Dancing Sands Distillery: Golden Bay gin success story
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Dancing Sands Distillery: Golden Bay gin success story

Aug 30, 2023

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Sarah and Ben Bonoma, Dancing Sands Distillery. Photo / Supplied

A gin distillery in Golden Bay is leading the way in sustainability and winning awards. Sarah Daniell meets the people behind Dancing Sands - a family business with the environment and community at its heart.

The road to Dancing Sands in Golden Bay is labyrinthine and paved with golden intentions.

Coming from Nelson, the road stretches ahead like a grand promise, an alluring invitation to adventure. First, the broad highway, with exits to places like Moutere, Māpua and Kina Peninsula - that magical sliver of land between Moutere Inlet and Tasman Bay. There’s a golf course with impressive views, and a gated community of mock-Tuscan mansions owned by the Talleys family empire.

As we travel further, along Tākaka Hill Highway, the grandiose footprint of human folly and ego fades into the distance, and nature sings. The road winds and twists like a snake following Riwaka Valley and Upper Tākaka. And as we descend from the saddle, the views are wide and endless across the upper Tākaka Valley, Golden Bay and the Tasman Mountains in Kahurangi National Park.

As Brian Turner says in his poem Deserts, For Instance: “The loveliest places of all / are those that look as if / there’s nothing there / to those still yearning to look.” He is writing about Central Otago, but he could be here.

Among the first to see the loveliest place: those on the waka Kurahaupō, captained by Ruatea, who came to Nelson and Golden Bay as part of a circumnavigation of Te Waipounamu. Others would follow on strategic discoveries: Te Rauparaha, Captain Cook, D’Urville, Abel Tasman. And economic discovery: a gold rush, tourism, hippies, artists, innovators. Whaling, weed, wine and wasabi. Fishermen and farmers.

Many still come from far afield, longing for the so-called perfect life balance of industry, family and nature. Like British scientist Sarah Bonoma and her American husband Ben, who came to Golden Bay for a holiday and were so captivated they decided to stay. The clincher was an ad on Trade Me for a still. The still sits on an aquifer that feeds the largest freshwater springs in the Southern Hemisphere, Te Waikoropupū Springs - Place of the Dancing Sands. A camping holiday turned into an exploration of the unknown and rapidly grew into an award-winning boutique gin business, Dancing Sands Distillery.

Sarah, who has a science master’s degree in genetics, met Ben, a tech geek, at a seminar in the United States. Sarah had flown across the Atlantic from London and he was there, a “typical New Yorker who lived in a tiny Manhattan apartment”.

They fell in love. Months dragged into years and long-distance logistics, before they decided that they needed to settle someplace where neither had familial or cultural connections. In Te Whanganui-a Tara, they worked in high-flying corporate jobs, before heading to Te Waipounamu and falling in love again - this time, with the landscape, a baby still and a drive to do something entirely different.

“We’d been in Golden Bay, camping,” says Sarah. “We knew the beauty of the place. And then we found a baby still for sale.” Another baby, their first daughter, Mia, had just been born.

They bought the still and its premises in April 2016 and spent six months developing recipes and learning how to distill.

“We first looked at craft beer, but that ship had sailed,” says Sarah. The gin ship, however, had not.

They named the baby still JC - after the manufacturer Jacob Carl, a famous German still maker - bought some grain and started fresh.

“We are very much self-taught. Ben learnt how to make gin at home. We bought lots of books.”

Sarah is the “structure, the rigour” and Ben, the alchemist, the recipe maker.

“We figured it out as we went, and made a lot of mistakes.”

In the early days, Dancing Sands upgraded to a bigger 700 litre still.

“Stills are usually named after important women,” says Sarah. “So we named it Florence, after Ben’s grandmother, who is 100 years old and lives in Illinois. We weren’t entirely sure if we were doing the right thing. Mia was really young. We asked ourselves, is this a good move? And Florence said ‘just go for it’. She was very supportive. And so Florence became ‘Flossy’.”

