When Sean Venus recounts the story of his entry into the booze world, one can’t help but think of his high school science teacher as the kind Walter White would have become had he remained at school: “I went to a small boarding school in New Hampshire. I had a chemistry and physics teacher that was brewing beer for his wedding. During study groups at his apartment I was introduced to glass containers of bubbling liquid, and it sparked a curiosity that held on to me ever since.”
Brewing had Sean firmly in its grip, so when he finished school he used what cash he had to purchase some home brewing equipment. He spent his first summer after graduation with his brother, making mad experimental batches of beer, some of which were great, and some of which were, well… “a mess.”
“Beer was my first love,” Sean told us. “I began working in breweries at the age of twenty. It was always my dream to open a brewery, but life got in the way.” Sean’s entrepreneurial spirit remained, though, and in 2010 he was part of the founding team of Mamma Chia, an organic food company.
Years later, brewing was still at the back of Sean’s mind, but with the craft beer market becoming increasingly saturated, his attention moved towards whiskey. In 2013 he spotted an opportunity to open a distillery and ran with it, fully supported by his wife, Grace.
Whiskey production has huge start up costs and a great deal of thumb twiddling time whilst the New Make spirit rests in barrels, so Sean did what many new distillers do and ventured into the Gin market. The overall objective when beginning Venus Spirits was to give Santa Cruz a local spirit to shout about, so Gin – with its versatility – was an ideal way to introduce the Venus brand to the world.
The spirit also ties in quite nicely with the knowledge of botanicals Sean garnered from his time in the organic food industry, and with Grace running a consulting company in the food and beverage industry (in which she helps entrepreneurs create their products), the duo were well placed to create a compelling gin or two.
Sean’s ethos when creating spirits is to begin with a vision of what you want the end outcome to be and build it. He didn’t want to throw loads of ideas at the wall and pick whatever stuck, instead he chose ingredients that worked together and complemented each other in quite a strategic manner. For many, this is a mammoth task that can take weeks, months, and even years, but Sean and Grace were lucky; their vision was clear and the recipe for Venus Gin Blend No. 01 was created in a weekend.
Venus Spirits Gin Blend No.1 has juniper, lavender, coriander, orange, lemon, tangerine, angelica root, ginger, cardamom and liquorice in its line up. It is a hugely aromatic spirit and is not only the distillery’s best selling product, but the one of which Sean is most proud.
To make his gins, Sean macerates the botanicals in an organic wheat spirit for 24 – 48 hours, before placing the entire mixture into Venus Spirits’ alembic still. A distillation run takes around eight or nine hours, yielding the somewhat ambiguous number of 1000 – 2000 bottles at a time once watered down to bottling strength of 46%.
Venus Spirits Gin Blend No.1 to taste…
There’s a hint of maltiness running beneath the nose of Venus Gin; a cereal-like quality that adds layers to its depth. At the fore, lavender, ginger and tangerine tussle for prominence, bringing an elaborately juicy, sweet and fruity feel. It isn’t a gin that smells like gin, but the underlying presence of juniper is reassuring; this may be Venus Spirits interpretation, but it’s still a close relative to our home bar staples.
The gin is soft on the mouth, with the hay-like wheat base acting as the first botanical and creating an almost creamy sensation. Lavender brings a gentle floral hit; it’s been used subtly and to great effect, as there is no hit of soap, but rather a sweet, fresh bouquet. Cardamom, ginger and coriander seed bring a heat to the back end, but there is an overall sensation of fleshy, sweet citrus fruits, reminding us of an overripe clementine – the sort that bursts with juice the second you tear into its flesh. Juniper isn’t as present on the tongue as it is on the nose, though, perhaps playing second fiddle to the lavender’s herbal edge.
If you are looking for an overarching impression – think “American” Gin, not quite in the New Wave attitude with booming base tones, but in the sense that it’s a little subdued on the juniper and there is more of an emphasis on floral and light citrus tones.
