Sean Baxter – Never Never
Ahead of Junipalooza Melbourne, we’ve caught up with a few distillers and owners, to talk all things Gin, Australia and what they’ve been up to lately. Top of our list to pester into answering questions was the team at Never Never, whose meteoric rise continues at pace…
Hi Sean, you boys have come out the blocks fast, with a lot of buzz surrounding what you are doing, what’s it been like from the inside?
I guess you could say it’s been an incredibly rewarding experience to see the response people have had to our juniper forward gin styles. When we first started out we were always confident that our juniper revolution would gain momentum quickly, especially among bartenders and enthusiasts who love working with rich, juniper texture. What surprised us was the excitement from relatively new gin drinkers, consumers who are eager to experiment with the boldness of our style. These fans make up the overwhelming majority of the people who buy our gin.
The current atmosphere in the Australian spirit industry necessitates moving quickly. There has been a huge amount of growth in the sector, even in the last 12 months. We were the new kids on the block in Adelaide for a grand total of 4 weeks before another new gin brand launched around the corner. Momentum is everything, treading water in this industry right now is not the place you want to be.
Generating the traction to create the momentum is tough though, what brought you all together and decide to take the plunge and create the distillery?
Well, we each tell a slightly different story, however the real constant in the whole thing is Adelaide itself. Tim and George moved in the same circles at university here and I knew Tim through my wife, who is best friends with his wife (this happens with surprising regularity in Adelaide). Tim always wanted to fall back into the family business and make gin (he’s of Gilbey lineage), George wanted to explore his creative passions (it was either gin or cheese, we’re glad he chose gin) and I always wanted to take the next step and apply many of the lessons I learned running other peoples brands in the industry. Together we make a very strong team.
Most importantly, we knew each other well enough to trust each other implicitly but weren’t so close that we would have any issue telling it like it is.
You’ve stated quite a few times that your looking to embrace the Australian spirit of adventure and the journey into the unknown, this broader idea of fearlessness. What do you mean by that and how does it come through in your gins?
If you want to start a spirit brand in Australia today you need to be fearless. There will be so many things that will try and beat the crap out of you along the way, you need to be able to take a hit and have the strength to keep on moving forward. Each day we are reminded about how hard it is, each day we all go through our own share of ups and downs. That’s why we wrote in on our bottles and emblazoned it across our t-shirts. It’s to remind us everyday of what is needed to be successful.
Our gins represent this fearlessness by embracing a style that is driven by bold flavours and intense texture. We built a gin brand around the one ingredient producers are using less and less of. We didn’t just want to make a gin brand that embraced the classic flavours of the past, we wanted to surpass that, making some of the boldest and most flavoursome gin in the world. This fearless spirit is now something we invite our customers to embrace as they enjoy our bold style.
The bold style… and the juniper revolution! Where did it all start and why did you feel it was important to place all of the emphasis there, on the juniper?
The impact of juniper has significantly reduced with the vast abundance of new world gin styles. Over the past decade there has been a growing trend to focus primarily on ‘unique’ botanicals to sell gin and to ignore the ones that gave birth to the category in the first place. In the race to be different, in the competition to stand out, gin producers have sacrificed the core ingredient that makes gin special. We don’t want to just lead through example or simply educate through taste – we want to grow a whole army of juniper freaks, who demand juniper flavour when it comes to the gin they consume. Juniper is what makes so magnificent, so we want to celebrate it.
Do you remember the moment when you cracked the recipe? What was it like, did you celebrate?
By the time we landed on our final recipe, we had already consumed so many varying gin blends in the process, further consumption would have been wholly unnecessary. The real lightbulb moment came when we stumbled upon how completely different three juniper distillates tasted due to how they were distilled. One was a steeped juniper distillate that was pot distilled, another was distilled straight away and the last was a vapour infused variation. When we blended them together it was harmonious, capturing the various layers and flavours of the same ingredient. We knew right away it was the pillar to build our gin brand upon.
The first gin we made was for my wedding, it was a gift from Tim and George. It was the very first single shot run we distilled and formed the basis of our Triple Juniper Gin. It turned out to be a pretty amazing wedding. I’m still not sure my wife realises that our wedding was not only the most special day of our lives but also the unofficial soft launch of the Never Never business.
Quite the milestones to have at the same time! You are going through quite a big expansion at the moment – where are you at with it and for those who haven’t followed the story, what are you building and what’s coming up?
It’s pretty easy to expand when you only start with 16sqm. It’s all growth from there. We got our start in the storage shed of Big Shed Brewing in Royal Park. Initially the shed didn’t even have a tap. I reckon we were the only distillery in Australia that didn’t have running water. We needed to hand lug containers to fill the still and run a 20 metre hose from the brewery to run the condensers. When you start off like that, you appreciate every upgrade and expansion.
The most exciting development is due for completion in 2019 (I’ve stopped guessing the month). We are building a state of the art facility in the heart of McLaren Vale, working in collaboration with our friends at Chalk Hill Wines who will oversee the construction of the project and will also feature a cellar door on the site. It will include a distillery, two cellar doors and a cocktail bar, as well as a communal space overlooking some of the most impressive views in the entire region. It also has running water. Tim will be beside himself.
Running water, that “optional extra” for a distillery… As producers new to distilling and having gone through the initial 18 months or so, what’s been the biggest learning curve for you?
Cash flow is the most important thing when it comes to being able to grow. We were very lucky starting off in the back of a shed, with minimal overheads and a very small financial footprint. It allowed us to take bigger risks, invest more creatively and spend more money on growing the brand. However as we scale it becomes more important than ever to keep chasing every invoice and saving every dollar.
I used to sell gin out of the back of Tim’s Mitsubishi Magna that I borrowed for 12 months because I couldn’t afford anything else. We’ve made changes to core components of our business because we’ve discovered cost efficiencies that protect our bottom line. It’s simple, cash flow is like oxygen to a business, without it, you cease to be. So far we’re still breathing, but we’re certainly not taking it for granted.
And lastly, you’re in search of the places beyond the horizon… any idea of what that looks like yet?
I think the beautiful thing about chasing horizons is that when you get to where you think you’re going, you look up and there’s another horizon right in front of you. That’s the case with everything that we are doing right now. We’ve had some amazing fun over the past 16 months, since we sold our first bottle of gin. We’ve launched three incredible gin products, all of which are a celebration of juniper in its entirety.
We decided to make an Aquavit with our friends at PS40 because we loved its complexity and the way we could work with some incredible native botanicals that didn’t so much suit our juniper forward gin style. We’ve outgrown one distillery and needed to move into another with some friends while our new space is being built.
We’ve taken on Proof & Co as a distributor who is now making our products available all across Australia and into Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand. We also have some other exciting products in the works that will be launched over the coming 12 months, including one before Christmas. It’s all very busy, and we’re trying our best to remember to be the best sons, fathers and husbands that we can possibly be.
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