Given that today (24th September, if you’re nowhere near a calendar) is World Gorilla Day, we thought it was ideal timing to chat with Andy Daniels, founder of Gorilla Spirits Co. about creating an ethical business, founding a distillery, and why he was moved by the plight of the mountain gorilla.
For every bottle of gin, vodka, rum or liqueur you buy from the Gorilla Spirits Co., £1 goes to The Gorilla Organization. The business model is simple: you purchase delicious booze, and support a great cause at the same time. “Everyone’s a winner: the consumer gets a great product; our company benefits from the sale of that product and the gorillas benefit greatly by additional resources being put in that direction,” explains Gorilla Spirits Co. founder, Andy Daniels.
Daniels had spent the best part of 35 years in corporate life, but during that time he’d always been drawn to the wonderful world of food and drink. He brewed his own beer, became a hobbyist cider maker, and even distilled for many years before he started a spirits company. The motivation to create his own brand came back in 2008.
“I got wind of what the Sipsmith guys were about to do, who are an important part of every craft spirit story in the UK today, and it sparked the idea,” Daniels says. “I spent a couple of years learning about the industry and formulating plans to start the business. From early 2011, I set about a formal project to get the company going, and it wasn’t until December 2015 that we actually launched our first project. It took a long time. Not only did we design our first commercial gin, but we also designed, from the ground up, a small but industrial-class distillery.”
With the Gorilla Spirits Co., Daniels was determined to demonstrate that placing corporate social responsibility at the heart of a business not only serves society and the world at large as well, but it’s also positively good for business. “Very close to my heart is a strong belief that businesses should be more than just about making money. Businesses need to recognise that you can’t continually focus entirely on profit while taking out of the world’s resources,” Daniels says. “Many major organisations today have corporate social responsibility agendas. But I don’t believe that many, if any, really put it at the core of their business. I don’t think that’s a sustainable business model.”
When Gorilla Spirits Co. was founded, mountain gorillas were facing extinction with only 880 in existence. For Daniels, it was obvious to him that the focus of his social responsibility should be their conservation. “What shocked us about that was not just the fact that there were 880 mountain gorillas in the world, but the fact that the people who look after them knew that it was 880. It wasn’t 881 or 882, it was 880. When you can count the numbers of an entire species to that level, then clearly we’re in trouble,” explains Daniels.
In order to do his bit for the cause, Daniels struck up a partnership with UK-based charity The Gorilla Organization, which works with communities at the forefront of gorilla conservation through innovative and award-winning projects in Rwanda, Uganda, and DR Congo. “We had some conversations with them about what they were doing and were really impressed, particularly because, for such a tiny charity, they’re able to do some amazing work,” Daniels says. “We entered into a formal contract with them which obliges us to pay one pound from every bottle that we sell. There is no termination clause in the agreement, so regardless of whether I’m running the business or whether anyone else is running the business, it remains committed to making that donation.”
In November 2018 the IUCN announced that mountain gorillas have been moved from ‘critically endangered’ to ‘endangered’. “The most recent census of the mountain gorilla puts its numbers at 1,004,” says Daniels. “The governments of Rwanda and Uganda have recognised the value of conservation, particularly when it comes to their gorilla populations. It just goes to show that when you get governments, charities and businesses all focused on supporting something and making something happen, you truly can make things change.”
It’s a promising message, given that brands based around conservation efforts have become increasingly common, with the likes of Elephant Gin and Snow Leopard Vodka also fighting the good fight. “We are not exclusive in this; they’re doing some amazing things,” explains Daniels. “It’s quite incredible that there are a few brands like us in the spirits industry who take a similar approach and I know full well that it’s as good for their businesses as it is for ours. As I said, it’s not just about philanthropy; it’s positively beneficial to business.”
It was important for Daniels that this model of ethical practice didn’t just concern its central cause, but also extended to the local community, “I was delighted that we were recently awarded an international corporate social responsibility excellence award for the work that we do not just with gorilla conservation but also in the way that we engage with the community,” he says. “For example, at the distillery, we have an onsite shop that we don’t open for anything other than booked visitors. So if somebody turns up here, we send them to our village shop. We do that because we want to be part of the community and we want to encourage the local rural economy.”
The spirit of social responsibility played a large part in the location of the Gorilla Spirits Co.’s distillery. It is found in Upton Grey, in the northeast corner of Hampshire where it borders with Surrey. As Daniels explains, “One of the areas of the national economy that’s suffering particularly badly is our rural economies. Setting up where we are, we do have the potential to add money to the local economy.” The distillery has a visitor centre which regularly houses tours, tastings and cocktail masterclasses, as well as a ten-station gin school, all of which have proved popular. The gin school holds particular appeal, and Daniels describes it as “the ultimate experience really for a gin lover”. Given that participants make enough of their own gin (from a choice of over 60 botanicals) to bottle most and have enough left over for a G&T, it’s not hard to see why.
The main attraction remains the 200-litre still, an entirely digitally-connected and software-driven beauty called ‘Mugwaneza’. “When you go around the country, many stills have got very quintessentially English names like ‘Constance’ and ‘Patience’. Because we’re a bit different and because of our links with gorillas and with Africa, our still is named ‘Mugwaneza’,” says Daniels. “Translated into English from the language used in Rwanda, it means ‘she who is content’. In my long experience of life, whenever ‘she’ is content – whoever ‘she’ might be – then the world is quite a happy place”. All of the gin school’s ten stills likewise have names drawn from the Rwandan language, so if you make a bottle of gin with Gorilla Spirits, your label has the name of the still that it was produced in.
