Branding is such a strong aspect of gin nowadays. Good branding can be the key to giving the liquid a chance, and that liquid the key to come back. Therefore, a lot of money is poured into branding. We see all sorts of stories of days gone by, of local history, of painstaking collection of local botanicals, of unearthing old recipes, or a new idea born from creating the product. Whatever inspires it, this branding conveys the idea of what’s in the bottle and we connect to that when we drink it. This creates a much more immersive and engaging experience, rather than tasting and thinking about the way the flavour works and how well it’s done. The flavours become paints capturing scenes; be it a moment in time, place, or a glimpse behind the curtain at people who make it, all being celebrated by the liquid.
In some instances, branding is clean cut. The bottle or website doesn’t give much away. The focus has been on the product itself. And even when it’s an incredibly good product, I can’t help but feel like something is missing and I need to know that story. The product is great, but still.
There is always a story.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over these years of writing, there is always a story. The journey of conception, through to the final product is long, sometimes arduous. It can be a Ulysses type epic which is truly engaging. But, who wants to know it? Who wants to know the trials and tribulations of people pushing to create a product? I do. And, I would assert any spirits fan does. Because that is where the story lies and that story makes every drop of a delicious spirit taste even better. Because with it, we can appreciate all the effort that has gone into getting that spirit into the glass.
Step in Zeiver.
Zeiver was developed by James Bilson and Clayton Patterson in collaboration with Dr John Walters, an Oxford PhD biochemist and the founder and distiller at The English Spirit Distillery. The pair of entrepreneurs have varied backgrounds and seem to have tried their hands at a lot of things. James has been involved in specialist vehicles, fashion, antiques and education, whilst Clayton has been in banking and accountancy, and is a trained singer. I became aware of Zeiver through thier social media. The brand had been vocal and I was familiar with it before it launched in the UK at Junipalooza 21. In fact, I was so familiar I thought it has launched earlier (and there is good reason for this, we find out later). So, after a few emails back in forth in the months previous, I met the illustrious James Bilsom in person. He was friendly, and perhaps slightly weary from the previous Junipalooza sessions (I went on the Sunday, and am going to all sessions next year). Nonetheless, he was warm and bright and generally interested in talking to me. I tried the gin and was blown away by it’s profile. We chatted for a while and he gifted me a bottle to take with me to write something on.
So I took some time getting to know the liquid, which is absolutely beautiful. It’s unusual in that it is made from a rice base, and incorporates beautiful, fresh, juicy and bright botanicals that aren’t often used in gin. Peach, pistachio, aloe vera and apple, juniper berry, cherry, lime, macadamia and grapefruit, make up a profile that is lush and vibrant. This beautiful profile is built around its impeccably smooth rice base spirit, an inspiration taken from eastern spirits. And, for dilution, they guys pride themselves on using ‘pristine water’, water that has been filtered three times through reverse osmosis. Zeiver is Dutch for ‘pure’ and they’ve gone to every effort to create a spirit that is clean and pure and bright. Even the branding is clean cut, with a black and white alternating label and simple, clear wording.
Pottering around Junipalooza that day, I was pointed in the direction of James and the stall more than once. And on trying the liquid I could see why. It is taking gin in a different direction to the classic profile of a London Dry, but with no disrespect to it’s origins. Now, I could write a lot about the flavours, different serves. I must say even with such a wonderful flavour neat, the way it comes alive with the addition of tonic is quite spectacular. However, it was such an interesting spirit I had questions. And there was limited info on the website, and the bottle. So, I asked. And, when James and Clayton responded with a 27 minute recording, I was given a wonderful insight into them as people and the incredible journey they’ve been on to create this spirit. I started writing this article thinking it would be about the gin, but apparently it will be just as much about them.
Where the gin begins
I thought it best to start from the beginning, so I asked about the back story and the lightbulb moment they decided to make gin.
“Well,” Clayton begins, “James and I actually met in Korea. We were teaching. James actually runs a private Academy that teaches English with his wife over there. And I was teaching at another private Academy. I wanted to start my own, so we met up and I was asked. I was actually asking him for help and how to start an English Academy. Turns out that’s how we started talking about business. And, the more we talked we realised we had lost our love for teaching and we didn’t want to be a part of that industry. Our meetings were centred around grabbing a burger, but we eventually started grabbing a G&T.”
