Javier Domínguez – SANTAMANÍA
We’ve travelled to Madrid to catch up with Javier Domínguez, the charismatic director behind Spain’s first urban distillery, SANTAMANÍA. Having burst onto the scenes and enjoying rapid growth, in late 2015 the distillery moved location to their new digs, which incidentally, are open to visitors… Book your tickets now folks!
Gin Foundry – Hi Javier, SANTAMANÍA is still a young distillery and only began (officially) less than two years ago, but how long have you been distilling and what made you choose it as career?
Javier Domínguez – I guess that distilling came to me when turning in my forties so that is now around 8 years ago. I needed a relaxed hobby from my frenetic multinational executive position and I found a very happy and instructive time learning and experimenting.
Turning into a full dedication was matter of starting to love the hobby much more than I had ever expected. That and the sense of making something real, a feeling that I had already lost a while ago in the corporate world.
In quite a short space of time, you have created two gins (SANTAMANÍA London Dry and SANTAMANÍA Reserva) as well as other spirits in the portfolio. What was the plan when you began and was there a particular idea behind it all?
Well actually, these two gins that you mention are our flagship gins, made of grape alcohol. We just released a new one at the end of 2015 made from grain neutral spirit. I wanted something that could be nicely identified by the nose. Fresh and smooth but somehow with Mediterranean character.
For the two initial gins, I thought of making something really unique and nice, using local product, using the past as an inspiration. That is one of the reasons for grape neutral spirit. In the process of making we modulated the original idea, especially when we found new expressions depending on the way you handle and process your botanicals. The trick was to find the optimum match between our local herbs and plants with the softness of the grape alcohol. This gave us our personal touch and our identity.
The distillery is going from strength to strength, the new site is up and running but what’s the journey been like transitioning into the new place?
Well, it was kind of a natural outcome. Right from the beginning we had many visitors to a location that was not really prepared for visitor activity. There is a certain attraction wanting to know more about the still and the gin process. There was a lot of interest and in fact, many times we even had to stop distilling activities to allow for more visiting time. The move was a great idea.
It was a hard shift to make as we adapted the new place heavily with the aim of making the visitor experience worthwhile and that could only be done if we were able to separate, at least virtually, the industrial floor from the visitor space. Having this duality (in a way that the visitor still feels that is inside the distillery) was the hard part.
At the same time, the increased demand, especially for export, required us to find a way to increase production, so we took advantage of our move to more than double our production capacity with the incorporation of Lola, our new still.
Doubling capacity, adding a visitor center, it’s been quite a fast growth for you. As a team, what’s been one of your proudest moments?
The best moments arrive when our work was recognized at international events or by the comments of international experts when tasting our products. It was a very nice personal reward.
Talking of international admirers, Four Pillars master distiller Cameron MacKenzie recently told us that he counts himself as a fan of SANTAMANÍA, as do many others – other than your own – are there any gins that you particularly like?
Well, not just reciprocating but genuinely – Four Pillars has been one of my favourite ones from day one, maybe because we know the passion that they put in the making. A full adventure in every product they make and really carefully crafted. They are special. The blend of their genuine botanicals make a difference.
Could you describe how you distil your gin? What’s a typical day like for you?
Our distilling day actually starts the day before. We leave our berries soaked in the grape neutral spirit for over 24 hours. Some of the botanicals are soaked at the same time as the berries and other get soaked next morning. We use fresh fruit that get into the vapour chamber of our still just before the process starts.
Currently we distil in Lola & Vera – once the stills are ready to go it is just enchanting to see how the process starts, boiling to perfection, with that lovely citrus smell at the beginning as the gin gets vapour infused and finally comes out… indeed is like watching the fire.
Then there is a relaxed time while the distilling is going on, just making sure Lola & Vera run perfectly. It is a kind of a very pleasant relaxing routine.
In your opinion, do you think there is a loss of quality in making a concentrate as opposed to doing a “one-shot” gin?
Indeed we prefer the one-shot process and all our gins are distilled this way, where the neutral spirit and the botanicals get that magnificent bounding relationship with the copper of the still. Since the cooper changes the alcohol we do not see any advantage to the need of diluting with neutral spirit that never passed through the still along with the botanicals in the first place. With all the final spirit going through the still you never miss anything. Let’s not limit the magic!
What’s the best part of your job?
Innovation. Research new formulas and improving what we make. That is probably the best part. In these 15 months we have brought into the market three new gins, launched a limited edition with “Australian flavour”, while also getting involved in other projects than soon will be known. We dedicate the 25% of our efforts to research and development and that is the way we need to keep our quality.
For those who haven’t tasted it, could you describe SANTAMANÍA London Dry?
I’ve always thought that SANTAMANÍA has got a really powerful kind of nose. Many non-drinkers really love how it smells. Lime plays its part. The grape alcohol will surprise you with smoothness and if you are a bit trained you will pick up the raspberry at the end. It’s lighter in juniper and does not offer you woody tastes in your mouth.
Flavour wise, it’s really distinct but what do you think makes SANTAMANÍA unique and what does the next year or so look like for you guys?
As many other makers I think that passion features in your gin right from the beginning. But the passion needs to be maintained when routine and production keeps going. There’s always temptation to shorten times and increase profits all the time and if you are willing be keep your “unique touch” you need to forget about all of those “attractive” shortcuts and stick hard to your values.
Our next year is already here: A new gin is coming to town, and several projects on the go. Sales in Spain, and Madrid in particular are starting to grow considerably as the name is already kicking in town. Our international customers from different parts of the world are also getting used to this sexy Spanish Gin and keep repeating.
Talking about repeat visits to the glass…. What’s your favourite way to enjoy your gin?
Unlike people may think I actually drink very little gin. I love tasting it and therefore I have always been scared of getting a saturated palate. So, I basically drink it straight – room temperature – usually listening to music and with my eyes closed playing to identify the different flavours as part of my job.
However since this is not very sociable, if I drink gin I clearly stick to a good G&T!
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