The juniper way

Meet four local gin producers

It was only a matter of time before the Lebanese got into gin production; as unexpected as that sounds, it actually makes perfect sense. The world is witnessing a “gin boom” especially in the premium and craft gin category, and, according to a report produced by just-drinks.com and the IWSR (International Wine and Spirits Registry), global gin sales rose by 7.4 percent between 2016 and 2017, to just under 35 million cases. Gin is forecast to be the second fastest-growing international category of liquor by 2021 (behind whisky), with this growth driven by the premium categories, according to the same report.

The Lebanese gin producers Executive spoke with cite several reasons for gin’s increasing popularity. One, it is thought to contain the least number of calories among the white spirits (vodka, rum, tequila, gin)—an advantage in today’s health-conscious world. Another reason cited was that the production of artisanal and craft gin meshes well with consumers’ demands for the authentic.

When it comes to spirits, Lebanese consumers tend to follow worldwide trends, and spirit distributors Executive has spoken to confirm that premium gin is indeed gaining market share in Lebanon.

The main botanical needed to produce gin—without which it cannot be classified as gin—is juniper berries (the seed of the evergreen juniper tree). A species of juniper trees, the Juniperus excelsa, known in Arabic as lezzeb, grows in abundance on the western and eastern slopes of northern Mount Lebanon, and is one of the main species of tree in Lebanese forests.

Put these two facts together and it is no surprise that four Lebanese with entrepreneurial minds decided to get into gin production. Executive profiled these local gin producers to learn more about their operations, and the responses their gins have been evoking.

Gata

Jamil Haddad, founder and brewer of Colonel Beer, says he announced his intention to produce Lebanese gin and vodka in 2016, during his acceptance speech for the BLC Brilliant Lebanese Award.

Two and a half years later, towards the end of November 2018, he released a dry gin called Gata into the Lebanese market. According to Haddad, Gata is named after the story of a queen who lived in a castle close to Batroun’s Phoenician wall, and who would escape through an underground tunnel to go swimming in the sea. “I wanted to name my gin after a woman and have a female character to go with it,” he says.

Two moments inspired the idea of gin production for Haddad. The first was identifying it as a trend while in London: “Four years ago the trend of gin distilleries boomed in London—in the UK and the US the gin industry is still booming like crazy. These days the worldwide trend for everything is in the experience—gin is the lowest calorific white spirit, and at the same time has good flavors and different tastes.”

The second moment was when, on one of his hiking trips, Haddad realized that Lebanon has an abundance of juniper trees, with berries ideal for gin production. Gin has a certain character that appealed to Haddad and, as he explains, he already had the brewery, so he decided to go into distilling.

Right from the start, Haddad was aiming to produce a gin that would stand out worldwide, so he took his time developing the project. The imported bottles, for example, took five months to arrive in Lebanon, while it took one year to just receive the still. “It is a custom made, high-end still from Germany,” he explains. “It’s a very professional machine made of European food-grade copper, since copper is very good for distilling and reduces oxidation. Even if it took a year, I waited because I wanted the best machine and the best ingredients to have a consistently good product.”

Haddad invested $460,000 into his gin and vodka production, mainly on the equipment, and says he plans to return this investment in three to four years.

While the equipment is imported, the ingredients used are locally sourced. For the juniper berries, Haddad works with the Mamlaket El Lezzab organization in the Bekaa, that plants juniper trees, harvests the berries, and sells them on to him. Other ingredients include: lavender, which he buys from the same organization, lemons, which are common to Batroun, and mint, which also grows in abundance in Lebanon.

Haddad says he has the capacity to produce 800 bottles of gin per day but has not done so yet—he plans to increase production when he begins to export. Since its launch at the end of November, 3000 bottles of Gata gin have been sold, each at a retail price of $29. It can be found in several liquor stores, including Aziz and The Malt Gallery, as well as at the Colonel brewery, and in several bars and restaurants. Haddad is still biding his time and says that come April he aims to have Gata gin available across most of Lebanon and begin his export plan.

Haddad sees a future for gin in Lebanon. “Consumption per capita of gin in Lebanon is increasing significantly year-on-year, so this local product will take the market share of medium to high international gin, since Lebanese gin is positioned as such,” he says. “Lebanese, especially the younger generation, support local production and so will support gin.”