“So,” he continues, “Well, one night we basically had…like so many stories go, we had one too many gins and G&Ts, and we ended up coming to the realisation that this is something that we could do. There was an opportunity to bring a gin into Korea, and Asia is still really starting to develop their love for the spirit. But it’s also something that we were passionate about. It was how we started bonding as friends, and we thought ‘let’s try to do this and bring this part of tradition to Korea and try to be the first Korean gin’. That’s how it started. So, the next week we got up, got together for a gin and I brought my notebook and we signed a contract and started the company right then there. Up until that point, we had no logo, no name, no app, no distillation experience, nothing. We just had the dream of making it happen and doing it ourselves, and that’s kind of where it all came from.”
“Yeah,” James chimes in, “like Clayton says, we wanted to do something different. Genuine, unique, passionate with with integrity, honesty, and that’s where it all began. So it began over a G&T and. Yeah, went from there.”
What’s the Eastern Influence?
Question two and I had to ask about the eastern influence on the gin and how this comes through. I was particularly curious as to the difference it makes to use rice in the base as opposed to wheat. Having tried various rice bases in other spirits, it is really interesting to see it being used for a gin.
“Well, having met in Asia and lived there and tried many of their spirits, one thing that stands out is their smoothness.” Clayton begins in earnest. “Even the ones that are crudely made are still very smooth. They typically use rice because it’s available. But as you may be aware of now, and what I found when I lived in Japan for about 10 months. Is they make incredibly smooth Japanese whiskies and gins. Apart from the incredible distillation techniques, one of the things that’s very common, is that they use rice. So we noticed this when we went to a gin tasting event in Tokyo, and we ended up having a couple of these gins that were made with rice. We tasted them alongside some that were made with barley or corn, or other Western grains. And I just don’t think that there was any sort of comparison with the smoothness.
The Japanese gins tended to be a lot more smooth at higher abvs. What we found was that a lot of the Western gins tended to be some somewhere around 42 to 43%. However, that’s not acceptable for the mixologists in Tokyo. They require 47%, because in a classic cocktail, that is what the abv calls for, or it should be for the mixes. They’re very precise, so it needs to cut through the cocktail. And, at that abv, many distilled spirits that come from other grains can be more harsh. We’ve found that polished rice used for the neutral grain spirit tends to yield a smoother palate mouthfeel.”
“Yeah,” James adds, “as Clinton said, we spent a lot of time in Asia. In fact, we spent a lot of time in Tokyo. Clayton moved there as well to learn about Japanese alcohol. We have a friend that has a sake brewery and a shochu distillery, so we learned about the sake and shochu and what is involved in making that so smooth for the high abv. In a shochu the highest abv is 20-25%. But, it tastes around 10. And, we learned about sake, and their gins are fantastic. So lots of market research there, which is quite fun drinking and tasting and learning.
So it’s all based on some some solid science. You know, many hundreds and hundreds of years. Maybe even a thousand odd in Japanese history with brewing, distilling and using rice and certainly polished rice. So we use the best rice possible there, Nagato Prefecture that’s imported across into England. So yeah, we’re very happy with that, and it’s it’s going well. It’s taking a little bit of explaining to people here, but it’s a genuinely unique aspect of Zeiver, alongside the botanicals and it works very well, so we’re very happy and the Japanese love it.”
The Botanical List
I of course, had to ask about the unusual botanical list. This was one of the things that stood out to me. I tend to find that most botanicals have been in gins somewhere. And it’s very rare to see a collection of unusual, stand out botanicals like this. They make for such a fresh, delicious and round mouthfeel. It’s an incredible combination.
“Well,” Clayton begins, “we started making a list of all the things we thought would go well in a gin, hundreds of different botanicals, kind of like our wish list. It took a long time to cross them out and a lot of it stemmed from what was available. It’s interesting, you know, in Korea they have a lot of things that you can source, but, not all. So, we had to go with what was available that did determine the direction.
We started by compound pairings. We knew that lime went with cherry and and Peach with pistachio and there’s a lot of drinks made in in Asia with using the meaty inner portion of the aloe plant. It just makes it smooth and adds to the texture of mouthfeel of the drink.