They launched Dancing Sands in October 2016. Since then Dancing Sands has become one of New Zealand’s most awarded distilleries. Most recently their Dry Gin was awarded a Gold Medal at the prestigious San Francisco’s World Spirits Competition.

There are 330 different gins made and sold in New Zealand. There are 640 different gins sold overall in the New Zealand market - so half of all gin sold in NZ is made here. Currently there are 130 different gin brands - from small distillers selling 50 bottles a year to businesses like Dancing Sands that sell upwards of 50,000 bottles a year.

So, how to stand out in a gin-soaked market? The answer: sustainability and Ben’s highly unusual flavours, tested by a small team of seven at Dancing Sands. “We decided to keep it as local and sustainable as possible and focus on flavours. Not just producing more of what’s already there.”

They opened to the public in October 2016. But the path to taking the gin to market was complex and labyrinthine too. Dancing Sands imported bottles from France, filled them in Golden Bay and exported them back to Europe. Dancing Sands exports 20 per cent of its gin.

Sarah and Ben went to New Zealand’s only glass bottle manufacturer, based in Auckland, and spent 18 months designing and refining a custom glass bottle, which has removed 15,000kg of carbon emissions from their production cycle every year.

Dancing Sands is the first commercial-scale spirit company in NZ to make fully recyclable glass bottles.

“The bottle is more like a wine bottle - it’s 30 per cent lighter, in weight not colour, than most spirit bottles and costs less to ship and courier,” says Sarah. “And they are made of extra flint, so they are clear, and sustainable.”

Do the right thing. We all think we are, when we put out our recycling bins. But between 30-40 per cent of glass bottles collected kerbside are not recyclable.

That might mean the labels themselves are not made of biodegradable or recyclable material. Or the glass coating, or packaging. Dancing Sands uses a natural wood stopper instead of cork. It’s one of the first fully recyclable products in Aotearoa.

“Business can be so transactional,” says Sarah. “But for me it’s about being in Golden Bay and having a bigger sense of purpose. It’s such a pristine beautiful place, we need to have a role in keeping it that way.”

It’s a tightly run ship, and a tight-knit family business.

“We have seven staff and there are good opportunities for growth.” They have a holistic rather than hierarchical approach, relying on their crew to give feedback on everything from process, production and tasting.

The distiller, Cory Turner, is a Golden Bay local with solid engineering skills. He gives a demonstration of the production line. They bottle 400-500 bottles an hour, 50,000 a year, all by manual filling. An automated operation would be a massive cost and investment, says Sarah. “It’s a satisfying process to watch.”

In the kitchen, shelves are lined with glass bottles filled with golden-hued concoctions. The fridge is jammed with fresh thyme, bags of angelica, liquorice, and botanicals foraged from the area.

The cellar door manager, Niki Brown, is a mixologist, who’s worked in bars around the world. She’s partial to the sauvignon blanc gin, with a dash of yuzu soda, because it’s light, summery and good for day drinking — necessary, she laughs, for a mother of a tribe of small children.

We can’t work out whether we prefer wasabi or the sun-kissed. So, we try them all again. Back in the distillery, there’s gin resting in rum barrels - good for a negroni, apparently. The impression is of a booze version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Making gin, like any good love story, starts with chemistry.

The still is filled with water and alcohol, then heat is applied. The alcohol separates from the water and the flavours are added from gin baskets - juniper (50 per cent) followed by other botanicals.

“It’s a vapour infusion,” says Sarah. “The botanicals are steamed in alcohol vapour which creates a more nuanced flavour.” The vapour travels up and when it hits the copper plate, it turns into liquid.

“The copper removes impurity and has a nice smooth mouthfeel,” she says.

“It’s a bit like being a chef, we buy neutral grain and spirits. And then start adding.”

The flavours lean towards spicy and savoury rather than citrus.

“Everyone who lives here uses bore water. The water is filtered, UV-treated and there is no chlorine or fluorides. Some of the gins are fermented in rum barrels, to give a rounder, warmer finish.

“We have access to great water and we forage for botanicals. Wasabi is grown locally by a supplier who provides the wasabi root. Wasabi here grows in cold running water, which is about 11C and fed by the nutrients from salmon farms nearby.”

