In Portuguese spirits: a drink with the man behind GIN SUL

Nestled in an industrial building in Altona you will find the GIN SUL distillery. Upon entering, a spacious cool interior with azulejo-inspired tiles adorning the interior walls greeted me. I met up with the founder, Stephan Garbe, to get an insight into his entrepreneurial journey and his inspiration to create GIN SUL. I discovered a special relationship with Portugal and learned the meaning of the beautiful word Saudade. Cheers!

Text and photos: Lerato Ngwenya, GIN SUL

Before we get started on the gin talk, what was your life like before GIN SUL, Stephan?

I worked as a copywriter at an agency for some time. I then founded my own agency and ran it for 10 years. After a while, I was exhausted and decided to sell the agency and take a sabbatical.

I take it that you found your inspiration to start GIN SUL during your sabbatical?

In a way yes, as during my sabbatical I thought about what I could do next. It was clear to me that I no longer wanted to sell my time, rather, I wanted to produce something with my own hands. Luckily the mind-set today is different from the generation of our parents and grandparents when you were expected to work one job your whole life.

One night, when I was on vacation in Portugal with my family, my wife and I thought about how I could bring my two passions together – my love for Portugal and my love for gin. At that time I had been collecting gin for several years, read everything I could about gin and I thought that it would be a great idea to establish a distillery in Portugal.

So your entrepreneurial journey starts in Portugal, why there?

My best friend Miguel is from there, and I spend most of my vacation time in Portugal. For me, the one word that sums up my love for Portugal is Saudade. It roughly translates to a nostalgic feeling and longing for something you love which is lost or you can’t reach – like a memory. Saudade resonates with my experience with the people of Portugal – slightly melancholic and calm, which is something you experience when you listen to their music.

When we were in Portugal during my sabbatical, my wife and I ended up buying a house – and that was the beginning of GIN SUL.

How did you get GIN SUL off the ground after that?

I started my research and found that there were no gin distilleries in Portugal. I found this interesting as Spain is the largest market for gin in Europe and also happens to be a neighboring country. I then approached the local authorities in the town of Aljezur with my idea.

By that time, I had identified the location: an old unused school in the village that I wanted to rent from the municipality. Unfortunately, they were not as excited as I was. Frustrated and unwilling to give up, I approached the representatives of the region and I reiterated that if my concept was successful, I would be investing in the Aljezur region which would create employment for the locals. The process took some time, with several meetings, which were not successful in the end.

 Is this how the idea for a “Portuguese inspired gin made in Hamburg” came about?

Indeed, after receiving no interest in Portugal, I was disappointed and had 3500 km to come to terms with the failure of my project.

When I returned to Germany, I kept my passion for the project alive by completing an internship at a distillery, read several books on gin and the plans for a distillery had taken shape. I was still unsure after my experience in Portugal, and one day shared my uncertainties with my good friend Roco and he said “Stephan, you have come such a long way – do it. If it’s a good product, it will work in Hamburg as well.” In my experience, most people tell you of risks and how your ideas will not work. As an entrepreneur, you need people who will motivate you and I’m grateful to have such friends.

I then started looking for a location for my distillery. I have a friend who had a company in the backyard at our current location and luckily, a space became available. The contract was finalized with a handshake, which in a way makes Hamburg unique compared to other German cities – the Hanseatic codes of conduct are still used today, in some cases. We signed the official lease a year later.

How was your experience dealing with the bureaucracy of setting up operations in Germany different to Portugal?

I started the process of applying for licenses which I found easier in Germany compared to Portugal. I have found that in the last 20 to 30 years things have changed in Germany – you are seen as the customer while the state has become the service provider.

Although I received a decision quickly, there were many hurdles, mainly paperwork and applying for the relevant licenses, which took up much of my time. There were a lot of ups and downs but after several discussions I was successful. I got the feeling that an entrepreneurial mind-set is appreciated as people love it when someone starts something new.

I received the final approval for my distillery on the 23 December 2013 and sold my first bottle two weeks later to Monkey Bar (Neni) in Berlin in January 2014.

With the growth of GIN SUL, how did you manage it all?

In the beginning, the space I rented was much smaller than it is today – it was about 100 m². I wanted to run the company alone, listening to jazz and doing things my own way, which I was able to do for four months. As the company grew, I realized that I needed help as there was a lot of work and things that needed to be taken care of. I decided to hire a Portuguese lady by the name of Célia. She is still working with us and is the Portuguese mother of GIN SUL.

Do you have other Portuguese employees?

Yes, we have two other Portuguese employees: my best friend Miguel who is responsible for business development in Spain and Portugal and Rafael, who started helping out in the beginning and now works full-time in production and distillation.

Lemon, lavender, cinnamon, dry ginger, roses, juniper berries, cardamom, coriander seeds, pepper and gum rock rose.

How did you decide which botanicals to use in GIN SUL?

I invented the recipe by using Portuguese cuisine as my inspiration. I started with 35 botanicals but brought it down to 14 as I found that, sometimes, having too many botanicals affects the flavor profile of the gin as I was after a clear and crisp taste.

The three main botanicals in GIN SUL are juniper, gum rock rose and lemons. I source two botanicals directly from Portugal: the gum rock rose and lemons from a farm in Monchique. Gum rock rose is a shrub that blooms beautiful white flowers and is common in the Mediterranean and North Africa. Gum rock rose has a unique scent – the whole coastline in the region smells like it. I only use organic juniper from North Italy and the Balkans – it is the best in Europe.

What drew me to GIN SUL l was the bottle. Is there a reason why you use clay bottles?

Clay was the old way to store liquid, especially spirits. This protects the spirit from sunlight as many fragrances or botanicals are fragile. It also keeps the spirit at a constant temperature, it basically keeps it cold. In ancient times, genever was stored in clay bottles. The bottle also reminds me of the Portuguese azulejo tiles which fits with the Portuguese theme of GIN SUL.

Do you have any regrets taking into account all the struggles you went through to get GIN SUL started?

I have no regrets and I am so happy. This is the best job I have had in my life so far. I have truly enjoyed the process of creating something beautiful that people appreciate and enjoy.

I find it rewarding and fulfilling that people like it and it has something to do with eating, drinking and enjoying life. I also get to engage with my great team of 13 people who have become like family to me.

Do you have any tips on the best way to enjoy GIN SUL?

Inspiration from all over the world results in limited edition bottles.

GIN SUL is best enjoyed in a balloon glass. This is a beautiful way to enjoy gin tonic as there is enough space for the ice and garnish and you don’t touch the glass with your hands. For the garnishes I recommend serving GIN SUL with orange peel and rosemary.

 What’s next for GIN SUL?

I like to stay innovative. Every year we produce limited edition bottles which allows me to stay creative. Last year we created gin with Portuguese cherry liqueur which was very popular.

This year we were in Goa, India which was a Portuguese colony for 125 years. Goa still has a remarkable Portuguese influence. We went to the chili market and got some inspiration for the next limited edition bottle. My aim is to be inspired by each ingredient as I always wanted to travel to places where gin tonic was invented. This lets me discover new things and new flavors.

Cheers to many more bottles of GIN SUL! Thanks for your time (and the gin), Stephan.