We just kind of looked for compound pairings first, figured out what went with what and…uh…made a lot of horrible gin before we got to this combination! We tried all sorts of different things. I think we had about six of those botanicals in a mix and were like, ‘actually we’re on track here’. We added a few more, because we thought we wanted to bring out other elements. We stumbled upon one which had eight botanicals at the time, including juniper. That was when we wanted to stop. We were really happy with it and at that point, we brought the combination to a master distiller saying, hey, this is what we wanted to do.
He was really excited about it, and said ‘Hey I love it, it just needs one more thing.’ The macadamia nut botanical was the final element missing, and it really tied it together. It’s a wonderful binding agent, and it lengthens the flavour profile. Pistachio nuts have less fat than macadamia nuts. And we needed more binding agents as we weren’t using coriander and angelica root.
You know, the the elements we chose were based on wanting to try to accomplish this, a London dry taste by unconventional means.”
“Yeah, that’s right.” James concurs. “And, it’s jumping off the base, because we knew we had the base down with the polished rice. Then, we wanted the other major aspect to the gin. Biggest you don’t really hear much about the base as the botanicals, of course. And we wanted to do something truly unique by stripping everything away, except for juniper. It was a bit audacious, but as long as the juniper was there, as we respect it so highly. It needed to be front and centre, then we could build on it.
We experimented with some crazy botanicals. Some were good and some didn’t work, there was no taste there. Some really exotic fruits as well. Some worked, some didn’t at all. One of our batches was extremely earthy, very dry, lots of soil based plant roots. We didn’t like that at all, and we went a very different way. And yeah, it was trial and error and we had to learn about chemistry and botanicals and pairings. And you know fruits, roots and seeds and nuts. What goes with what? So yeah, it was a fun experience. We found a few that worked together, so we just added and eventually had four that worked, then that turned into six. And then all eight in total. Then nine with the macadamia, but we had the original eight and it all it all worked and well, we knew that was it. So yeah, some nice trial and error, some study. Blood, sweat and tears. All that kind of thing. More tears than blood and sweat maybe. Or tears and sweat.
“I don’t know.” Clayton interjects. “We haven’t measured.”
Nowadays there is all sorts of talk about water. Some are using different types of water to dilute…and others are finding different methods of dilution are having different results. Some people mention this, some people don’t. However, on the Zeiver website, the water has just a larger space for explanation than anything else. And, as the guys explain, there is good reason for this.
“It was actually difficult to to get the taste we wanted, because what we had limited resources, and getting really pure water was a difficult thing.” Clayton begins. “Actually, getting pure water for the neutral grain spirit to work with is actually more difficult. You know both are really crucial when your distillation process is underway. So when whatever impurities you have in the beginning of the process, they all add up and compound. You know one of the things that we talked to with our master distiller was like, ‘hey, we really want to make sure that this water is as pure as possible because it’s over half of the spirit, right?’ What we’re drinking is over half water and it needs to one be good quality and two, it needs to allow the botanicals to do their thing.
Some people opt for a spring water as that kind of mingles with the botanicals and that’s how they do it. We wanted to showcase the botanicals and keep an open flavour profile. So we tended to opt for the method of doing reverse osmosis. It’s four times more pure than Evian, it’s just as clean as it possibly can be, and gets out of the way so the botanicals can do what they’re supposed to do. After all, Zeiver means pure in Dutch, so we wanted things to be as pure as possible in every aspect of the business. We did spend a quite a bit of money on it, as expensive as pure spring water as we could get.”
“We tried filtered waters as well.” James adds. “We spent on all different kinds of filtration systems and buying different filters, and then filtering them again and double, treble filtering all this stuff. Carbon filtering. So yes, we did all kinds of stuff, and we’re very pleased this process. It’s reverse osmosis and it really helps give another nice unique aspect for Zeiver.”
The resulting product really is something of a marvel. It’s bold, bright and juicy. The mouthfeel is smooth and lush. There is complexity, and journey. All the elements are balanced, and brought together to play their part harmoniously. Not only is it delicious on it’s own, but with tonic it really comes alive. It’s vivacious. Electric. It’s a very special drop. And knowing everything that James and Clayton have been through to get it here, I can’t help but appreciate it more.
Where Are you Selling?
