There are two very good distilleries in Golden Bay, one is Dancing Sands and they have just released a tasty Lychee Gin. The Lazy Days Lychee Gin is “an ode to those days where you ‘should be’ doing lots but are deciding, stuff it, adult responsibilities can wait while you do whatever you want” according to the label.
This grabbed my attention, so I caught up with co-owner Sarah Bonoma to find out more. She and her husband Ben started Dancing Sands in April 2016 after they bought a still, some equipment, and took over the lease of a building in Takaka. Sarah says “we started from scratch, we knew nothing about distilling and didn’t have a brand, but we were ready for a new challenge and jumped in boots and all.
“We spent the first six months with the doors closed figuring out how to make what we wanted to make before we released our first drinks in October 2016.
“Initially we thought we would be a rum distillery that made dry gin, but our gin was so popular we very quickly became a gin distillery that makes rum and vodka, gin is now very much our focus.”
So what enticed this couple with an IT background into the world of spirit-making? Sarah was an IT project manager and used to work for Proctor and Gamble (P&G). She worked across all their main operations in the UK, USA and in China.
Sarah and Ben met when she was working on a project in the US office. “He was working for a company contracting for P&G and was working on a project I was leading, the rest as they say is history. That was in 2012 and we now live in New Zealand, have two daughters, Mia (8) and Zoe (5) and own a distillery – who would have thought!”
The couple had moved to New Zealand and were working in the IT sector in Wellington, “me at Contact Energy and Ben at PWC. We had talked about starting our own business and had been throwing some ideas around for a year or two. One thing we decided quite quickly was we wanted it to be in food and beverage, we both love to enjoy food and drink and thought there was huge opportunity in the industry.
“We’re obviously not chefs so we looked at sectors we could learn about quite quickly.” They looked at brewing and the craft beer scene but it had already exploded, “we thought we would be too late to the brewing party but our research showed that where craft beer takes off craft spirits follow a few years later. In the UK gin was already a big thing when I left in 2012 but in 2016 in NZ there wasn’t the selection of gins we have now, we saw that as our opportunity to get involved in the distilling business early.
“We found a still for sale on Trade Me, it looked like the stars were aligning and we thought it could be really interesting.”
The couple flew to Golden Bay one weekend to meet the then owner of the still when Mia was ten weeks old and “saw heaps of opportunity” so they left the busy international and city life for Takaka.
There are many challenges when you start a new business but moving to a small town with a first baby to start a business in a sector you know very little about must have had many challenges. “Where would you like me to start” says Sarah with a laugh. “We didn’t know anything about spirit production, branding or marketing, we really didn’t know anything. We just figured out what we thought would work and what wouldn’t. We got a lot right and a lot wrong, it was a huge learning curve and we’re still learning more than seven years later.”
They figured out how to make spirits then, in 2019-20 during covid, Dancing Sands Distillery had a lot of growth as people found them. While growing a business is a good thing it does come with some serious challenges. “Having to upscale production, employ staff, dealing with supply chain issues, increasing freight costs and buying more raw ingredients when everything was closed during lockdowns were just some of the challenges.”
Part of that growth was the need to invest in a larger still, “we were running our 150 litre still twice a day, six days a week. We sat down and decided we had to back ourselves and buy a big still or accept we would always be a small producer. We decided to take the leap and invest in a larger 700 litre still (called Florence because every still has a name) and our own bottling equipment.
Part of the decision-making process of expanding the business was to look at their key suppliers and see how they could do things differently.
“During covid the issues of climate change, and the part businesses and individuals play, became more front-of-mind. Pretty much every brand that makes spirits in New Zealand would get their bottles from overseas, ours came from France. The turning point was when we started exporting to the UK in some volume, we were shipping empty bottles from France, filling and labelling them in Takaka and then shipping them back to the UK.
“Add in the huge increases in freight costs and it just made economic and environmental sense to source local bottles. Also, the French bottles didn’t have any recycled content.”
There is only one glass manufacturer in New Zealand, Visy Glass in Auckland, “I called them and asked if they could make a bottle for us, initially they said no but we persevered. We basically tried to sell them on the idea that if they could prove it would work for us other local producers may buy from them too, and we told them it was the right thing to do. After several calls, and rejections, they finally called me and said ‘we think we can make you a bottle’.
“Our bottle is custom designed for us, it has about 50% recycled glass content that comes from Auckland kerb-side recycling. A key reason they decided to try and help us is that our bottles are made from what’s called transition glass.
“This is when the glass plant is changing the colour of glass they are making, there’s a time where the colour changes from totally blue to totally clear glass and during the transition from one colour to another that molten glass isn’t used. We opted to have our bottles made from that transition glass. It means they don’t waste glass and we get slight variances in colour in our bottles, something we actually quite like.
“As well as using recycled glass it means we are using a material generated in the manufacturing process that would otherwise go to waste. We’re removing approximately 15,000kg of carbon from our production cycle every year.” Accepting there would be variability in glass colour also helps Dancing Sands Distillery promote glass recycling and consumers can help by not minding if their drinks come in glass of variable colour.
Dancing Sands Distillery is now a team of six, “Ben is the flavour guru and he has developed all of our recipes while I run the business.” Dancing Sands Distillery currently exports to nine markets – USA, UK, Canada, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines and Cook Islands.
Dancing Sands Distillery are taking part in Feast Whakatu with Roots Bar and their Roots Bar Adventure in Takaka on the 24th November where they will be making cocktails and serving their Gin. They will also be at Gindulgence Nov 18th.