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'With hard work, anything is possible'

James Dumay talks about his experience founding his own gin distillery, making his mark on the Australian craft gin market, and his work with drinks design specialist Denomination

James Dumay Wildspirit Distilling Co.

James Dumay isn’t new to the drinks trade. His family has a long connection to the hospitality industry and in 2011 they founded Dad & Dave’s Brewing, an independently owned and operated family craft beer business. In 2019, having started experimenting with gin infusions a few years prior, James founded Wildspirit Distilling Co. The distillery focuses on innovative flavour combinations as well as promoting the craft of gin, and this is where James’s desire to experiment and push boundaries really came into its own. Here he talks about his experience founding Wildspirit. 

You and your family have considerable experience when it comes to making great craft beer. What made you pivot from brewing beer to distilling gin?

We haven’t pivoted – we now make both craft beer and spirits! My brother Dave started the Dad & Dave’s brewery back in 2011, and I joined the business last year to develop Wildspirit after 15 years in high technology. Over the past ten years, I’ve had a deepening love affair with gin, amaro, cocktails and wine. Creating my own unique spirits didn’t seem out of range of my abilities, so I thought I’d give it a go. It made a lot of sense to setup with my brother: his production knowledge is incredible, and he already had premises, licensing, suppliers and customers.

Has it been a challenge finding your place in the industry, especially at a time when the craft gin market is beginning to look a little crowded?

It’s been a rocky 12 months for distilleries and breweries in Australia. Last year we had terrible bushfires sweeping our nation. Our countryside, cities, beaches, and homes were in a cloud of smoke, with ash falling from the sky from fires hundreds of miles away. Then came destructive floods, and now a pandemic. Declining tourism, rock-bottom consumer confidence and a complete economic shutdown has been the biggest leftfield challenge for us all so far. As I tell Dave, survival is a competitive advantage.

We get a lot of cut-through with customers because we have a brand, packaging and product that stands out on shelf and easily piques people’s interest. You’ve got a split second as the customer looks at the shelf, picks a bottle and takes a look at the label. Being that bottle is what makes branding and packaging design so important.

The other challenge is consumer awareness of the Australian craft spirit category. Less than 1% of all spirits consumed in Australia are Australian-made. Think about it this way: growing consumption to an achievable 2% doubles the market for all producers. The more we can do together as industry partners to increase consumption of the category, the more room there is for producers to operate.

From a competition point of view in craft spirits, you should be worried about international players like Pernod Ricard, not Four Pillars or the micro distillery down the street. You’re in the same boat.

How did your relationship with drinks design specialist Denomination help you find your place and cut through in such a competitive market?

As a complete newbie to the spirits industry, I was looking for an agency that could make our product stand out and navigate the increasingly complex market psychology of craft spirits. I began my search and found Denomination’s portfolio, which was full of recognisable brands that I’ve consumed for years, or had left a positive impression on me when I was in the liquor store. I wanted that same magic for Wildspirit.

Working with Rowena Curlewis [Denomination CEO] and her team was incredibly fun and a massive learning experience. Everything from the first brief, naming the distillery, early design work, and project delivery was extremely professional. The thing that impressed me the most is how they pushed me on things they believed in and didn’t cave when I pushed back. I have an incredible amount of respect for when an agency says they believe in something and they are brave enough to explain to me how I’ve got it wrong. And they were right: we’ve won two packaging awards for Bloody Merry Gin, the first being at the Australian Gin Awards in 2019 for Best Bottle in Show, and the second was a silver medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2020. This is an agency you can trust with your brand and have them come back with a brilliant result.

When you first started making your own gin infusions, what sort of flavours did you come up with? Anything that should be avoided at all costs?

Ooh, that’s a tricky one. I think my biggest mistake was not realising just how much flavour could be packed into a single gram of a botanical. I’d make all these overpowered – and undrinkable – infusions until I worked out a magic ratio. Most distillers have these, and they are highly kept trade secrets. You sort of have to earn your wings figuring out what works and what doesn’t on your own. I think anise or liquorice flavours are really tricky. They tend to overwhelm the entire palate if you are not careful. Infusions are often like that, dial down one flavour and it allows other softer, more delicate flavours to take more of the front stage. Our Unpeeled Mandarin gin uses a small amount of anise myrtle [a liquorice-flavoured leaf native to Australia] and needed to be offset by sweetness and spice to get the balance right. My advice to new distillers: you probably need less than half of what you think you should use.

Wildspirit describes itself as ‘delectably unexpected’; what makes your company different to other distilleries?

It’s flavour you can taste, through your tonic or cocktail, that makes the difference. That’s not to say our flavours are overpowering, but I really want the everyday person drinking our spirit to be able to taste what we use to flavour the spirit. Distillers will often produce something that tastes fantastic as a straight spirit but gets completely drowned out when you start mixing it. And that’s exactly how 99% of your customers are going to drink it and what we design for. I usually start thinking about how I want it mixed and work backwards from there. You end up with something that tastes fantastic mixed or on its own and a drink that’s going to keep your customer coming back for more.

How has the brand strategy helped your business in terms of expansion and new flavour profiles?

We were very careful to ensure that we were not creating a design for a bottle, but a brand we can use across a range of products, and that it had to be markedly different from our Dad & Dave’s craft beer brand. Craft beer and spirits are a bit like oil and water in some respects: different customers, drinking occasions, and preconceptions about skill and effort to produce. Use of line drawings on white, with splashes of colour representing a flavour or primary botanical, really sets us apart from other brands who often use a tried and tested English spirit style design. We have a consistent design system that is uniquely ours.

Can you tell us a bit about what Wildspirit is working on at the moment? Can we expect any new expressions soon?

We’re working on a seasonal citrus gin range called Unpeeled, which I’m really excited about. It’s a limited release, with only a few hundred bottles per release, and it’s online only. Australia is incredibly blessed to have such a great growing range for citrus, and famers are growing some incredible native varieties, such as red desert and finger limes, and some fantastically rare foreign fruit such as yuzu, sudachi, calamansi and rangpur lime. Our Unpeeled Yuzu Gin has just been released and it uses botanicals I haven’t worked with before. I love it so much.

The hard seltzer category is huge in the United States and there is anticipation of it being the next big thing in Australia this year. This is why we’ve released our own range we call Wildspirit Alcoholic Sparkling Water in four flavors: Magic Mango, Luscious Lime, Pure Passion and Royal Raspberry. Each can is one standard drink and less than 90 calories, which is perfect for those looking for responsible refreshment where it’s easy to count calories and alcohol intake. We’ve made the profile of these drinks quite dry, rather than sweet, which runs contrary to the ready-to-drink category as a whole, and makes the product very easy to drink. The word ‘seltzer’ isn’t well known in Australia, but flavoured sparkling water is a well-known consumer category already, and we find that this helps consumers get the concept quicker. And so far, they love it. It’s going to be a fun summer!

What would you be doing now if you’d never ventured into the gin industry; was there another career waiting in the wings?

I’d probably still be living in perpetual jetlag flying between Sydney and San Francisco, spending my days in video conferences and moving little project management cards across the screen. Don’t get me wrong – it has its benefits!

I think if I wasn’t producing alcohol, I’d love to go back to school and learn product design. Why have one career, one passion in your life, when you could have two, three or four? My advice to anyone is to stretch yourself, follow your passions wherever they may be. With hard work and making the right professional connections and friendships, anything is possible.  

 

For more information, visit Wildspirit's website.

 

 

30 November -0001

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