Gin Genius: Meet Jill Mulvaney of Alembics NZ
March 12, 2019
Jill didn’t come to gin through a love of alcohol. It was a lifetime of passion for aromatic plants, cooking and herbs that led her down the garden path (literally). In 2009, after a trip to Portugal, Jill and her partner Charlie, set up Alembics NZ and began experimenting with small scale artisan distillation. Initially, Jill focused on making her own botanical hydrosols and essential oils. Two or three years later, after she was approached by an emerging New Zealand craft gin brand, Jill began to see the potential of applying her extensive knowledge of aromatic plants and extraction techniques to gin. Of course, she jumped at the opportunity. “I had no idea how to do it, but I love a challenge,” she laughs. “I said ‘yes!’ and Charlie and I figured it out together.” It was then that the penny dropped.
“I realised I could make gin out of beautiful high-quality botanicals. I loved that. People think of ‘gin and tonic’, but in fact gin is the tonic; proper gin is literally plant medicine.”
When I called for a chat, Jill had just come in from her endearingly nicknamed ‘Unruly Garden’, which houses the ‘lab’, also known as the garden shed, where she’d been chopping fresh Thai Basil and lemon-scented Geranium to make a hydrosol. Hydrosol is the aromatic water that remains after steam distillation. It literally is the cellular water of plants. “Hydrosols are my daily go-to for self-care,” she says. “These hydrating and antibacterial botanical waters can be used as a spray for the face, body, hair and mouth, to scent a room or even misted over a drink to add a light flavour or scent.”
In 2012, Jill was invited to Queenstown to run a masterclass at the Bacardi Martini Mixology awards. “I took 12 hydrosols and set up a still. The young bartenders hadn’t seen anything like it before and they were so excited they couldn’t keep their hands off it!” But the results blew her away. “They had to design a classic vodka martini, and somehow incorporate a botanical hydrosol as one of the ingredients. They came up with the most amazing things; I was so moved by it I was almost in tears,” she recalls.
“It’s funny because Charlie was far more interested in spirit distillation than I was when we first began importing and selling copper stills.” Charlie’s father, from the former Czech Republic, distilled his own spirits when Charlie was a boy. So, the couple just got on with it, did the research and started to experiment by making fruit spirits like brandy and eau di vie, then gin and whiskey. “I think the best way to learn is by doing,” Jill says, “Knowledge combined with play and interest got me into it.”
With her infectious and inspiring energy, it’s hardly surprising that a thriving business, Alembics NZ, has organically grown from her passion. Now a lauded artisan gin distiller, Jill has become a valued member of an international community of likeminded distillers and alchemists. “I love my work. I get to travel, develop new products, and work as a gin blending consultant for some amazing local and international brands.” Most recently Jill has been working with a product developer in London on a contemporary take of an Old Tom style sipping gin, called Simple Sips.
She has also had some incredible opportunities in New Zealand. She recalls one such experience of being taken deep into the New Zealand rainforest, guided by locals, with the express mission of collecting aromatics for the development of a truly innovative New Zealand botanical gin. “It was one of the most wonderful days I’ve ever had. I don’t think any of us had any idea that the New Zealand rainforest held so many aromatic secrets.”
“When I’m not travelling, I get to share my knowledge and passion for plants and aromatics in my Gin Immersion workshops, where I teach people how to get started.” She’s thrilled that the business has become a family affair too. Her daughter Meagan handles Alembics’ marketing and transforms client concepts from inspiration into real-world branding. “Meagan develops a conceptual story around the blend, which later becomes label and website copy. She’ll say to me, ‘Sing me the song of what you’re working with,’ and turns my babble into verse.” Jill’s partner Charlie has taken a back seat in recent years, but is still around to taste, and share his valuable insights. Staying true to tradition, Jill’s eleven year-old-grandson has even decided that he wants to be a distiller like his granny when he grows up.
Jill is a collector and experimenter at heart, her shelves overflow with Agee jars full of macerating seeds, leaves and flowers. “It’s my library; those are the tools I work with every day,” she says fondly. It goes deeper than that though. She believes it’s a privilege to work sustainably with nature. “The distillation process is virtually a closed loop system. Everything that is leftover can be used,” she explains. After we finish chatting, she plans to mix leftover quince syrup with white clay to make a facemask, and experiment by adding quince to ‘pink’ a gin.
