In times of pestilence, people often turn to alcohol as a means by which to evade illness. During Europe’s Black Death epidemic in the 1300s, spirits were consumed as a means by which to avoid infection. And although completely ineffective in this regard, physicians found it to be one of the few substances that could alleviate the pain associated with the disease.
And given that Western culture had already established a tradition of relying on alcohol in times of disease, it comes as little surprise that British soldiers, who found themselves stationed in malaria central in India in the 1700s, turned to gin and tonic to save their lives.
The life-saving properties were actually contained in the quinine within the tonic, but the hardened soldiers found it too bitter for their sensitive palates. So, in an effort to make the medicine more enjoyable, the British soldiers concocted what would become the first gin and tonic.
As time drifted, history passed gin and tonic from generation to generation until it eventually landed in the hands of three Kiwi entrepreneurs who felt that it was time for New Zealand to add to the gin tradition.
Over the last three years, Richard Bourke, Daniel Mclaughlin and Mark Neal have toiled away behind the scenes to create the product that was recently released under the Rogue Society Gin banner.
“We launched in Auckland in the middle of February and in Wellington about a month ago, but we’ve been working on it for about three years. We always used to get together and enjoy drinking gin, sampling different kinds of gin from offshore, and we realised that a lot of people didn’t share the passion that we did for gin. We called this gin grief, and we saw it in people who maybe didn’t understand gin as well as we did, or those who maybe had a bad experience with gin, or maybe didn’t like tonic. So we went out and decided to create our own gin brand, and our own label,” says Bourke.
Given that gin and tonic has become characterised as a drink most often associated with elderly English people, it seems somewhat unlikely that three regular Kiwi blokes would decide to tap into this market.
“I think part of it was about understanding that gin had been relatively conservative, so we wanted to re-introduce people to what a good, or relevant, gin brand would be like,” says Bourke, who also holds a partner position at strategy and research company Big Picture.
But modernising the product hasn’t resulted in the trio jettisoning history entirely.
The flavour of every gin is different depending on the proportion of each of the 12 botanicals added to it, so developing something palatable required a significant amount of research.
“Our gin is based on a 300-year-old recipe, but what we’ve done is make the Rogue Society combination, which is our unique combination of the 12 botanicals that we source from around the world,” says Neal. “What we’ve really done is push the lemon and orange peel, so it gives it a real fresh citrus flavour. So whether you’re having a gin and tonic with a wedge of orange (blood orange if in season), a Negroni with an orange twist or a Martini with an orange or lemon twist, the citrus really complements the flavours well,” says Neal.
This recipe lends its flavour to the cocktail market, and this explains why the trio’s early promotional pitch has been aimed at the country’s trendy bars.
“We developed the product to be versatile with the trade in mind,” says Mclaughlin. “We kept the top bar tenders in mind, so that they could use it in a Martini, classic Negroni or gin and tonic. It’s a versatile premium spirit designed with cocktails in mind.”
Thus far, he says the uptake at bars throughout Auckland has been fantastic, and he hopes for this to serve as a precursor of what is to come in the rest of the country.
“[The bartenders] appreciate and understand good products, and with Rogue Society we don’t cut corners in terms of where we source our botanicals, the grain spirit or the glacier water we use. From a quality perspective, it’s been a pretty easy sell. And from a brand perspective it also been pretty good, because Rogue Society is all about the infusion of the unconventional. And this makes our brand positioning quite unique.”
At this point, Bourke adds that the provenance of the product has also made it appealing to potential purchasers.
“It’s also a New Zealand brand,” says the oldest member of the trio of founders. “I think the artisan character of Rogue Society is very important. Kiwis tend to support brands that are part of the community, and this has helped the uptake.”
Another important feature of the product lies in the design of the bottle, which also gives a nod to the long heritage of gin distillation.
“The bottle design is based on a 300-year-old Geneva bottle,” says Mclaughlin when describing how they sourced various antique bottles on Trade Me and eBay before settling on a design that they found suitable.
“We wanted something classic,” says Bourke. “We’re not into gimmicky, trendy or novelty products. We’re after an enduring brand that’s going to be around for a very long time.”
Once they had decided on how the bottle should look, they handed a template to independent designer Kent Blazek who brought the unique shape to life.
"We went through a lot of big product designers but no one could get the shape just right. In contrast, Kent knew exactly what we wanted and he got it spot on,” says Mclaughlin.
While Blazek looked after the shape of the bottle, the visual identity was conceptualised and executed by OneDesign.
And rather than opting for a one-dimensional visual image, the team at OneDesign added a collection of hidden messages in various places on the bottle. Along the cork stopper lid, a paper tamper seal features a short, mischievous quote from one of history’s famous rogues, while the bottom of the bottle also has an additional quote melded into the glass. This attention to detail also extends to the slick Gladeye-designed website that serves as Rogue Society's online abode.
While the brand has only existed for a short few months, the trio says that they’ve already established a retail partnership with Glengarry. But this didn’t just come about by chance.
“We actually made the people at Glengarry a gin and tonic tasting kit and used this to sell the brand to them. The presentation was really quite impressive. We took this old suitcase and they really liked it. After the powers that be signed off on the deal, we dropped off our first batch on the last day of April. That was our first delivery into a store and now we’re located in about 17 stores throughout the New Zealand,” says Mclaughlin.
Despite this win, the entrepreneurial trifecta isn't ready to take it easy just yet.
Over the past two weeks, they have toured the South Island, taking their product to bars in Christchurch, Dunedin and Queenstown.
“It’s about getting behind bars, doing exhibitions and getting people to try the product. That’s become a day-to-day thing for us. It’s really about teaching bar tenders and consumers what makes this product so great,” says Mclaughlin.
“We do about two or three training sessions a week with bar staff to teach them where it’s from, what it’s made of, what botanicals we use, what it goes with and what differentiates it from other gins.”
The unique Rogue Society Gin bottle design was inspired by founders Daniel Mclaughlin, Mark Neal and Richard Bourke and the brand development and research work done by Big Picture. The design and visual identity was created by OneDesign and the bespoke bottle shape brought to life by Kent Blazek. Brand tone of voice and copywriting was done by Ben Pegler.