Victoria is internationally renowned for its world class distilleries – especially when it comes to gin. As such, it’s unsurprising to find a world class gin and cocktail bar operating out of Richmond’s Bridge Road. Bowerbird Gin & Cocktail Bar first opened its doors in 2015 – way ahead of the gin craze which swept through Australia across recent years due to the quality of spirit makers such as Four Pillars, Archie Rose and Natural Distilling Co.
What makes Bowerbird different is the same thing that makes us love them – they’re all about community, they’re all about supporting the locals, and they maintain an absolute super-premium quality level in how they do business.
As a way to keep their business alive during the lockdown challenges of the pandemic, they decided to launch an online gin tasting event – it sold out almost immediately. The event itself featured Rhys (NDC Founder) and was so successful that now they’re doing another one – so, we decided to have a little chat with Max, their owner and founder.
Tell us a bit about Bowerbird – it’s an unusual concept, all local gins?
“Even before the pandemic and all these lockdowns, we were all about putting money back into the local economy – we’ve got almost 130 Victorian gins in our bar, we put all the money we make back into Victoria, plus everything in our bar revolves around sustainability so we always ensure that everything we use is recyclable.”
How did you first hear about NDC?
“I’m always on the lookout and keeping my ear to a ground, because, well, I have to – since I own a gin bar stocking only local gins! I actually got in touch first about meeting Rhys and the folks from NDC to order some gin, so I rang them and got them to come in. Hemp was the main point which was different about the brand – it was fun to find out all about that (and how it’s not going to get you stoned!), to meet the passionate people behind NDC and learn about how they wanted to do something different.”
So what led to you featuring them in your initial online lockdown tasting event?
“When we first did the lockdown gin pack, they jumped on and were really into the idea. Rhys was really engaging with the zoom chat as part of the event, his science background was really different and interesting, especially in how it allowed for the discussion of terpenes and the different oils which give Natural Distilling Co gins their unique flavour. As a bar owner this is great as it makes it very easy to sell to a consumer.
Gin has grown so much in recent years, but what I’ve found is that people are more interested in the story and who’s behind it. They like to “drink the story” so we like to educate them on the narrative behind the brand, get the story acrss. People glaze over about science, about how the ethanol in the gin blah-blah-blah. The person though, the story behind how the gin is made by a scientist who’s also a farmer – that’s what’s interesting.
That’s also what made our gin packs and online events successful. When people pay $15 for a gin in a bar, they’re not just paying for the gin – they’re also paying for the chair, the music, the lighting, the bartender – they’re paying for the show. Some like it for education, others like watching the craft unfold before them. Networking, speaking to the barman who sold them the gin, who’s speaking to the distiller. When we remove that, we remove the point of it all, but these events allow us to at least do a bit more which is closer to what we love about running a bar. I think it really resonates with Melbourne and Melburnian, as we have a gastronomic food culture, as a city. The relationships there are important – there’s only so much fun you can have eating or drinking alone, it’s all about other people. That’s not just the people you’re eating and drinking with – it’s the people who made the food, grew the ingredients, distilled the spirits. That’s why we’re passionate about turning distillation into a relationship – that’s what Bowerbird is all about – telling the stories of the gin. The social part, meeting other people, growing your network. So it wasn’t just a way to try to help our business survive the pandemic, it was also very relevant to how we already thought about things.
With the online gin tasting, we bring things in that make it more of an event. We try to include the elements that make people like coming to the bar – the packs are an experience, with the garnishes, beautiful tonic waters, they’re hand delivered by us – we’ve tried to tie more things in than just booze. The value is elsewhere.
It is tough, to be honest – there was so much goodwill in the first lockdown, people going to buy alcohol from local bars rather than big chain store bottleshops and so on. Now it’s something different, with this present lockdown meaning Melbourne will have spent 185 days in lockdown since the pandemic began – that’s more than half a year. So now with these events, we’re trying to bring our local community out of their reality for a moment, bringing them into a virtual space to relax the way we do with our bar under normal circumstances.”
What is it that you like most about Natural Distilling Co?
“I love that it’s equal parts nerd science and hands-on innovation. I always say “hashtag science” when I mention NCD, as it’s a unique conversation about science and chemistry – it would honestly be easy for people from their background to make boring gin. They’re actually really fun, different, with a different space in the spectrum.
The best tool we have with local producers, whether beer wine or spirits, the asset is the person who makes the gin. Rhys and the team are very face-to-face, they have that family feel, the local community aspect – so the products are easy to sell. There’s 130-something gins on our back bar. It’s not easy to sell someone on a flavour profile – you run out of relevant things to offer them. To give them a great story with levels and dimensions, and then the flavour delivers? That’s perfect. I can do all the product side – if the gin doesn’t stink, that’s fine – I can garnish it etc to make a decent drink. What really does it for me is when it also has the flavour profile, the people, the story – NDC ticks all the boxes.”
So to finish up then, what do your customers reckon?
“Really good – but look, if you put ‘hemp’ on a bottle you’ll consistently get the same questions. You can imagine what they are. But after that, the most common reaction seems to be surprise. I think people are surprised maybe because they expect it to taste a certain way, you’d expect a hemp gin to taste a certain way but Natural Distilling Co is different. If you didn’t write hemp on the bottle, you’d still have a fantastic gin. The Beta-Caryophyllene is my personal favourite and that’s the ones that people in-the-know go for. “Very well rounded” is the most common compliment that comes out of people. The Linalool Summer Gin is perfect for people who are into pink gins, they can tell immediately from the colour that it’ll be something interesting for them. The Limonene Gin has lots of citrus and is great for beginners, as they tend to love to a bit of a lemon citrus style gin, but the Beta-C Gin is the one for people who drink, enjoy and really appreciate gin.”
Check out Bowerbird here – this Sunday’s event is sold out, but they’ve told us they’ll be doing more soon, so make sure to put your name down! If you’d like to do your own private NDC gin tasting at home, our Founders Club offer is the best value way to try our products and support the distillery.