“Working with plants makes us very environmentally aware. My garden is a mess because all the plants have history and value – even the weeds. In some ways I feel like a conduit for the plants and trees,” she says. “It sounds woo-woo, but so much joy can be derived from the simple pleasures of creation. Working with plants is so holistic and engages all your senses, all the time. You’re surrounded by fragrance and then there’s the textures and tastes… it’s a complete physiological experience.”
Woo-woo or not, Jill says that there is a growing number of professional people looking for precisely the kind of experience her workshops provide. “They want to escape the office and do something with nature. They also want to reclaim their bodies in a healthy way. And I think it’s a good thing; the world needs to head in that direction.”
Gin is the new botanical darling of the craft-distilling scene. And with so much fascinating history and alchemical intrigue sitting behind it, it’s not surprising our love for gin continues to flourish. Join Jill for a 50-minute Masterclass and watch her distill a bespoke gin in one of her European copper stills. In this engaging session, learn how to use a neutral grain spirit to extract maximum aroma and flavour from a unique selection of classic and ‘out of the square’ gin botanicals. Soak up Jill’s vast knowledge of distillation, plant chemistry, natural flavour and aroma.
5 Questions with Jill Mulvaney
What is your drink of choice?
Gin that I have made using a good quality neutral grain spirit and the key gin botanicals. I add more juniper than most commercial gins as well as home-grown dried aromatic botanicals and a top note from a plant picked that day.
What has been your most exciting moment so far in your work?
When I was invited to teach with Marco Valussi, an essential oil distiller and herbal scientist, who has a fabulous distillery just outside of Verona, Italy. He distils the wild plants and trees that grow on the hillside to produce a premium essential oil range called Gadoi. I met him in America where he was presenting at a seminar on the chemistry of plants, hydrosols and essential oils. The presentations were extremely cerebral – lots of molecules and chemistry. In the evenings I cooked for the presenters and made them G&T and we have all become lifelong friends and colleagues.
Your grandson says he wants to follow in your footsteps… what did you want to be as a child?
I can’t remember, but certainly not following in my grandmother’s or mother’s footsteps, which was wife and mother on a farm! That said, I did want to lead a life of similar values – to work hard, be a great cook, live with elegance and dignity, garden and be practical enough to work out how to do things that needed to be done.
What were you doing before becoming a distiller?
When I lived in Australia, I worked with production herbalists and that’s where my love of aromatic plants came from. I then imported essential oils from all round the world, formulated a skin care range, taught in massage and schools of natural therapies, blended for aromatherapists. After three children and a mortgage, I ended up on Waiheke island involved in and learning IT. I did a lot of private coaching with people of a certain age who were struggling with new technology. I learnt new business software programmes and desktop publishing – all of which have become and invaluable part of my experience running an online business and engaging in Social Media in a positive way.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I wake at 5:30am to enjoy the silence. I sip tea, eat toast and read books relating to plants, the human condition and distilling. At 7:00am, I walk for an hour and a half. There is a beautiful beach spot I visit between two rocky outcrops. The sides are very steep and craggy and the Pohutukawas hug it. There is a hollow in the rocks – like a mini cave – and triangle shapes are etched into one of the rock walls. I take an offering into the hollow and share my good and not so good moments. That rock wall has held my joys and tears for several years now. If I stand at the apex of the triangle and look out, the sun shines on my throat and face as it comes up over the hillside. I share my breath with the resilient plant life that grows on the rocks and then swim in the sea. It sets me up for the day and keep me connected to what’s real.
If I’m not working on a specific project or preparing for a consultation, then it’s off to the office to run Alembics NZ with a cup of dandelion root chai coffee. I check in with Meagan and our to-do list, pack orders and make up botanicals with my assistant. In the afternoon I may spend a few hours in my lab or set up my still and do some distilling. I often pick my grandchildren up from school and we spend the afternoon pottering in the garden.
At 5:00pm I have two G&Ts while I cook and eat, then we are in bed by 7:30pm reading or watching a Netflix series. I’m asleep by 8:30pm – the day is done and dusted by then.