Jun

For Maya Khattar and Chady Naccour, the couple behind Jun, it all started with their love of nature and a “cheerful spirit” (their gin’s tagline).

The duo was working in advertising in Dubai, and would spend their summers in Rechmaya, just above Aley, where Khattar is from. Khattar’s family owned a property in Rechmaya that her grandparents once used as a small silk factory. Following the civil war, Khattar’s parents partially restored this structure and used it as a storage facility for the produce from their adjacent garden. Khattar and Naccour would spend many an enjoyable summer night with friends and family in that space.

They eventually grew restless in the fast-paced and hectic corporate world and longed to reconnect with nature in Rechmaya. Khattar also wanted to help her family manage the garden, but knew that she and her husband could not live off the produce alone. So they started thinking about financially viable projects they could develop in conjunction with the garden. After crossing off several options, they decided to enter the alcohol production business.

“We thought of wine, but there are too many wineries in Lebanon nowadays—same thing for arak, which the villagers themselves produce as well,”Khattar recalls.

The couple eventually opted for gin production. “We decided on gin because it is trendy and creative as a product since you can come up with several recipes. We already have a garden in which we grow the botanicals we need for gin. That way, we are benefiting the garden and benefiting ourselves,” she explains.

The space gin allows for creative recipes suited Naccour well since he had studied in a culinary school while living in Australia and loves to work in the kitchen. Following their decision, he took a course on distillation in South Africa while the couple was still living in Dubai. At the same time, they were restoring the property to eventually become their artisanal distillery, complete with a still they named Matilda, after Khattar’s grandmother.

After several experimentations with recipes and tastings, Khattar and Naccour launched Jun online in June last year and opened the distillery to visitors that July. Jun’s name comes from its main botanical juniper berries and also from its launch date, the month in which Rechmaya comes alive with music and cheerful energy.

Jun is an aromatic gin made out of nine botanicals, which include Juniperus excelsa berries, mastic, rosemary, orange, lemon, bay leaves, and coriander—all of which are flavors reminiscent of a traditional Lebanese kitchen, Khattar says. The couple sources their juniper berries from a reserve in Hermel and handpicks the rest of the botanicals from their garden themselves. Only the corks in Jun bottles are imported—the rest of the equipment and ingredients are all from Lebanon.

Khattar describes Jun as an artisanal gin, explaining that they can produce 130 bottles per day and that they do almost everything by hand, even painting the bottom of the bottles. They have sold 4,000 bottles since their launch in June.

The couple invested $100,000 from their own funds but say they have faith that they will return their investment and more. “We were financially safe in Dubai in that we were employed and so took a big risk leaving everything behind to start our own business, which was not a guaranteed success,” Khattar says. “But we believe in it and we see a big potential for gin in Lebanon and we know how to grow it—we have our vision.” She notes that during the summer they will have special events on their premises—such as gin and tonic nights or barbecues—to promote gin consumption in Lebanon

Jun is available on the Rechmaya Distillery website, on 209 Lebanese Wine’s online platform and in 29 liquor stores, restaurants, and bars across Lebanon. It is sold for $23.30 everywhere except for the distillery itself, where it is sold for $20 to encourage visitors to Rechmaya. Khattar also notes proudly that it is available to first-class passengers on Middle East Airlines flights and in the Cedar Lounge. “We are happy with our clients who are very supportive, especially since we are newcomers to the industry,” she says. “Our story is inspiring in that we came back to the village and are using our resources.”

The couple is planning to export Jun starting in the MENA region, and has already completed the required paperwork to do so.

Junipium

The Riachi family has been in the spirits and beverages business since 1839, and lately produced mainly private label wines after their own brand distribution was hindered during the civil war. Ten years ago, Roy Riachi, a member of the family’s eighth generation, decided to revive the family brand’s name, focusing on wine and spirits production, including arak, liquor, and honey whisky.

Riachi’s experience with the beverage business through the family trade, as well as his career as a restaurateur, familiarized him with the trends in the spirits industry, so he saw the potential for gin production. “Gin is trending worldwide these days, and in my work as a restaurateur I experienced the concept of the gastropub, where gin was highly in demand, especially for cocktails, so the idea of producing gin came to me then,” Riachi recounts.