With tonic, the spice warmth is gone and the underlying juniper from the nose returns to a more commanding place, conspiring with the lavender to create a rigid, herbal backbone. There is an oddly curried sensation from the ginger and cardamom, while the citrus seems sharper and more tart. It’s an incredibly tasty G&T and one with great clarity – you can almost taste the individual ingredients and feel the way in which they interact with one another. The tangerine in particular takes on a strange life of its own, lending its cheeky zing long after each sip.
Sean goes with all out tradition on his recommended serve, using a wedge of lime to bring the G&T back towards classic territory. We’d opt for a handful of (edible) flowers to bring back the levity of the lavender and to tone down its herbal streak.
Keen to carry on experimenting, Sean created Venus Gin Blend No.2., an aged spirit that isn’t just a barrel rested version of the original, but an entirely new recipe.
Venus Spirits Gin Blend No.2 to taste…
Using botanicals that would complement and interact with the character of the charred American oak, Sean created a juniper, cardamom, coriander, orange, bay leaf, sage, fennel and pepper gin, which shares the same ABV (46%) as Blend No.1. Sean doesn’t specify how long the spirit is left to age in wood for, but it’s certainly given enough time to take on plenty of its characteristics.
The nose is quiet, with the American oak hushing the rest of the botanicals like the strictest of teachers. The wood brings a vanilla-like sweetness, and is joined up front by fresh, green bay leaf, which is so fresh and vibrant its as though it was plucked from a sun-baked, Mediterranean bush. A hint of peppercorn underpins the nose, sitting at a base level with the orange and giving it a somewhat dusty, wood floor-like quality.
Oak wraps itself around the tongue, painting the mouth with soft, rich vanillins and adding a candied element to the gin. The orange is bright, caramelised and lasting, as its carried through to the finish by the coriander seed.
As in Venus Gin Blend No.1, juniper isn’t prevalent. Rather, oak and orange fill the entire mouth, supported by a harmonious chorus of pepper, bay and warming spices that provide a definitive nip on the finish. It’s lovely, but G&T material it ain’t. Barrel aged spirits are not ideal with tonic; wood and quinine are not the most natural of dance partners, although Venus Gin Blend No.2 fairs quite well even if it does start to become a strangely smoky affair. Try it with Ginger Ale in a buck if you like a long mixer, but for us this is one for sipping neat or for stirring into a sugar-rich classic cocktail – something like a Martinez.
Venus Gin comes in a clear glass bottle featuring a textured paper label designed by Chen Design Associates. There is not an over abundance of information – just a checklist of botanicals in neat, minimalistic typography, alongside a square featuring the bottle and batch number. When designing the packaging, Chen wanted to emphasise the craft nature of the spirit, as well as the precision that has gone into making it.
The ride hasn’t always been easy for Sean. The early days of Venus Spirits had a lot of sleepless nights, as money dwindled and costs soared. As is often the case, things were made more difficult by state law, which initially prevented him from selling his own spirits onsite.
In the craft world, the ability to sell directly to consumers through the cellar door is imperative: people who visit connect to a product emotionally, engage with its story and want to purchase it and convey that passion onto someone else – result in a huge percentage of people who visit walking away with spirits in bags and leads to a much larger word of mouth community. Not only that, but retailers take a big cut of profit that could otherwise be in the hands of the brand. Luckily, the law changed in 2016, so craft distillers are now able to sell up to three bottles per person from their tastings rooms.
Venus Spirits also produces an agave spirit as well as its Wayward Whiskey collection. The spirits all share a core philosophy, that of allowing tradition to evolve into something new. The gin is a decidedly modern (and decidedly American) take on the category, but it’s a flavour packed, artisanal, smooth as silk spirit that mixes well and tastes incredible. Sean’s aim is to take his spirits national; we, personally, think he should aim a little higher…
Sean, for his part, is thrilled to be on the scene at this point in time. “We are in the midst of a transition and mass acceptance of gin,” he explains. “I am excited to be a part of its revival here in the United States.”
For more information about Venus Spirits, visit the website: venusspirits.com
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