Meet the Distiller: BeGin Distilling

Juno Gin is the handiwork of husband-and-wife duo Dave and Jo James who left their careers in science to pursue distilling.

Mr James had been in the dairy industry using his food technology engineering skills while Mrs James used her background in science to focus on public health.

“The inspiration for becoming a distiller grew from Jo’s love of gin, my enthusiasm for food production facilities, and the amazing upswing in interest in gin and cocktails,” said Mr James.

“We were introduced to distillation as part of our degrees, and Dave made his first slivovitz as part of his role when lecturing at the University of Western Sydney,” said Mrs James.

“The first gin we ever made was after we left Melbourne returning to New Plymouth in 2016 and building the distillery.”

The pair purchased their first two-litre Portuguese Alembic still from Jill Mulvaney (Alembics) and began exploring common gin ingredients.

“Jill has been a significant figure for many people in the spirits industry, providing a wealth of knowledge around botanicals and ideas for combinations.

“I think of her as the ‘Fairy Godmother’ of the industry,” laughed Mrs James.

Juno Gin stands on three core values - make it fun, make it together, and make it right.

“These values have underpinned all that we do, from the initial design of ‘Lila’, our big still, through to open-sourcing our research to the wider spirits community.

“Whenever we are at a crossroads, we reflect on these values which then provide our direction. For example, locally built still versus imported. ‘Make it together’ meant working locally to build our beautiful 400-litre copper still, Lila,” said Mr James.

Covid has significantly impacted Juno Gin, affecting packaging, ingredients and operations, but the distillery established an online presence from the beginning which helped keep it afloat during the lockdowns.

“Covid’s biggest effect has been on our supply chains for packaging and some of our key ingredients. This means larger inventory levels to manage any forecasting changes.

“Our bottles come from France, and sea freight is becoming a pinch point of the entire country, with a number of shipping lines no longer stopping here.

“It also changed our channels to market, with periods of the lockdown being characterised by a huge increase in online orders.”

Having a strong online presence was vital for the business during Covid, said the James', both for building and maintaining brand recognition as well as direct sales.

“Zoom and Team meetings are the norm now. We do think that the remote meetings made business slightly disjointed, as it is harder to gain that personal feel for how the meeting is progressing sometimes.”

As a family-owned and operated business, the distillery was its own bubble.

“Spirit manufacturers are part of the food and beverage manufacturing sector and were classed as an essential service.

“We also worked with Distilled Spirits Aotearoa (DSA) to develop methodologies to manufacture hand sanitiser using the WHO recipe, and have been making that during the lockdown.”

The sanitiser they make is used as both a surface spray and hand sanitiser while at the distillery. Face masks are also a requirement.

Not long into its inception, BeGin Distilling (the parent company of Juno Gin) won the Taranaki Chamber of Commerce business award for Environmental Excellence in 2019.

“From the design phase of the still to what happens after the gin has been enjoyed, we have always focused on waste reduction,” said the James’.

“By-products from distillation go to other industries as an ingredient - the spent juniper goes to a chocolatier, the other botanicals become compost, and the still water goes to a brewery and becomes beer.

“The 700ml bottles are printed in organic inks and are fully recyclable. The only non-recyclable part of our packaging is the corks, and we are looking for an alternative that is recyclable.”

Innovations at the distillery have focused on waste material handling, the development of seasonally focused gins and the production of New Zealand-grown gin botanicals.

“In collaboration with Massey University, we have been investigating the efficacy of New Zealand grown Orris Root, the future production of juniper berries in New Zealand, and innovative methods of distilling.

“We also introduced the 200ml spirit bottle to the New Zealand market. When we think about the harms associated with excessive consumption of alcohol, one of the low-hanging fruits is bottle size, and the messaging associated with 20-odd standard drinks being in one bottle.

“A 200ml bottle is (for Juno) around six to seven standard drinks, which is perfect to take out to dinner, or as a gift or to share. Despite initial reluctance from retail stores to stock this size, New Zealand customers have really taken to it, and now several distilleries offer premium spirits in 200ml.”

According to the James’, a great spirit should have a distinct flavour profile, and should be able to be enjoyed neat as well as in a mixed drink or cocktail.

“The true test of a good spirit is whether you would enjoy a second glass.”

BeGin Distilling is expecting to open a new cellar door at the distillery at the end of the year and hopes it will become a destination experience for Taranaki.