James had mentioned a little on where he was selling, when we had spoken. The guys are working really hard to get Zeiver out there to a number of places and since beginning to write this there was news of another breakthrough. So I thought I’d give them the floor to talk about that.
“I’ll jump in”, begins James. “I’ll talk about Japan, and Clayton, the American, can talk about America. So yes, we’re very happy to be selling not only in the UK, but in Japan. We have some interest in Korea, which I’ll be following up in January, which is very exciting of course, because that, along with Japan, is where it all started really and we take a lot of inspiration from the best things in the world, so Japanese gins, some German gins and some UK gins.
But yeah, it takes a long time to do business in Japan. A very long time, but once you’re in, you’re in and we passed the test. Our first prototype needed to be bumped up in abv. As Clayton said earlier on. Because of the cocktail perfectionists, mixologists, and how it needs to cut through the cocktail. But, it still needs to be smooth and very well distilled for the abv. So we passed the test in Tokyo, the one test you know, as a sipping gin, to be drunk neat. Sipped neat or just on ice. And, then it needs to be a fantastically versatile cocktail gin. As well as sipping gin, and at that abv.
It’s high in its premium, so we are selling in Japan. Is doing very well. It’s it’s actually selling better than we we thought, especially with all the the horrendous COVID issues and problems. We sent hundreds of bottles there and then they banned alcohol sales, all that kind of story. So we had to wait and we actually launched in Japan a day before we launched in London. We launched in Japan the Friday. We didn’t plan this that, they told us on the Thursday on social media that we’re launching on the Friday. And then we launched at Junipalooza on the Saturday in London, in September 2021. So yeah, we haven’t been able to go back to Japan and they won’t allow us in the country yet. So yeah, we couldn’t even be there, and it’s taken off.
We have some really good ambassadors for the bar trade in Tokyo, some amazing mixologists and bars and the CEO or the Vice CEO of the distributor is really happy with us and knows our passion, loves the product, sends pictures with his friends in bars, drinking Zeiver. So we’re actually very humbled and amazed. It’s been really well received by some serious kind of whisky, sake and shochu experts, and some brilliant bars across the country. And we’re now breaking off outside of Tokyo, into the cities there as well.
But yeah, it’s got a good following around Tokyo. It’s spreading, so we’re very happy, so that’s Japan, hopefully going into Korea January and then maybe Singapore and Hong Kong as well.”
“Yeah,” Clayton jumps in, “I’ve been working on practising my Japanese more and more because we’re going to have to be talking with a lot of people here and there to get more sales. I think what we’re excited about, is how things are progressing there. And of course, the next question is the US. What’s happening in the US? I’ve got some people that are really interested in in bringing Zeiver on and some large distribution companies that are coming in and showing an interest, now that things are opening up COVID wise. And, there is also another aspect of it that I am a U.S. citizen and there are fewer regulations on starting an importation company. So, we can import directly through our own efforts and sell directly to the trade.
So, up until recently, the bottle size had to be just so, and that actually changed last year. So what we’re trying to do is make sure that we streamline our bottle size and our label, so that we can sell in multiple countries without having to have multiple lines and different labels and stuff like that. Just trying to make sure, as international companies have issues and they have to make sure that their product makes sense in every country that they work with.
And so even though it’s just a two man team here right now, we’re dealing with some of these things, multi conglomerate companies and international companies. And, it is kind of a fun challenge to see how we can overcome them and still deliver the same quality drink to different parts of the globe. It will be sold in the US. It’s just a matter of time. It’s also a matter of us also trying to make sure that we have a good solid base here in the UK.
We’re probably going to start with like a small batch shipped out to the US to see how it goes and to see what kind of traction it gets before making more. But yeah, definitely interested in expanding for personal reasons.
The reason I’m doing this is so I can travel and meet new people and have new experiences. It’s not really about the money, it’s about the experiences that I gather and the people that I meet, including James. You know, along the way James and I have met some incredible individuals. And we’ve made some lifelong friends, and we’re continuing to do so. And those are things, experiences that you can take with you no matter what. The the money allows us to continue to do that and it will allow us to continue to have a legacy of creating new quality drinks which we plan on doing so in the future. Not just gin, because we are first and foremost a spirits company and a company that’s interested in not just making alcohol but making experiences for people. You know, creating an emotion and feeling of connecting with with people in the bar. So that’s kind of what we’re doing. That’s what that’s why we do it. We’re excited to do more of that in the countries that were visiting and just see where it goes.
