not going to be claggy. The gin martini for me is the ultimate classic. But then a great gin and tonic. There’s really some craft to the gin and tonic these days. I think the gin and tonic is for sure the gin drink of the moment.
Why do you think the Gin and Tonic has had such longevity?
Well I think it’s had a bit of a renaissance in the way it’s been made. No longer does the gin and tonic have to be two cubes of ice that have diluted by the time it’s got to the table and a slimy piece of lemon. I always picture it in a sad pub in England with no music on and a smelly carpet floor. Gin and Tonic kind of got to that point and people were like, hang on, it can be refreshing and delicious. So there’s more beautiful gins than there ever has been before. But also tonics that go with it. People are creating better tonics than ever before. People are going back to natural products. So for a long time, I felt like gins and tonics felt like they were getting away with not having to do it to the best of their ability. People were using additives like saccharine, which is what goes in the diet soft drinks. Then some companies came along and were like, no, we’re going to use natural sweeteners, natural citric, and we’re going to make a tasty tonic. That’s what has really helped push the gin and tonic to where it is today.
What’s your favourite gin?
[laughs] I can’t answer that… I work with 50 different gins.
Fair enough! So you travel the world and drink in amazing places. Has anyone ever surprised you with a drink?
Yeah I think so. You’ve now got bartenders really pushing the limits of what you can do with booze. There are some incredible bars in the world at the minute, especially in New York and London, which are really kind of going as far as top class restaurants are when it comes to creating drinks. I’ve had drinks come in leather bags, some with lego garnishes, all sorts of crazy stuff going on.
Have you ever shared a gin with anyone famous?
That’s a good one. Not yet… Famous in our little distilling world, but not widely. No one famous has been on The Gin Journey yet. I think we had someone from Dragons’ Den on it once.
What’s been the biggest highlight of your personal gin journey so far?
There’s been so many. I was inducted into The Gin Guild when I started my business, which was amazing. I was a bartender 10 years ago and now I’m in a guild that’s been around since the 1500s? Surreal. Then this year in 2017, I won Imbibe’s Innovator of the Year award. The main thing though is, launching The Gin Journey in new cities. I’ve got a massive love for Sydney, so having one in Sydney is going to be extremely exciting.
Do you think pairing gin with food is something that will happen more?
I’m not going to say it’s better than wine to do that because wine is incredible… but it’s worth a go. It’s worth an experiment. If you’ve got the right chef and the right bartender, you can create an evening where people will have some great cocktails alongside food. I’d say it would be more appropriate for starters or desserts. If you’re having a main course, you’re more likely to want a nice glass of Shiraz but I think it’s worthwhile looking at it and definitely giving people more options around what they can drink with food.
We’ve all got a friend who says they don’t drink gin because it makes them sad. What is that all about?
That’s an interesting one. It’s like the old… “Tequila makes me crazy, whisky makes me angry”. They’ve all got these little personalities. Really though, I think it’s like the longest game of Chinese whispers ever. Gin has had a bit of a sordid past. It has been used for some terribly dark things. It did go through a period in London where people were addicted to it and it was kind of like the Crystal Meth addiction in LA or whatever, it had that in London. So it did have a very bad reputation, right up until 1800. 1751 was when the laws changed and no longer could you distill on the open market. So I just think it’s continued and continued. And it does have a very distinct flavour profile. Everyone’s got that friend in the circle or that spirit that they once got drunk on that they’ll never drink it again. I had that with Tequila and I couldn’t drink Tequila because I was used to doing shots of Jose Cuervo, which is not high quality Tequila. When I had a tasting of a craft Tequila, I was like, this tastes like nothing I have ever tasted before. And then I fell in love with Tequila. People won’t go back to it when they’ve had a bad experience, rather than going back and trying it in a different format. They might have had a bit too much, might have a bad experience. It was gin’s fault, clearly! It definitely wasn’t all those drinks you had before the gin.
What would you recommend for someone who wants to make great cocktails at home?
You don’t need cocktail shakers. You just need a big jam jar or old pickle jars. The most important thing is good quality ice. That’s what people take for granted most of the time. They buy a crappy bag of ice and suddenly the cocktails have over diluted. Get some quality ice trays. I hardly use my freezer. I’ve got one freezer drawer and it’s pretty much dedicated to ice, purely so can make nice drinks. Stock up on fresh fruit and fresh herbs to use as garnishes. Some nice glassware. If you’ve got that, you can just go with it. You can make some nice infusions at home too. Sugar syrup is the cheapest ingredient in the world. Half sugar, half warm water, stir it together until it’s dissolved. Chuck some rosemary in there, chuck some lavender in it, you’re going to get this beautiful flavoured syrup. You can then go make like a lavender Tom Collins or a rosemary Tom Collins. Stuff like that is easy and cheap to do.
Does a more expensive gin make for a better gin?
Not necessarily. It’s not like whisky. In Australia, whisky has to sit for two years before you’re allowed to call it whisky. It shouldn’t be too expensive. Never pay over $100 for a bottle of gin, or else you’re paying for the bottle. If you do that, use it as a nice candleholder after.
So what’s next for Gin?
Gin’s on the up. I speak to new gin drinkers all the time. I speak to loads of people who started drinking gin three months ago and are really excited about it. I think that’s going to continue. I think gin’s going to keep rising and launching in new locations. You’re going to get more cool, fun locations to go and drink Gin. Also, I’m going to write a little book about gin and it’ll be the best gin book on the market.
One last question… why are rappers so crazy for gin?
[laughs] That’s a great question. Snoop likes Tanqueray. Amy Winehouse, she’s not a rapper, but she liked Tanquerary as well. Um just a drink of the time I think. I think they just enjoyed a little gin and mixer. Some of them might have gotten some sweet deals out of it too. A little money in the back pocket if you know what I mean…
Read more about The Gin Journey at www.ginjourney.com
Follow Leon on Twitter @theginboss