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Business editor Sally Rae talks to the duo behind No 8 Distillery.
Walk past cafe and bar Dog With Two Tails in Dunedin’s Moray Pl and be prepared to do a double-take.
For in the window is likely to be a smiling Frenchman distilling award-winning gin from a shiny copper still called Therese, named in honour of his grandmother.
No 8 Distillery, established during last year’s Covid-19 lockdown, is believed to be the first distillery to open in Dunedin since the Willowbank Distillery auctioned off its last whisky barrel in 1997.
It may be in its infancy but its legacy dates back over four generations, drawing on family recipes and the collaboration between a happy Frenchman with an extensive background in the hospitality industry and a teetotaling New Zealander with a passion for flavours.
French-born Julien Delavoie has been living in Dunedin for six years. He worked as a chef and pastry chef for 18 years, including as a senior sous chef and head pastry chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant and five-star hotels.
Travelling around the world, he and his partner came to New Zealand for a month, Mr Delavoie said. They fell in love with the country and the people and decided to return.
In 2016, returning on a working holiday visa, they travelled the country and settled on Dunedin, choosing the place ahead of a job. Working under pressure for so many years, he wanted a change and to do something with less pressure.
Hospitality was in the blood of his family — "I grew up in the kitchen and back of the bar" — and he was the distillation of three generations of distillers. His family came from Deauville, Normandy, and had distilled Calvados, an apple liquor and specialty of the region, since 1910.
Mr Delavoie, who sports infectious enthusiasm, said he had hoped to open his own pastry shop in Dunedin but Covid-19 put a halt to those plans. Working with Michael Wilson at cafe and venue Dog With Two Tails, the two decided to start a side project.
Lockdown was disastrous for the hospitality sector and they were looking at what they could do. The term No8 came from the need to get things done with what they had on hand while setting up and installing the distillery during lockdown.
That was why it had somewhat of a "Frankenstein" look about it, with all sorts of parts thrown together, Mr Wilson said. Distilling in the cafe’s front window was part of their goal to demystify the science and make the art visible for the city’s residents and visitors.
It also meant that people could come and talk to him while he was working, Mr Delavoie said.
"A few distilleries have asked me ‘how do you distil in a window?’ I say, ‘why not?"’
From Therese, Mr Delavoie has created three very different gins — Dunners Dry Gin, a mix of traditional herbs from the Mediterranean and New Zealand, which Mr Wilson quipped was the "love child" between the pair, along with Hibiscus Gin and Horopito Fire Gin.
No8 won three medals at the recent London Spirits Competition, where entrants were evaluated for all-round excellence; the way it tasted and looked and the value it provided. Horopito Fire and Dunners Dry were both awarded silver medals and Hibiscus received a bronze medal.
The pair were thrilled with the success, particularly as the judging criteria was based around the consumer, Mr Wilson said. They were also delighted given getting their entry in had been "touch and go".
Getting supplies had been an issue and the bottles arrived two weeks before their entries were sent to London. Then they were lost in the mail delivery service and it was all a bit stressful.
The range of gins was developed to appeal to different palates and moods. "Everyone has different tastes and different preferences depending on the time of the day and their mood," Mr Delavoie said.
Mr Wilson said he had a keen interest in native plants and their uses in food and medicine. He was also a keen forager and enjoyed running in the bush around the outskirts of the city, searching for new flavours as well as the likes of horopito, tarata, gorse flowers and thyme.
He brought his flavour extraction expertise from a 15-year background in coffee roasting and brewing, and bean-to-bar chocolate manufacturing. While he did not drink alcohol, he did taste it, Mr Wilson said.
The gin sector was still quite a growing market and consumers were increasingly looking for craft gins.
Mr Delavoie has also been making other alcohol, including liqueurs, such as limoncello, and also absinthe, using a family recipe he found in a notebook which dated back to 1926, with some little ingredient tweaks. Mr Wilson described it as "like being smacked in the face with a log of soft-eating liquorice".
Sustainability was important to the pair and their bottles could be refilled and swapped. Eco paper was used for their labels and they aimed to be zero waste.
That meant they used second-grade produce, such as apricots and walnuts from the Otago Farmers Market, where they have a stall, which were often rejected as imperfect by consumers but were full of flavour for spirits making.
The botanic mash left after spirits were made went to a
worm farm and any excess fruit was made into marmalade.
While distilling in the window was quite a novelty, Mr Wilson acknowledged they definitely needed more space.
"At the age of 1, Therese is already taking up far more space than her parents can manage," he quipped.
Their long-term plan was to have a distillery where they would have space to produce the likes of Calvados and rum. That would happen when they could afford it — "maybe even before we can afford it", he said.
Establishing No8 had been fun and intense but not always easy. Part of the problem was maintaining sufficient production, which was not a bad problem to have, he said.
It had been an interesting time to start operating and probably not the most ideal, given Covid-19. But it would not have happened had it not been for lockdown, he said.