An Interview with Guy Brennan, CEO and Co-Founder of Procera Gin
22 September 2021
Procera gin was founded with a dream to bring the very best of Africa to the world. As one of the founding fathers, Guy shares the story behind their dream and how Procera has developed to be one of the most sought-after, high-end gins on the market. Distilled in Nairobi at 1638 metres above sea level it’s the world’s first gin to use Juniperus Procera. This special berry is the superstar in Procera gin as you will find out...
Tell us about Procera and how it came about?
I have been living in Africa for a long time and for the last eleven years have been based in Kenya. The story behind Procera happened about seven/eight years ago, when one Sunday my wife, Kourtnie, and I were drinking a Gin & Tonic with friends watching the sun set which happens at 6:30pm every day. We were drinking Bombay Sapphire and we realised on the side of the bottle they had listed out each botanical that is used in the gin. Most of the botanicals in the gin can be found in Africa, this was the moment of revelation for us, as we were sipping on a gin imported from the UK, we realised we could make our own gin with ingredients from Africa. A couple of years passed, as tends to happen with ideas that spark on a Sunday evening with a Gin & Tonic! But we hadn’t stopped thinking about it, so about four years ago we went and found Roger Jorgensen, the Godfather of craft distilling in Africa, and he was based down in Cape Town. I had collected some Procera berries from near where we lived and took them to him. They were in season at the time, I knew this because the baboons were stealing them, and if they are doing that you know that they are nice and ripe! Honestly, we have to fight the baboons off them!
Along with the juniper I took along ten different botanicals to show Roger. Luckily customs didn’t stop me, transporting these botanicals into South Africa, as I may still be behind bars now if they had! We spent a week on Roger’s farm in South Africa and using the botanicals along with Roger’s extensive expertise, we came up with a recipe. That recipe has not changed, it is the exact same one which we use today. We distilled the juniper on its own, and in all honesty the stuff I brought wasn't the best you can find, I had just collected some from trees nearby. I knew that in South Africa, Roger grows lots of his own juniper and has spent years perfecting the art. But when Roger tasted the first batch, he said ‘Guy this is amazing, this African juniper is going to change the world of gin’. That first sip was life changing, it really tastes of where it has come from, a bit like wine, I like to describe it as a terroir gin.
Having found this amazing ingredient that can transform the gin world we really want this to help transform Africa, it would be incredible if this type of gin could become its own category that we have pioneered. Already there are three other distilleries which are opening up doing a similar thing and we are very supportive of this. If that positivity and enterprise is created from what we have started then that is more than we could ask for.
Along with the African botanicals, we also have a focus on using African produce throughout our business.
What is different about African Juniper?
They are a lot bigger than common juniper, they are a different species. When you smell it, it is very nutty and earthy whereas European Juniper is oily and rich. Normal gin is made from Communis Juniper which is grown around the Adriatic, where you tend to get more sunshine, like in Tuscany. The sun creates amazing essential oils, which is really important and that is why you don’t use Scottish Juniper! We have constant summer sunshine in Africa, 365 days of the year, right on the equator, because of this our juniper is richer, sweeter and creamier. We have had blind tastings in London, Hong Kong and New York and people are all in agreement that it is a very special juniper. They grow on trees at 2200m above sea level in Kijabe and growing at altitude is important for the juniper as it is too hot lower down.
It is crazy that gins are made up of 90% juniper yet craft gins today are always focusing on the other botanicals not the juniper. We have something special and different with our gin because it is ALL about the juniper. We collect our juniper seasonally, so we have vintages of gin, much like wine. We also distil our juniper green not dry unlike other gins where the juniper is transported across the world and therefore dried in order to do so. We get the excess moisture out of the juniper and freeze it immediately, as we distil through the year we are always distilling green juniper. The distillery is only 70km from Kijabe where we pick our juniper. If you could do that with European juniper you would see very different results. With dried products you have taken out the water, you have taken out its heart, its lifeblood. We distil green juniper – it still has the life, it is full of flavour.
Do you have to adapt your distillation process because you are using fresh berries?
I will hand this one over to Roger Jorgensen, our Master Distiller!
Roger – Yes, we do have to adapt the process a little. We never put the botanicals into the distilling pot, to avoid stewing them. If the still is 86°C and you put your botanicals in, you are literally cooking them. Instead, what we do is we get the primary essence and flavours out of the juniper by crushing them and then steeping them in warm alcohol for 12 hours. That is the best way to get the brightest, lightest flavours out of the juniper. We do this for all botanicals in our gins, so the flavours are all harmonised you don’t get the overcooked woody flavours that you can sometimes find in gin.
Guy – The warm maceration is at 40°C, Roger calls it his pillow case technique, he would put the botanicals in a pillow case into the warm tank. This is so different to the overcooking approach, we worked backwards to make the best complex martini gin you can. This is where we are quite unique because 95% of other distilleries do it the other way.