It’s been an organic grassroots effort. It’s really been something that we’ve had to kind of learn. Something we’ve learned as we’ve gone on a couple of things. And, we’ve made a lot of mistakes, but we’ve made a lot of progress. We’re really excited with how resonant people have been, even in other countries where you don’t really speak the same language or there’s a lot of barriers. You might think that it’s harder, but in some ways it’s easier because you have to just kind of both step aside and look at what you have in common. And in Japan is the common love for that gin. And and I think it’s we’re going to be able to do that in any country we try to go into.”
“Yeah, America,” James adds, “it’s a huge market. Very exciting, but this a very seasoned wine company. It’s been around for a long long time, likes our products and is very keen and that’s again very humbling. And we know we have something special that’s gonna be around for a while.”
What About You?
The answers so far have been fantastic. So much detail on the process and it’s taught me an awful lot on everything from initial conception, design and production, to selling the product around the world, which is really interesting as we don’t always get to hear these details. It’s also been nice getting to know James and Clayton. But I want more. So, last question, and I ask them to tell me a little about themselves and and other titbits they would like to share with us.
“Not so much unusual” starts James, “but a little bit of a titbit, is about the black and white label. We get asked all the time what the difference is. The quick answer is that that’s the one thing we couldn’t compromise on. I like the black and Clayton liked the white and it was one of the hardest things to get right. So a shout out to the label company that we work with.
It has the kind of Asian influence. Very minimalist, clean fashion. Looks ying and yang as well, which people really like, and they like it more than we thought. So that’s our scheme now and the websites and our point of sale in in the bars. They have a black one label shirt and then the white one shows. It gets lots of attention.
So that’s a little bit unusual titbit. But another one, is that in some areas of the world, people laughed at us when we’re trying to set this company up. And we kept on going. We’ve had lots of lots of hurdles and hardships. COVID of course, we launched literally two or three days before COVID, as in literally 2020. And we kept going, but in a very different way.
And then we launched in Japan when they locked before lockdown and they banned alcohol sales and bars were shut down for eight months. Some went bankrupt. Many have come out of the ashes, which is great. So, that’s happened to us in two countries now, and it had a great initial response and excitement, then the shutters came. But we knew we had something special. We had great reviews. We built up our fan base online and it’s taking off and it’s wonderful to see.”
“Yeah,” Clayton continues, “we tried to start this company in two different countries. Third times a charm. Korea, Japan, Singapore. No, there’s four times a term, I suppose. So, Korea, Japan, Singapore, UK. We were laughed at, told that we couldn’t do this. We were told that the world doesn’t need another gin. We were told that we don’t know anything about it. We were told that it’s not good enough. We still get told on a regular basis by world class sommeliers and people who know their stuff, that it is one of the best and finest things they’ve ever tasted. And, in the same week we will get somebody who says that it’s not good enough. So, I think with anything in life, we’re not looking for those who don’t believe in our product because there’s always going to be haters out there. We’re looking for those who are looking for something different to drink that’s just a step above. And, you know, we believe that. We’re going to keep going and finding the people that believe in us and and believe in our drink and believe in what we make. We listen, and we’re not above changing our strategy to make the the products better. We’ve done a lot of that, but at some point you just have to trust it and go with your guns. You just have to trust yourself and that you have something. Don’t let other people derail you for sure.”
And personal titbits? We’re both avid music fans. We both play guitar.”
“Let’s say, Clayton’s a better singer.” Adds James.
“Yeah, I don’t know.” Clayton responds, “I went to school for music. I’m a singer songwriter, producer. We have different backgrounds.”
“Yeah, very different personalities.” continues James. “But we fit together quite nicely. There’s friends and business partners, so it’s a bit of a ying and yang there as well. One encouraging, one calming and then vice versa. We both have a similar sense of humour, like music, admire hard work and vision and imagination. And art and these kind of things. So it it goes well with what we’re involved with. And when people will love people, we love the hospitality trade. We’ve worked in bars before, work closely with people. So yeah, any more questions you can just ask us.”
Oh don’t you worry guys, I certainly will.