Theirs is a marriage of opposites, a term from alchemy that means “to create any substance or circumstance, one has to combine opposite materials, in love and all things”.

Sarah says, “When I met Ben he was living on his own in Manhattan. He never cooked - a typical New Yorker. When we bought this business, he worked on the recipes and discovered he has an amazing palette.

“He’ll spend 12 months on a recipe, adding things like horopito, kelp, wasabi and oranges. He’s the ideas person. I focus on the rigour and consistency. It has to be the same quality.”

Resting, just like a good steak, is vital. The gin rests for up to four weeks, so the flavours settle.

Twice a week, Sarah drives that gnarly road over the Tākaka saddle, from the Richmond home they share with their daughters Zoe and Mia, and back again, to the other home they have created in Golden Bay.

“I’d love to be more hands-on, make the gin myself. But as the business grows you need to change to research and development and have a distance.”

They’ve mastered gin. What’s the next big thing? “Rum. I think so,” she says. And Ben, the tech dude who couldn’t cook, has already begun experimenting with recipes.

Long ago I’d heard of Tata Beach in Golden Bay. A friend and colleague raved about it when we were stuck in the office one summer, in the middle of the city choked by heat, traffic and the churn of deadlines. It was insufferable. She has a family bach there and she boldly described it as the best beach in the world. Since then, I’ve longed to go, to test her brazen statement, her insufferable euphemisms.

From Auckland, you have to make a serious commitment to get there. From Tata Beach, you have to make a serious commitment to ever leave and go back home.

Standing on the chalky, golden sand, the water shimmers in the pale winter light, and there’s no breeze, nothing, to cause the slightest disruption. Higher up, on the hill, the view becomes even more interesting, and if you were a painter, or a poet, you could go to town trying to convey the sheen of the sand from the departed tide, the maunga, the richly layered native bush that frames it.

In summer, it’s a different story, says Jana, who, with her husband Drew, set up Drift Off Grid - a luxury eco-glamping retreat nestled in private bushland overlooking Tasman Bay. They often pick up walkers coming from the northern end of Abel Tasman, just a 10-minute drive away. In winter, the sky is on fire at dusk and the days are still and clear. Jana, who is Australian, and Drew, a Golden Bay local, have dreamed about creating this retreat for years. They worked in Western Australia, so they could bring it to fruition. From the vast, alien desert of WA, this place must have seemed like a far-off planet. They grafted and researched and eventually saved up enough to buy about 9ha of land clad in native bush, and the dream began to materialise. Their kids now go to the local primary school, and take field trips to wander in places like Te Waikoropupū Springs.

We are standing on the lawn, looking across Tata Beach and Jana’s preparing a brazier, so we can sit by a fire later and watch the bright stars dazzling in the black night.

We get here, to the front door of Tent Korimako, from the drop-off point at the end of the driveway, by electric buggy. The “tent” is in fact a high-end luxury, and there’s another - Tent Kānuka - further up the hill. The “tents” are solid, high-spec, insulated structures that resemble small but perfectly formed houses. I want to move in and live here for 20 years. They have heated floors, a log burner, a giant bed the size of a football pitch swathed in French linen.

The kitchen has a dishwasher, fridge, and home-baked sourdough, still warm. There’s breakfast for two (free-range eggs from Jana and Drew’s chooks, granola, spreads, milk, juice, tea and coffee). Outside there’s a Weber barbecue on the deck and uninterrupted views across the bay. How do I like mine? Rare, and right here.

Inside, each space is thoughtfully and exquisitely curated. I have been glamping. This is something else entirely. The bathroom features two vanities, a flushing loo, two showers with bi-folding windows that open to a bush-clad view. There’s a living room, with couches, books, artwork. But the outdoors is calling. We fill the two vintage French baths with salts and hot water, fill our glasses with wine and submerge up to our necks.

The Drift Off Grid logo is a ruru, and that night we hear plenty of them calling. It’s a lullaby. And we drift off.

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