You call it a martini gin, did you originally set out to make a sipping gin?
Yes absolutely. I went down to Roger with a brief. We wanted to make a martini gin, my wife Kourtnie and I love a gin martini with a twist of lemon. That is when we invented the botanical salt, this is our antidote. We know 80% of people drink Gin & Tonics not martinis, so we set out to make botanical salt which is a garnish to a Gin & Tonic, which you can add to taste, however you like it. The salt cuts the sweetness of the Gin & Tonic and you get a more savoury, umami Gin & Tonic. The salt is also amazing on beef and smoked fish. Some of the top bars in London have it, so you will be presented with your Gin & Tonic and the botanical salt to add on top to taste. Each bottle of gin comes with a little bottle of the botanical salt. Everything in the little bottle of salt comes from Africa, you can see it, touch it, taste. That is what we are really trying to do, spread the incredible resources Africa has to offer across the world. So, in the bottle, we have the lime from Kenya, the orange from Kenya, the pink peppercorn from Madagascar, everything but the Somalian Acacia honey, the salt is from the Indian Ocean, the African Juniper, the Moroccan Coriander. Everything is from Africa, and it helps bring the clear liquid to life a little bit more.
Please tell us a little more about your background
I moved to Kinshasa in The Congo in 2006 to work for a big American micro finance company and I was robbed at gunpoint seven days in, and said “ah I am in Africa, you are not going to win!” I consider myself as an Australian immigrant in Africa, I moved here for a better life. It really is home for me now, my wife and I got married here, bought our house, and started a business here. After that I then moved to Uganda and was the Africa Operations manager for the company, I have visited forty different African countries during that time. Then as I mentioned before we had the infamous Gin & Tonic idea and four years ago we started the gin business. Living and working in so many different African countries, you really start to appreciate the spices, food, ingredients that are so incredible and abundant on this continent. We are so proud as a company that we are the first African product in many of the top hotels, The Savoy, Claridge’s, The Connaught, Duke’s Hotels, to name a few. You may ask why did I work for micro finance company and then move on to make a really expensive gin? The reason is that we really want to change the perception of African globally and showcase the top-class things that come from this spectacular continent. If this can have a positive impact, we can help change the perceptions of 7 billion people!
So, would you say Africa is your main inspiration?
100%, to show the world amazing things from Africa is my main motivation and the inspiration all comes from Africa. Making great distilled products all comes down to the base ingredients. And one thing is for certain, Africa certainly does not have a lack of fantastic base ingredients!
How many bottles do you make a year?
The bottles are hand blown, by Kitengela glass and they can produce around 1500 bottles a month for us. We have just helped them financially to buy a furnace that is three times larger. This will help our capacity and we are aiming to produce around 18,000 bottles a year globally. This will slowly allow us to increase production once they have expanded their team and training. We are just launching in America and to be honest our demand outweighs our production, I think we will be on an allocation basis around the world very soon.
The bottle is stunning, please could you tell us a little more about the design?
Kitengela glass are the only glass blowers in this part of the world. Anselm Croze who started it is Kenyan and went abroad to train. We wanted the bottle to be organic, natural, and simple. The only materials used are wood, leather and glass and we do not have a label. We simply have the bottle with a coloured dot on the front. We tried a lot of different designs and settled with the blue dot which represents the Procera African Juniper berry. It is crazy to think this berry has been falling on the ground for centuries with no commercial value until now! The bottles are all slightly different shapes and sizes due to being hand blown which is pretty cool. The top is made from palm wood, they are made in Kilifi on the Indian Ocean coast by artisans down there. The leather is made by Sandstorm, in fact the Duchess of Cambridge has one of their bags. We wanted to bring all the artisans of Kenya into the bottle design. If you go on safari in Africa, you will almost always be drinking from Kitengela glass. Each Procera gin bottle has a little engraved number on it and we are up to 10,000 worldwide now. Each one is individual which is quite special.
Tell us a little bit about the harvesting process
We work with the Kijabe Forest Trust, they work with the local communities and the ladies go out and collect. One of the guys from our team, Dennis goes out to the area with them, we then weigh it and grade it. It is on average $5 a kg, they get paid according to the grade. The average daily wage in Kenya is about $10 a day. You can easily collect several kilograms a day so they are earning a well above average daily wage. We work with the same ladies and each week we gather what they have collected, bring it back to the distillery and freeze it downstairs. We are working on the ‘Procure Principle’ we are committed to planting one tree for every bottle we sell, the goal is a million trees. We also want to help these people prepare the juniper for other distilleries, we want to share the secret sauce and give back to the community. We want people to make African gin and use African Juniper.