He decided on the name Junipium because of the juniper berries, and also because of the phrase mysterium tremendum, which he translates as “the great mystery.”“[Junipium’s] flavor profile is different from commercial gins, and so it is mysterious. It is very aromatic and has a potent smell and taste, but yet is not harsh,” he says.

Junipium’s main botanical is Juniperus excelsa berries, which Riachi says grow in abundance next to the distillery in Khenchara, Metn. Eleven other botanicals are used in Junipium, including woodruff, aniseed, nutmeg, rosemary, cardamom, licorice, and basil. Riachi describes its flavor as floral and unique.

Riachi’s investment was minimal since he already had the still, thanks to his plans for whisky production. He uses a gooseneck still, the same kind used to produce single malt whisky, which he plans to launch next.

Junipium was launched into the market in early October 2018. Although Riachi has produced only 500 bottles to date, he says his operation is easily scalable, as the still can produce a few thousand bottles per batch. It is available on 209 Lebanese Wine, on Riachi’s website, and in select liquor stores in Lebanon, where it can be purchased for $25 a bottle. Riachi is eying the export market for Junipium, where he believes it will be a success.

The Three Brothers

It was only natural that the Malak brothers, who tend bar and own and operate seven bars across Lebanon, would want to produce a spirit of their own. “By the nature of our job as bartenders, we drink on a daily basis, and so we thought of producing a spirit that we can drink dry and enjoy. We discounted whisky because we had been drinking it for 15 years, and thought of gin, which we had been enjoying a lot lately,” says Ralph Malak, one of the producers of The Three Brothers.

Producing gin also came to the brothers’ mind because, six years ago, they had met a producer of bathtub gin. Bathtub gin was originally an amateur method of producing gin—through a maceration (soaking) process—that was popular during Prohibition era in America, when alcohol was illegal. Ten years ago, says Malak, some distilleries revived this method of gin production but in an ultra-premium way. “They revived it because bathtub gin is full of flavor—it’s not a dry gin but a cross between liqueur and gin—and can be drunk alone. There are only 10 distilleries worldwide that produce bathtub gin, so we are filling the market for that,” Malak explains, adding that many do not know about this type of gin, and thus he makes sure to share the history of bathtub gin with the bartenders who will be using Three Brothers, and to train them on how to best serve it.

What sealed the deal for the brothers, in parallel to their discovery of bathtub gin, was their finding out about the abundance of juniper in Lebanon. They chose to source their berries from the Bekaa. “We saw it as an opportunity for the landowners in the area, since they were cutting the trees thinking there was nothing they could do with them,” Malak says.

Other than juniper, The Three Brothers has 21 botanicals, including dehydrated apples, rose, grapefruit peel, cinnamon, and jujube (ennaab in Arabic). Only the cinnamon is imported, from India, the rest of the botanicals are sourced locally. Each botanical has a different soaking time, but the maximum maceration time is 48 hours, after which the gin rests for a month before it is charcoal filtered and bottled, explains Malak. Everything is done by hand, with a team of eight people in production, making The Three Brothers a craft gin.

The brothers experimented for three years before they came up with the recipe for The Three Brothers, and Malak recalls that those experiments started at his home using a 20 liter still he typically used at the bar to create drinks. Today they have a small distillery in Smar Jbeil, Batroun, with a 100 liter still, and plans to get a 200 liter still to replace it.

At first, says Malak, they planned to produce small quantities to use in their bars, but the response was so favorable that they decided to increase production. “People would taste it and ask for a bottle, so did our bartender friends, and then two companies,” he says. “We realized that we are going big even though we did not have enough production for that, and so we decided to increase production, although we will remain craft.” Each batch of The Three Brother produces 2,200 bottles, and Malak says the second batch is almost depleted, meaning they have sold almost 4,500 bottles since its launch on May 5, 2018—international brothers’ day.

Because of their connections in the spirits industry, distribution has been fairly easy. The Three Brothers is available at almost 100 points of sales, between liquor stores, restaurants, and bars, and costs $34 a bottle. Once they have bottles available across all of Lebanon, the plan is to export.

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut.

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