Dancing Sands Gin
“We met whilst working on a transatlantic IT project for a multinational company” may not sound like the start of a heart-bursting romance worthy of the pages of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, or even Nicholas Sparks, but it’s still hard to hear the love story behind Dancing Sands Distillery founders Ben and Sarah Bonoma without feeling a faint tug at the heartstrings.
Boston born Ben and Yorkshire lass Sarah were leading the same lives, albeit in different countries. They met, fell for each other and decided, back in 2013, to both leave their homes and careers to open up a distillery amongst the the greenery of New Zealand.
Though the duo initially thought that rum would be Dancing Sands’ main focus, they bought a Jacob Carl still and looking into other ideas, they began tinkering away with botanicals. Gin had played an important role in the early days of their relationship, with the duo bonding over blue cheese olives and Martinis in New York, so they felt they owed it a shot. Inevitably, they fell for the spirit just as dramatically as they’d fallen for each other, and it quickly consumed their every waking thought.
All of the gins within the (currently five strong) range were devised on a trial and error basis. ‘We knew we wanted a botanical profile that was not citrus forward (we use no citrus in our gin) as I felt it has been done and done very well. So we focused on spice,” Ben told us. “The process was all about being candid with ourselves. If the recipe was terrible, we just threw it out. If it had elements that were good, explored those and honed in on what worked.
The Bonomas are an even team; Ben works on recipe creation whilst Sarah does day to day distilling. There are three other staff at the distillery to help with everyday tasks, too. Neither of the duo took any courses or lessons in distilling – as far as they’re concerned distilling isn’t all that different to cooking; once you understand the science you can launch right into it.
The botanicals featured in Dancing Sands’ flagship Gin are juniper, manuka, coriander, almonds, cardamom, liquorice, angelica and peppercorns. None of these are steeped ahead of distillation, rather they are placed into a botanical basket that sits at the top of their pot still and vapour infused with a bought in grain spirit. All cuts are taken according to taste, texture and touch, with the hearts cut coming it at around 82% ABV.
This is then blended down to bottling strength (44% for the flagship, 65% for the Barrel, 46% for the Saffron) with water pulled from the Dancing Sands (more on this later).
On average, each distillation run takes around 4 – 5 hours and yields enough spirit for around 200 bottles.
Dancing Sands Gin to taste…
It’s not often that we let out a little squeal upon first sniff of a gin, but Dancing Sands Dry Gin had us eating out of the palm of its hands instantly. Every flavour element presents itself clearly; there’s a rich, fragrant cardamom, creamy, nutty almonds and an underlying juniper that, while not overly pronounced, has a calming presence.
To taste, the juniper plays more of a role, buoyed along by a bushy Manuka and led into green territory by the boisterous coriander seeds. It’s sweet and soft, with a strangely chocolate-like hit that makes you hold it on the tongue just a little too long, giving the peppercorns time to jump you from behind and lash at the throat with a definitive fire.
It’s a super-sweet G&T, with those chocolate-y notes languishing on the tongue long after the sip is supped. It’s not classic in the traditional sense of the word, but it does feel ever so slightly timeless in that it would bring a classic cocktail to life, dragging it right into the 21st Century. The finish is one of cracked black pepper and herbs – fresh, green and utterly unique.
Given the Dairy Milk-esque qualities of the Dry Gin, it’s no wonder, really, that when Wellington-based cocktail institution C.G.R. Merchant & Co. sought a collaboration with Dancing Sands, they opted to go with a full on chocolate gin. Bartender Duncan Raley infused cocoa husks and rooibos tea into Dancing Sands Dry Gin, leaving – quite by accident – the chocolate in for six weeks too long.
Dancing Sands Chocolate Gin to taste…
The resulting spirit is a gloopy, syrupy sweet treat, with rooibos providing a drying, hay-like quality and cocoa husks bringing a real, deep chocolate sensation. On the nose chocolate rules, though on the tongue the peppercorns of the base alcohol sing out, given a little helping hand by the tea, which tends to have a habit of amping spices up with a megaphone.
We wouldn’t particularly recommend trying this with tonic. It’s not that it makes for a bad G&T (it’s not, it’s an alight one, actually, with the chocolate allowed a little more room to explore), it’s just too suited to a Negroni to waste elsewhere. The Campari bitterness brings out the cocoa husks’ dark notes, resulting in a cocktail that is smooth, rich and… sexy? Like a coffee advert from the ‘90s.
Third in the range is Dancing Sands Barrel Aged Gin. The gin is added into new French oak and Dry Rum casks at 65% ABV for three months, then blended together and watered down to 48%. The gin has a loud oak smell, though the gin’s other botanicals are far from overshadowed.
Dancing Sands Barrel Aged Gin to taste…
This is one of the more complex aged gins we’ve ever had the good fortune to try, with a peppercorn and coriander spice coming through stronger than ever before and piny juniper seeming to bounce off the barrel walls, reflecting back across the gin with a huge, slightly distorted air. Woody, but still packed with botanical flavours, this is one of those rare occasions in which the barrel hasn’t completely taken over proceedings, just enhanced them. Try it neat or with a splash of ginger ale for full effect or as always for Barrel Aged Gins, try it in a Gin Old Fashioned.
Dancing Sands Saffron Gin to taste…
Last on the line-up is Saffron Gin. With all the same botanicals (bar Manuka) of the other Dancing Sands gins, this bright yellow beastie is a much spicier affair than the rest. The gin comes off the still and is blended down to 47% with rosebud infused water, before 8,000 handpicked crocus flowers are left to infuse. The saffron imparts a soft straw smell which quickly turns into a roar when transferred to the tongue. It’s a loud, bright, spiced affair – aggressive to a fault and lovely in a G&T, with a lasting intensity that cuts through the quinine to bring a great savoury sip.
Dancing Sands’ efforts don’t just stop at the liquid. The bottles are a real work of art, too, with beautiful images floating behind the liquid. The Dry Gin in particular captured our attention, with swooshes of ink flourishing up the bottle and looks as if it sends swirls of colour into the liquid itself. They’re premium looking to a fault, with heavy tapered glass walls suggesting that no expense was spared.
Branding and botanicals are a big part of the Dancing Sands’ mission, but water plays a major role too. Ben refers to it as their ninth botanical, and its importance to the duo is evident when you take in the name of their source, Dancing Sands. Ben explains: “We believe that nature has gifted New Zealand as one of the last remaining pure places on Earth.
“Our mission is to honour the gift bestowed upon us by using the finest ingredients to create high quality, premium craft products for the world to enjoy. The purity of the spring water sets the standard for every ingredient in the Dancing Sands repertoire, and every production decision the business makes.”
This is a gin range that ought to do well, but given the power of just about every currency in the world over the pound these days, we’ll be curious to know how its costed and who they target when it finally does get released over here or in the US. We suspect it’ll be in the high 30’s if not £40+ mark, meaning it’ll have to fight for a place in an ever more crowded cabinet. That’s not unheard of mind, so it’ll come down to marketing efforts and as always with brands that are exported half way around the world, their ability to engage locally while surmounting the small issue of being in a completely different hemisphere… It won’t be easy but nothing worthwhile ever is. For what its worth, we hope it works out; this is a quite brilliant collection of gins that tell a New Zealand tale, but with huge respect, keeping Gin’s history firmly in mind.
For more information about Dancing Sands Distillery, visit
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