The Gorilla Spirits Co. doesn’t just manufacture its own spirit product. It has a contract distilling business on the side, and is currently making four brands with another three or four lined up over the next few months. “That’s the side of the business that we’re actively growing. That has been fantastic actually; to work with some other start-up brands and be part of their growth,” says Daniels.
The current Gorilla Spirits Co. range consists of three gins, one vodka, one liqueur and one spiced rum, but there’s more to look forward to. “We’ve always got some exciting things going on in the background. We are doing some ageing at the moment, so I think in the next few months or so we’ll see some interesting aged products,” says Daniels. “We’re also looking to expand our rum portfolio and we’ve done some whisky trials.”
We look forward to seeing what’s to come, but for now, there’s plenty to enjoy from Gorilla Spirits Co.!
The first product the Gorilla Spirits Co. released was Silverback Mountain Strength Gin, which was produced back in December 2015. It’s London Dry in style and was crafted from seven botanicals which Daniels splits into two groups. The first is filled with classic ingredients, juniper, coriander, angelica root and sweet orange, and then the three additionals are calamus root, acacia blossom and lemongrass. “We describe Silverback as being a ‘citrus-led’ gin. So three of the seven: you’ve got coriander which gives us that spicy citrus note; orange for a nice warm citrus note; and then lemongrass which accentuates the high notes,” says Daniels. “Giving it its full title ‘Silverback Mountain Strength Gin’ the ‘mountain strength’ is actually not connected with the ABV but it is another nod to the strength and power of the gorilla”.
The Old Tom Gin uses exactly the same ingredients as Silverback Mountain Strength Gin, but the number of botanicals that are put into the distillation are increased because Daniels wanted to capture the Old Tom style which much richer in flavour and it’s sweetened. “After distillation, we add a tiny bit of sugar to sweeten it. We make it largely because I think it’s bloody delicious! At the end of the day you have to please yourself before you please anyone else and it’s a style that I really like,” says Daniels.
Initially launched as a limited-edition product, Silverback Raspberry Gin has proved so popular demand it might become a regular. To create this flavoured gin, Daniels began with the regular Silverback Mountain Strength formula, reduced the ABV to bottle down to 38%, added Scottish raspberry juice and a tiny bit of sugar to balance the tartness of the raspberry. Why Scottish raspberries? “Because they are the best in the world. It’s as simple as that! So whatever we put into a product we try to ensure that it is the very best that we can buy. And Scottish raspberry, bar none, is the best raspberry in the world,” says Daniels. “It has a lovely vibrant colour that suggests that it’s going to be a very fruity, very sweet liquid. But people are always surprised that actually what you get is a really, really lovely gin with a little trace of fresh summer fruit coming through it.”
Blackback Mountain Strength is an entirely British wheat-derived vodka which features a pot still-finish to add depth and character. “It has a really lovely mouth-feel, a touch of spiciness about it and a little hint of sweetness. It’s absolutely perfect for something like a vodka tonic or you want it for a cocktail, says Daniels. “What’s interesting from a story point of view, is that you know that a silverback gorilla is the head honcho of the troop and the great protector. A blackback gorilla is a young adolescent male who may become a silverback in the course of time, although it’s not guaranteed. There’s a little bit of playfulness in our branding as gin is essentially flavoured vodka, so our Blackback could one day be a Silverback.
Maraba Coffee Liqueur was made from single varietal red bourbon Arabica coffee beans from small growers in Rwanda and takes its name from this coffee-growing district. In order for the process to be as sustainable and ethical as possible, Gorilla Spirits Co. exceeds Fair Trade pricing for the growers concerned. The beans are roasted and ground by a local coffee roaster called Moonroast before it is effectively cold-brewed with alcohol, “so we get these amazing buttery, chocolate notes in it, along with the higher floral notes and taste and aroma. Then, of course, we mix it up into a liqueur,” says Daniels. “So with Maraba, again, great for cocktails so things like the nation’s favourite right now, espresso martini, as well as white Russians and black Russians”.
The most recent addition to the range is Karisimbi Spiced Rum. In fact, it was only just released last week on September 19th, or as I’m sure you all know it as, International Talk Like A Pirate Day. The name was taken from the highest volcanic peak in the Varumba National Park, which is home to a troop of mountain gorillas. “It’s quite a complex blend of aged and unaged rums from a number of different rum distilleries. It’s really beautifully spiced with vanilla, blood oranges, ginger and cinnamon. I would pit it against any spiced rum on the market, I think it’s absolutely delicious,” says Daniels. “It is predominantly designed for mixing and goes particularly well with things like Fever Tree Smoky Ginger Ale or a good quality cola, ginger beer, that kind of thing. But the quality of the rum is so good that it really is a sipper as well.”
Don’t forget, for each bottle of gin, vodka, rum or liqueur you buy from the Gorilla Spirits Co., £1 goes to The Gorilla Organization, whose fantastic work you can check out by clicking the link. The Gorilla Spirits Co. has also just launched an app which is available on the Apple Store and Google Play Store, so if you want a directory of cocktails to play with, as well as more info on the distillery and its conversation work than it’s the place to go. Happy World Gorilla Day, folks!