Lunar New Year tables carry many traditional delicacies – chicken, candied tangerine, dumplings and spring rolls just to name a few. A Hong Kong start-up wants to add another element to the mix – gin.
With limited-edition gins produced for Chinese New Year, incorporating tangerine peels and lotus seeds, and regular bottles infused with premium Chinese teas, N.I.P Distilling has attracted interest from Hong Kong tipplers by adding familiar ingredients into the mix.
Established in 2017 by two gin enthusiasts, Nic Law and Jeremy Li, the concept was to build a community that appreciates craft spirits. “We wanted to create gins representative of Hong Kong, whether from an ingredient, concept or flavour perspective,” Mr Law said.
In 2019, they set up their current company, Hong Kong Craft Distilling Co, at an industrial unit in Quarry Bay. “We’d done our research and visited distilleries in Australia and Scotland. But it was still a relatively long process given that there weren’t any craft gin distilleries in Hong Kong at that time, just lots of craft ale breweries,” Mr Law recalled.
Nevertheless, they persevered and launched N.I.P gin, a classic dry gin with shoumei tea and osmanthus, then developed the Catnip gin series, which celebrates the beauty of premium Chinese tea. The first issue came last year, while a second debuted this summer.
What goes into the second Catnip series?
We decided to launch another version this year with a completely different recipe. This time, we used premium oolong, Da Hong Pao, with a history that can be traced back to the 1300s. This issue is slightly sweeter given the ingredients we chose to pair with the tea, including mandarin peel and coriander seeds. We only produced around 800 bottles in the first batch, and it quickly sold out given that we launched the gin together with our distribution partners in Taiwan.
Why did you decide to make gin with tea?
Chinese tea is very important in Hong Kong, and part of our everyday life. From yum cha [enjoying dim sum] to cha chaan teng [a traditional Hong Kong cafe], many will drink tea in some form every day. That’s the reason we really wanted to highlight tea as a main character in our products.
Who buys your gins?
We started off just before the COVID-19 pandemic began and only one month after the launch the pandemic arrived, and most of our potential sales channels – restaurants and bars – were closed. Back in 2020, we changed our game plan and focused on the home-consumption crowd, doing online sales and video marketing and trying to get our name out there to people who drink at home. The first year was easier, as people were still gathering at home and were receptive to us. But last year and this year, the home consumption crowd shrunk, so we tried to make the most of it when bars and restaurants were open.
Do you have customers outside Hong Kong?
Yes, we started exporting to Taiwan last year and additionally exported our bottles to Germany, Austria and Spain. We want to start penetrating the Southeast Asian and Mainland China market but we’ll need to get a distributor first. It will be a while before we can freely move stock around the mainland.
How would you characterise the gin scene in Hong Kong?
It’s relatively new compared to the European and United States market. The cocktail scene here only started booming five to seven years ago. Cocktail bars like to use gin as it’s very versatile, and the local market was looking for something new, not just sake, wine and beer.
Gin suits the weather in Hong Kong, as gin and tonic is very refreshing – plus very easy to make. By utilising different botanicals, you can make many different gins, and stores want more flavours. People want to try craft gin and get their hands on different bottles – they don’t want to just have leading brands.
How are your private distillery tours faring?
We offer tours to customers by appointment. Given that we only have the two of us in the company, it’s difficult for us to run walk-in sessions so we decided to host private tours for larger groups of six and above.
During the tour, we share everything we know about gin, from the development and history of gin to our beginnings setting up our factory producing a true Hong Kong gin. Priced at HK$660 per head, a tour takes 60-75 minutes and each guest gets a bottle to take away.
Will you be launching any other gins this year?
We’ll be creating another festive recipe like last year, with hints of chocolate and dark fruits, and we’ve ordered a couple of Madeira wine casks already for that. We’ve opted for those as we wanted to create something with date pudding, raisin and vanilla notes. This limited edition will launch in November, and there will be 1,000 bottles at the most. To bolster the main label, we’ll launch another core gin using local citrus by the end of this year.
What do you like about doing business in Hong Kong?
It’s very fast paced, and in terms of F&B is one of top cities in the world. People want to come here and set up restaurants. While the last few years have been difficult, Hong Kong is still a popular place for expats, as it’s a financial hub. Hongkongers are willing to try new things, and for us that’s a definite advantage.
What is you focus for N.I.P right now?
The main plan is to expand even further internationally, and grow our team, as we’re a two-man band. We’d love to travel more to promote N.I.P and hope we can do this in 2023.