A Humdinger of a Drop /
Inside Geraldine gin distillery Humdinger Gin
There’s no denying the romance of a wedding, and for Geraldine’s Saskia and Andrew Lewis it was a family wedding that ignited a remarkable love affair, one that took them by surprise and has led them on a business path they could never have predicted. The recipient of their newfound favour? Gin, or more specifically, a gin distillery.
CHATTING WITH AN IRISH UNCLE AT A WEDDING,
Saskia and Andrew Lewis fell head over heels for the romance of the gin industry. While gin may have suffered a bad rap in the 1750s, known as Mother’s Ruin, administered to soldiers to steady pre-battle nerves and knocked back as cheap medicine, today’s gin resurgence is one of hipster-cool attitude, old-school charm and a sophisticated palette.
A holiday to Canada in 2019 saw Saskia and Andrew embark on an unintentional distillery tour, saying ‘there were distilleries everywhere we went’. While the couple have become keen connoisseurs of gin, they’re not big drinkers and never have been. Instead, it was the culture of the distilleries that fired their imagination. Saskia and Andrew’s passion for the process is compelling as they enthuse about the ‘open, cool people and the beautiful copper equipment’. Equally appealing, however, is the artisan nature of boutique distilleries where the gin is handcrafted and the products are natural. With a university background in biological sciences majoring in plant cell biology and biochemistry, the focus on natural products is key to Saskia. ‘A lot of today’s food has been over-processed, but gin uses whatever nature gives you – plant roots, leaves, orange peel…’
So influential was the Canadian holiday, Saskia and Andrew formed and registered their own company on a phone while sitting in a park in Toronto. With nothing more than scientific and engineering backgrounds, a healthy dose of optimism and a starry-eyed passion for gin, Humdinger Gin was born, albeit listed under the rather sensible and servicable title of Geraldine Distillery.
Retaining their day jobs at Fonterra, where Saskia is a senior process technologist and Andrew a project manager for the South Island Engineering team, the couple began moonlighting after hours, experimenting with the distillation process in their kitchen before transferring their gin runs to their basement garage. Laughing about the early days, they admit they had ‘crates and crates of gin at home, most of it undrinkable!’ However, with the outbreak of COVID-19, Saskia and Andrew were able to convert the unpalatable trial runs into sanitiser and supplied the local midwives, although they good-naturedly concede ‘it still had a bit of a gin aroma!’
Fortunately, their early gin runs, the ones destined for sanitiser, are a thing of the past and these days Saskia and Andrew are producing a lastingly clean gin. While the concept is simple, the reality of manufacturing commercialgrade small batch botanical gin that tastes incredible is an exact process. It’s about creating recipes, steeping dried botanicals, running through the copper stills and tackling timing to ensure the process is cut before the gin develops a bitter taste. For Andrew, it’s about ‘first, citrus flavours, then a juniper middle, followed by earthy rooty notes as it runs along your tongue’. If it sounds similar to a wine tasting, you’re not wrong. For gin aficionados, it’s a complex and aromatic affair of balanced tastes, lingering notes and harmonious blends.
A boom industry around the world, gin has very few
rules, although plenty of nuances and potential for creativity. It needs to be at least 37.5 per cent alcohol and it needs to have juniper berries. After that, it’s about personal expression and Saskia and Andrew are constantly developing their processes to ensure they produce a gin that stands out, right down to their bottling procedures. To this end, everything at Humdinger Gin is a handcrafted process. The juniper berries are hand-split, each run is tasted, the fiddly labels are applied by hand to the distinctive square bottles and Saskia or Andrew personally screw on the bottle cap and dip it in hot wax. As Saskia says, ‘We don’t want to world-dominate. We want to retain that connection and we want to be doing the doing.’
However, even this go-getter couple needed a little help to realise their dreams, employing Timaru-based Goanna Creative as their marketing support and commissioning their friend, Stew Gollan, a Geraldine artist, to design their logo. The resulting graphic is a stylised honeybee who succinctly tells their story. He’s a play on the name Humdinger, as well as a nod to the botanical nature of the industry and, just like Saskia and Andrew, he’s a busy little bee with goggles firmly in place, sights set and a notepad and pen under his wing.
Transferring their experimental home-based business out of their garage and into a commercial property on Talbot Street in Geraldine was a logical progression for Saskia and Andrew, although the onset of COVID-19 and a lack of tourists has stalled their plans to open a tasting bar. However, there are online sales, and visitors to Humdinger Gin can still experience the romance of the distilleries that Saskia and Andrew fell for. Fortuitously, they stumbled upon an old riverside industrial site and, much like the distilleries of the UK and Canada, Saskia and Andrew have set about converting the timeworn building. Exposed brick, weathered concrete and engineering steel combine to form the perfect backdrop for the beautiful copper gin still that dominates the space. Sunshine floods through enormous doors of wood and glass, light glinting off the stills as they redden and patina with the latest run of gin.
It ’s a place where old-world charm marries contemporary science to form an engaging and intoxicating new addition to Geraldine’s commercial landscape.
Working as professionals in demanding roles while simultaneously forming their own hands-on business leaves Saskia and Andrew with very little spare time. They ruefully admit they just sleep when they’re not at work or making gin or renovating their distillery or walking their beloved dog, Chipotle. Whenever the opportunity arises though, they head for the hills where they hunt and gather and even propose!
Exposed brick, weathered concrete and engineering steel combine to form the perfect backdrop for the beautiful copper gin still that dominates the space.
Andrew popped the question at the top of Big Mount Peel. Locals will be impressed – Little Mount Peel is a popular day walk for the reasonably fit, but Big Mount Peel is, well, big. However, as Andrew says, ‘We get a bit itchy when we haven’t been in the hills.’
Saskia and Andrew might be avidly busy, but their drive and commitment is to the gain of all gin lovers. Not only has an old building been sympathetically restored, but a new favourite tipple has been added to the worldwide gin renaissance. For now though, with gin’s position firmly cemented as effortlessly cool, the only question that remains is how will you have it? Classic G&T, marmalade gin, breakfast martini, negroni cocktail…