A few weeks ago, Victor Fraile, one of the founders of Santamanía Urban Distillery in Madrid visited Melbourne to talk all things gin and discuss the latest addition to the range, Lola y Vera. I was fortunate enough to get the chance to interview him and find out more about Spain’s first urban distillery.
So it’s almost three years since Santamanía opened, how long did it take you to get to that point?
We started almost three and a half years beforehand, just developing recipes, doing paperwork, deciding whether or not to leave our jobs, and trying to convince our wives!
Ramon and Javier, who are the other two partners, were both working for a telecommunications company, and although I’m an agriculture engineer, at the time I was working in documentary production. In our spare time we started talking about distilling Javier challenged us by saying, “Do we have the balls to do this,” and, we thought, “Why not? Okay, why not?
We started making out own still in a small room in Javier’s house, and for three years we spend most of the weekends there, to the annoyance of our family, of course. In the end they said, “Look, if you are going to spend money, spend it on something profitable.” So from dark moonshiners, we came to the light and founded Santamanía Distillery.
How hard was it to open the first urban distillery in Spain?
Distillation in Spain had a long history. Traditionally, in the village people used the remaining grape harvest to make eau-de-vie, and make what we call it aguardiente. Most of the gin distilleries in Spain are on an industrial scale, small ones didn’t exist. We were the first and now there are three. But we are the only one in Madrid.
It was essentially three years of paperwork. Sanitary and industrial procedures and having to go through the three administrations (local town, state and federal) and repeat all of the same processes. I’ll tell you honestly, it was the part of the process that made us almost give up. We thought, “Look, this is not worth it.” But, we kept going even though we were talking with people who didn’t really care, who just wanted to say, ” Yes, no, yes, no.” and tick the right box.
Did you have the recipe ready to go?
Yeah, by that time we had come up with 36 drinkable formulas.
Yeah, 36 that you could drink straight-away. There were, I wouldn’t say thousands, but there were hundreds and some truly terrible things!
What was the most challenging thing about making the gin?
From the technical point of view, I think it was teaching ourselves. This kind of project wouldn’t have happened without the internet! Talking with friends like Cam from Four Pillars was great as we had the same still and were trying to figure it out at the same time.
I do remember having problems getting the right flavour from the juniper, because we weren’t using the right one at the beginning. For a month or so we didn’t know what was happening. We eventually came up with a solution, but it was all trial and error.
Another issue was deciding the right ABV for our gin. From an economical point of view, we thought we’d stick with 37.5% as we’d pay less tax. Went sent a bottle to Emile and Olivier at Gin Foundry and they wrote a fantastic article saying “This is wonderful. This is a great job these guys from Spain are doing, but, we couldn’t call it premium because it is 37.5.” In Spain we have no problem with that, because we just pour and pour and pour. It doesn’t matter. But, in England it matters. So we changed it to 41% straightway, even though it meant changing the bottle.
Did you always plan to use grape-based spirit?
When we were researching we saw that cereal (wheat or barley) was the most common, but we thought “Why?”. In Spain, we’ve been distilling from grapes since … forever. It’s far more expensive than the traditional base. Using Tempranillo was an obvious choice as it’s a very well-known grape in Spain. All the great wines come from Tempranillo.
Are your botanicals from Spain?
Most of them are. We tested several different juniper, and finally went with a Macedonian grower, a really nice person, also called Victor, whom we love. Our coriander, cardamom, angelica and orris root are all imported but everything else we source locally.
How did you come up with the design for the bottle?
I think that the bottle reflects the name, you know, “Santamanía.” It’s difficult to explain in English. Think about when you are a child, and your mother is showing you how to do something and saying, “No, do it just like this,” and then you keep doing the things in your own way, you mother used to say, “You have the Santamanía to do this in your way.” It’s like saying, “your bloody stubborn to do it this way”.
The bottle illustrates the mania of those three years. It’s a listing of the things that happened around all those three years, the music we were listening to, the name of our kids, our names, the names of our wives. Many things, most that only we understand.
Santamanía is known as Madrid Dry gin?
From a production point of view it’s a London Dry gin but in Spain nobody bloody knows what London Dry means. At Santamanía, all our merchandize and our publicity in Spain, is saying say, “Oh, we are Spanish, we are doing this from grape.” And, the people say, “If you are so Spanish, why does it say ‘London Dry?’
No-one knows there that if you are doing a London Dry Gin, that there are laws around production. So, we thought, “Okay, we changing to Madrid Dry Gin”. The thing is that now Madrid Dry gin is only in Australia and Japan, everywhere else gets London Dry gin, so maybe we’ll change it back!
How long after you launched did you decide to experiment with barrel ageing?
We did that one straight-away. Reserva is pretty much the in same formula that the original, but instead of lime, we use orange, and we don’t use rosemary. It goes into 4-year-old French oak barrels for 3-6 months. Judging by the response, we seemed to get lucky with it first time out.
Tell me about Lola y Vera
Santamanía is a premium gin in Spain, and as such is much more expensive than most of the industrial gins, so we needed something more accessible to everyone. Instead of using grape based spirit we are using traditional wheat based spirit. We macerate the spirit with green apple mash and this apple-infused spirit is then distilled with the other botanicals. The type of apples we use will vary due to the season. We’ve called it Lola and Vera after our two stills.
You’ve now got two stills?
Yes!. To keep up with demand! Lola, who came later, is much bigger. We can get around 1800 bottles every time. We could get only get 250 from Vera, and that was pushing it! Now Vera is more for small batches, and experimentations with restaurants or businesses.
What’s the best thing about your job?
The best thing is it is not a job. What’s the difference between work and leisure? If the necessity is not what really drives you to do what you are doing, it is more leisure than work. At the end of the day you have to eat and you have to pay your bills. But, if you are doing something that drives you out of the bed every morning happy, it’s hardly work!
Here I am in Australia talking about gin. I’m not sweating. I’m not digging. I’m talking about something I really love. It’s great.
What’s your favourite gin cocktail?
I like dry gin martini. A nice, well-measured gin tonic with Santamanía is good too!
What are your favourite bars in the world?
I don’t have specific bars. I mean, my favourite bar experience is Japan. It’s not just the drink, it’s the service. I like some English pubs for their atmosphere.
What are your plans next? What’s next?
What’s coming for Santamanía? I can’t give too many details, but we are trying to make something based on the same formula, but maybe with more strength.
A Navy Strength?
Navy-Strength might be too much for the Spanish market, but going over 41%? Yes!
My thanks to Victor and Bibendum for setting up this interview.
Santamanía gins are available in Australia through Bibendum.