Balint Damosy – Opera Gin
The family team behind Hungary-based Opera Gin are making their Junipalooza debuts this year. We thought we’d have a little chat to see what got them into the booze business and to see if they have any wisdom to offer on learning how to distil…
Hi Balint, what were you doing before Gin making and what made you want to switch over to becoming a distiller?
Frankly speaking, I did not have any affiliation with the drinks business prior to starting the gin distillery project. I spent almost a decade in a big English-American law firm’s Budapest office working on M&A transactions and giving banking regulation advice to clients. Actually, it was my brother, who hijacked me into the world of drinks by inviting me to a WSET Level 1 course in wines 6-7 years ago. That’s when my passion for wine started, and when entering the WSET Diploma course in the Austrian Weinakademie, I was already looking for a small vineyard in Tokaj to make my own wine.
However, with time I had to realise that I am not really the countryside person doing viticultural work on the weekends, but rather enjoy experimenting with mixing drinks and botanical flavours (I still have the little 2 litres still in my kitchen). Switching to gin was the obvious decision, also because Hungary – in spite of its former, over two hundred-years-old robust juniper spirit tradition – didn’t have any quality gin producer at the time. But most importantly, I love to drink any kind of gin drinks, especially dry martinis.
Today there are a few of you – who is the Opera Gin team today?
We are a real family business. Core people besides myself are my father Zsolt, who is the analytical person in team, and my brother Daniel (my partner in crime when it comes to attending spirit fairs and discover new bars). Three long-time friends also joined the team, among others my mentor in my earlier life being a lawyer. My mum is the sober person in the team, which is very important as we have a quite popular bar in our distillery. But actually, everybody else working on the Opera Gin project, from our master distiller László to our brand ambassador / head bartender Ferenc are all close friends, and we really have a great time together.
I’ve read that you are self taught – what was that process like and how did you go about learning how to distil?
The process wasn’t easy. I attended here in Budapest a three-months course in distilling, but that only taught me the basics, as the course was limited to producing palinka (local fruit brandy), which is the major spirit in Hungary. The rest came by self-teaching. I read basically everything what was available online and in books (there is actually a lot), travelled extensively around the world visiting gin distilleries and gin fairs and took a course at the Gin Foundry on how to become a gin distiller. Apart from that it was really just learning by doing, spending nights in the distillery, testing and tasting.
Now a little further into the learning curve – what’s the best advice you could give a new distiller?
Maybe two things I would advise to new distillers: Visiting distilleries and talking to people is very important. Certainly, nobody will share their exact recipe, but it was amazing to see how helpful people are, and the more distillers you visit the more pieces of the puzzle you will be able to put together.
Secondly, do not lose your motivation if it doesn’t work out right away at the beginning. Contrary to popular belief, distilling gin and putting a product onto the market, which people enjoy to drink is not easy, but we realized that with every batch we came a little closer to what we had in mind – even if the first couple of test batches were not very promising…
An along the way – you must have seen and researched many people and processes, who’s another distiller that you admire and why?
The first distillery I have visited was Gin Sul in Hamburg-Altona, but unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to meet the distiller yet. I really like the concept of the gin and how the distillery is made. Craft gin par excellence.
Among the distillers, Allan Katz from the NY Distillery in Williamsburg was somebody who really told us a lot on how to get started. We visited the distillery during Christmas 2016, when our gin project was really just an idea. Hopefully he will be visiting Junipalooza this year. Speaking of Junipalooza, last year I had the chance to talk to Desmond Payne in the opening hours of Sunday morning, it was a very inspiring encounter.
But from all the distilleries and gins, I think Sipsmith is the one which we regard as our role model. Not just the gin but the way how they transformed the entire spirit world. We see ourselves in the same role here in Hungary, where the gin market is still dominated by big British brands and gin is not yet very popular among young people.
The distillery is in the heart of Budapest – that can’t have been easy to get approval for… How did you find the journey and how long did it take?
It took us roughly one year, and this is where my law degree and ten years of legal practice come into play. Being the first gin distillery to apply for a license, we had to explain to the National Tax Authority what a London Dry Gin is. Actually, they had to amend reporting and filing templates, as the entire spirit regulatory regime in Hungary is only set up for palinka. Today I am proud that with Opera Gin we paved the way for craft gin and also craft spirits, but it was probably the toughest legal task in my life. Being in Budapest was just the tip of the ice berg.
Maybe another thing is that we have managed to convince the authorities to have the distillery and a tasting bar in the same room, i.e. not to have a wall bordering the bonded warehouse where we distill and store the gins.
What stills are you using and how big is each batch of gin for you?
We use a 240-litre copper pot still combined with a three plates rectifying column manufactured by a Hungarian still producer called Hagyó Spirits. The still is a palinka still, which we modified to be able to produce London Dry gin.
Opera Gin is the first of your spirits – did you have a clear vision for what you wanted to create from the start or is it a reflection of multiple personal interests that evolved over time?
As we are the first premium (craft) gin on the Hungarian market, our vision was to produce a gin which would appeal to the younger generation also but still be slightly classical so that people understand what a premium gin is.
Also, we wanted to emphasize the provenance of our spirit. Therefore, everything what can be Hungarian is Hungarian, from our still to the base alcohol (a corn HRS) to the hand picked juniper from the Kiskunság National Park to our signature botanicals, poppy seeds and lavender, both trademarks of Hungary and our cuisine.
We do love Budapest and the era of the city when its Opera house was built. This was the turn of the 19th Century, with so many innovation, development and construction, associated with vibrant cultural and nightlife. These are ‘ingredients’ of our gin, too. This is one of the reasons why details and motifs of the Opera building – which can be a symbol of this fruitful period – are reflected in our label.
G&T time – what’s your garnish preference?
Some juniper berries from our own junipers and an arch of lemongrass
When was the first time you saw your gin on a bar and you didn’t know it was going to be there? How did it feel.
I could name a fancy hotel bar in downtown Budapest, but I think the most unexpected place was a fairly simple little restaurant in the suburbs in Budapest, where people working in the area would have lunch menus and maybe some beers in the evening. I was having my stew sitting at the bar and when I looked up, I saw four bottles of Opera Gin on the shelf, one bottle almost empty. This was two weeks after we launched.
And what’s coming up in the second half of 2019?
Hopefully I am not giving away too much, but we have a second recipe already in the tanks, which will be a fairly different expression of almost the same botanicals (but using a very different technique on our still). Compared with Opera, this will be a much more contemporary gin mainly for adventurous bartenders and real gin aficionados.
Also, apart from gin cocktails, my two favourite drinks are the Sazerac and the Tour Eiffel. I read a lot of books about native botanicals in Hungary and the Carpathian Basin, and wormwood (such as juniper) has been used in the region since the early middle ages…
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