Melissa & Lee Katrincic – Conniption Gin
When Durham Distillery founders Melissa and Lee Katrincic sent us over a bottle of Conniption Gin last year, we near enough fainted with joy. It’s a sublime liquid – crisp and vegetal, yet floral and sweet. They are heading over to Junpialooza in June to test their gins out on a UK audience, and believe us when we say you should do whatever you can to get a sample! We did some transatlantic chatting with the duo ahead of their trip across the pond to find out all there is to know about Conniption.
Conniption is a uniquely American expression that’s not so often used in the UK, but its pretty much a big old strop, right? Did you throw any conniptions whilst making the gin?
LEE: Ah yes, a conniption is a really BIG hissy fit. It’s something most of us remember hearing from our grandparents and it is definitely more of a “southern-ism” here. Melissa recalls being told at young age to NOT have a conniption. For us though, we turned conniption into meaning a fit of inspiration. And now it’s fun to say: Go Ahead. Have a Conniption!
Don’t mind if we do! Well… in spirit form. With Conniption Dry and its Navy Strength partner in crime you have two really, truly lovely spirits. Do you feel they echo their provenance?
LEE: Conniption American Dry gin does have inspiration from the where we live in South, particularly with our use of Cucumber and Honeysuckle flowers in the Rotary Evaporator. We wanted to bring smells and tastes of the South into that gin. However, Conniption Navy Strength gin is much more of a globally inspired gin. We looked at spices used in all types of cuisine from around the world and wanted to create a balanced, botanically intense gin that would be unlike other Navy Strength gins.
When did you realise you’d achieved this? Was there an a-ha moment?
MELISSA: Lee was methodical with both gins formula development, which took about a year. He hand blended the formulas from a range of 24-30 distillates that he’d distilled in small batches off our test still. In preparation, we also both tasted a good 200+ gins during development. This was very helpful so we could train our palates to try and pull out the flavour combinations focusing on what we liked, what we wanted to do differently, and what botanicals we’d prioritise for our use of the rotary evaporator.
I think our ah-ha moment for Conniption American Dry was when we roped our family into blind taste testing at the house. We had the test gins alongside other very well-known and highly regarded contemporary gins. They tasted them neat and then in martinis without knowing which was which. Each of them ranked ours as highest….and we swear we did not influence the judges!
Do you have a particular methodology or approach that makes you a little different?
MELISSA: Having Lee’s professional training as a pharmaceutical chemist for 20 years is certainly a fantastic differentiator for us! In all seriousness though, we knew that there were technologies now available that serve as a modern bridge to the traditional techniques of gin manufacturing. At the time in 2013, we knew of Sacred gin of course, but we wondered about marrying the techniques of vapour and vacuum. It was then honing in on what botanicals needed vapour to maximise flavour and which needed the gentle vacuum of the rotary evaporator to preserve their flavours. We were always really excited about the science of gin distillation, and it’s fun to have combined techniques in this way!
We agree – especially when done with this effect. Science aside, what inspires you as a gin maker?
MELISSA: For me, I find inspiration from cooking, baking, gardening and cocktail research. I very much enjoy thinking about flavour combinations and how to bottle them. It happened even when I was chaperoning my kindergarten son this past week and we were in a playground that had a flower, fruit and vegetable garden. I smell everything and think about it in gin. It’s probably a bit maddening to Lee as I always tweak. At home, I’m notorious for not writing any recipe down and doing it from memory. Then of course, I sneakily change it too. I like the process of flavour discovery. Even now, I still think about how to make the American Dry gin better (but assuredly, I won’t touch Navy!).
LEE: My inspiration comes from other entrepreneurs in our city as well as our customers. Durham, NC is a city that has been undergoing a renaissance in the 11 years we have lived here. There are so many great entrepreneurs that have opened fantastic restaurants, bars, breweries, etc. to help bring Durham to prominence in the US South. So, I was inspired to take my time and make gins that would be in line with the quality of these establishments. Secondarily, I like to cook and enjoy making fancy meals for family/friends. It is always rewarding when everyone says how much they loved the meal after spending a lot of timing cooking. I get inspiration knowing that I am “cooking” for each customer who tries our gins.
This is very clearly a passion project, but you must have hopes for the future. You’re over in the UK for Junipalooza – are you exploring exports? Have you got your eyes set on other locations too?
MELISSA: At this stage, within our home base, we hope that Conniption gins will continue to gain fans to help spread the word that it’s okay to love gin. Creating gins in a region that prioritises love for whiskey is tough. We do a lot of gin exploration and education locally because it’s just not a well-known or understood category of spirit here. Thankfully, Conniption American Dry is proving to be a fantastic gateway gin from vodka fans and likewise, Conniption Navy Strength gin gains many converts from whiskey and bourbon.
For us, Junipalooza is such a fantastic opportunity to showcase what we’re doing, and it’s exciting to be in a room with the global gin community. We hold our fellow gin distillers in high regard, and we can’t wait to meet many of them. Yes, our hope is for Conniption gins to be exported to the U.K. and Europe. It’s a big goal of ours for Conniption to be one of the top requested gins from the States.
We’d certainly like the Gins to be readily available over here – our bottles are down to crumbs now… We’re such fans of the two existing gins, but our greediness can’t make us help but wonder if there are plans to expand the range?
LEE: We are in formula development for our barrel rested gin now! We’ve sourced used bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace Distillery, and we’ve begun the formula development and test distillate blending. Our hope is to have the gin out by the end of year but we aren’t going to rush it to market just to get it out in time for Christmas either.
MELISSA: this is where Lee and I come to the project in two different ways. I leave Lee to the science, and I take on the food/cocktail flavour combination research. To date, we’ve short listed our botanical priorities for this gin (each one of our gins will have its own unique recipe) but looking at that list, there isn’t that much overlap yet. I’m thinking we might need to each get a test barrel…he has his and I have mine. Who knows? My bet is the final will be a perfect blend of the two… a lot like the gins so far to date…and our marriage too.
Working together must certainly make work feel a lot less like work. What has been the biggest highlight of your Gin journey so far?
LEE: Oh this a tough question! Turning passion into a business and a bottle has been a more challenging and yet more rewarding journey than either of us anticipated. It’s always been about making the best gin we could.
MELISSA: Every time we have a distillery tour, there is that moment when a non-gin drinker tries the American Dry for the first time and so often says either “I never knew gin could taste so good” or “I now love gin!” For me, this is when I get the most joy. It’s so much fun to have people enjoy Conniption as much as we do!
LEE: I had never made a drop of gin before we decided to do this business, so I always wondered if our gins were well-received. Locals who visited the distillery were always telling me they loved the gins, but I thought it was like my mom telling me I was the most handsome kid in school. So, it was most rewarding for me when the Navy Strength gin was given a rating of 96 by the Beverage Tasting Institute, making it one of the top three gins they have ever tried. For me, it was validation that we had gins that people were really enjoying.
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