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David Whittaker – Manly Spirits

Manly Botanicals
Written by Gin Foundry

To say we’re excited that Manly Spirits’ Gin range is now available on these shores is an understatement! We’ve been actively championing the Sydney based distillery for a while at Gin Foundry, even earmarking them as ones most likely to succeed in the international markets when we wrote about the Australian Gin scene last year.

Gin aside, we’re suckers for intricate bottle design work and the Manly Spirits bottles have had us salivating for a long time! We were keen to know a little more about what’s going on inside them, though, so we collared co-founder David at their launch in London…

Hi David! Manly is one of Australia’s most famous beaches – how did being so close to the coast inspire your gins?

David Whittaker: We are ocean swimmers, scuba divers and surf life savers at Manly. We love where we live, before heading into the distillery we grab a flat white and soy cappuccino from the local barista at 6.30am and then walk barefoot along Manly’s sandy beach.  Our environment has totally inspired our gins and spirits. Come and visit our Distillery and soak up Sydney’s northern beaches.

And Manly Australian Dry Gin actually has some sea foraged botanicals in it. Could you tell us a little about them? 

Sea Lettuce (ULVA LACTUCA) is a seaweed that grows widely on coastal rock shelves. It is intertidal in that it cycles between being total submerged and thrashed by ocean swell to exposed to the elements and dried out by the beating sun. An interesting fact is that the ULVA family is used to produce Nori seaweed. Sea Lettuce adds marine element and savoury Umami notes to our Australian Dry Gin.

How do you get hold of it – do you just wade in there? 

It’s a potentially hazardous activity collecting Sea Lettuce. If you get to chat to our Head Distiller Tim Stones one day, ask him what happens if you turn your back on the Sea! Our risk assessments now direct us to collect Sea Lettuce only on the turn of low tide and when a 1-2 foot swell is prevailing. We are at the mercy of the elements and there have been a number of times we have had to delay a gin run waiting for a cyclone to work its way down the coast and for the seas to drop.

Sea Parsley provides Coastal Citrus Gin (and our Marine Botanical Vodka) with its coastal taste reminiscent of a warm summers evening by the ocean. Sea Parsley grows around the Australian coastline adjacent to the sea with a mild salinity from ocean spray. We forage Sea Parsley ourselves from nearby sandstone cliffs when there has been sufficient rain to maintain its abundance. During dry periods we get the Sea Parsley flown in from various spots around the country handpicked and fresh.

Husband and wife teams are a surprisingly commonplace thing in the Gin world. What benefits do you think this brings to a collaborative environment?

We work and play together. Starting a distillery is an “all in” 24/7 effort. As a husband and wife team will pull together strongly, heading for the same goal with total alignment. Our complimentary left and right brain skills work beautifully together to make great booze.

Who else is involved behind the scenes?

We have a great team at Manly Spirits. Our Distillery production team of Tim Stones and Thiago Lopes plus our two German 19yo interns Kim and Kevin. Our sales and brand ambassador team of Rob Sutherland and Tom Sramek work closely with our Australian distribution ICONIC. We have a team of bartenders which runs our amazing distillery bar who can answer your questions about Manly Spirits. In the UK, the Boutique Bar Brands team is representing us as we can’t be there all the time!

Quite the team growing there! Going back to the start, how did you get into distilling?

We started our venture into distilling some may say in a fit of madness, spending a boozy long weekend with great friends enjoying Australia’s Tasmania best culinary and cultural offerings including a chance drop in to a distillery off the beaten track. We sampled their wares and they informed us casually that the distillery was “on the market”.

This was the moment when it dawned upon me that it may be possible to actually own one and I turned to Vanessa and said “we could do this” and was returned that familiar quizzical look as if it was midlife crisis time. Rolling forward we didn’t buy that distillery (the exact facts were that it was the land not the distillery that was up for sale) but rather returning to Sydney a rapid period of research and in depth distillery spread sheet modelling to convince ourselves that the idea was more than just a whim, but rather a damn good idea.

We saw the craft beers explosion and the rise of craft spirits globally and decided that we needed more Aussie spirits to grace back bars rather than the standard imported offerings that were so familiar. So at the end of 2015 it became “all in” for this married couple of myself an ex chemicals/oil & gas industry Chemical Engineer and Vanessa a multi skilled Designer with a great eye for brand building. Roll forward 18 months and we have built and opened our brand new distillery on Sydney’s northern beaches.

And was Gin always going intended as the first port of call?

As gin was Vanessa’s drink of choice in her yachting days, we had to make the stuff. To be open and honest my spirits passion was at the time single malt whisky, having spent plenty of time in Scotland including a Hogmanay with family where I drank whisky in my family’s and their friend’s houses over many days. On those first few weeks after returning from Tasmania I steadily worked out how we could make both whisky and gin, and in fact how it would be a far better long term proposition to build a distillery capable of not only making gin and whisky but also other spirits that we may not have even thought of yet.

I’m a quick learner and it didn’t take long for me to realise that creating a gin is a highly creative endeavour where a sense of place can, pardon the pun,  be distilled into a spirit via the use of nature’s local botanical palette to create distinctive gins with provenance. And let’s not beat around the bush – gin is unaged and can be enjoyed very soon after leaving the parrot beak of the still.

Talking of provenance, the sea-derived botanicals make us think this might well be a good gin for pairing with seafood. Have you gone down a gastronomic route with this at all?

Our spirits are inspired by food with so many common flavours. We run degustation dinners at our distillery where we pair our spirits with bespoke cocktails with a guest chef developing matching meals. Gastronomic route? For sure.

There was a time not too long ago when all a distillery had to do to get attention was to put a strange mix of botanicals in the still and cross their fingers. At this stage though, Gin can’t get any weirder, so what do you feel that brands need to do to get attention these days?

Be different and have “your thing” which you can clearly communicate and taste.

What is your current output each year? And do you expect this to grow dramatically with your overseas expansion?

We make as much gin as we sell… we can make over 300,000 bottles a year if we want to. We will just need a packaging line as that’s a lot of hand bottling! The distillery has been designed with capacity, so and upgrade won’t be required for some time.

The term ‘peak Gin’ has been bandied around for the past few years, but we seem to summit the peak and climb further up. Do you think there’s an end in sight? Or even a stabilisation?

My view is that the gin market will eventually become saturated with new gins and the consumer may then look to innovative spirits and fall back to their favourites. The challenge for us all is to becomes peoples favourites! Have a look at craft beer and draw a comparison. There is a while to go with Gin and it will never not be a drink of choice by many. You’ve got to love gin.

Lastly, Gin as escapism is something we’ve discussed for years. The idea of closing your eyes and sipping a gulp of Australian sunshine in the middle of a long British winter is a welcome one. What image of Australia is Manly trying to paint?

It’s a great place to live and work. Seven miles from Sydney, 1000 miles from care. Think of Manly Beach when you drink our gins. Come and visit.

Manly Spirits, Gin, David Whittaker, Australian Gin