It started during a conversation over drinks with friends while living in China.
Fast-forward a few years, and Sam Brown is now making award-winning gin, vodka and liqueur from an unlikely ingredient – Waikato sheep milk.
While living in China, Sam Brown was socialising with friends when The White Sheep Co idea was born.
“We decided to have a toast, one for each of our nationalities,” recalls Sam.
“We had some vodka from Russia, and some whiskey from Scotland. It got to my turn and I just couldn’t think of a spirit that had that same kind of tie to New Zealand.”
“So that was the Genesis of the idea.”
While the gin, vodka and crème liqueur has only hit the shelves this year, the idea has been several years in the making.
Sam, 35, worked full-time for a large fresh food export company in Auckland, which gave him a good overview of the sector, and allowed him to fund the venture.
A move to Whangamata, where his Auckland-based family has had a long connection, meant he could devote his full attention to making spirits.
“I thought, if I am going to give this alcohol idea a good crack, now is better than ever, so I decided to bite the bullet and go for it.”
Clever branding and marketing support a top-notch product. The vodka, which is also used to make the gin, is “quite sheepy,” he says.
“Because of the long fermentation and the distillation, it retains quite a bit of that sheep milk flavour and aroma. It has almost got a bit of creaminess or butteriness about it.”
The same vodka is used to make the gin, which is flavoured by adding juniper berries, other botanicals and manuka honey to add sweetness and colour.
The sheep milk is sourced from the Central North Island, mainly farms outside Hamilton and Taupo. With the addition of special yeast, it is distilled in a copper still imported from Germany.
Using sheep milk came about by accident. He asked himself, if New Zealand was to have a unique spirit what would it be made of? He looked at all the native plants but didn’t feel they had the same sort of drawcard for people overseas.
“New Zealand is known for The All Blacks, the Lord of the Rings and sheep, then I found out sheep milk was actually a thing. Then in further research, I found out you can turn milk into alcohol, so I started doing a lot of research into how you actually do it.”
He approached food scientists to fine tune the fermentation process, and to ensure all the food safety boxes were ticked.
“I called up Massey University and I said, ‘look, I have done this research and I want to make this product, and this is how I think I should do it,’ and they said, ‘yeah you are on the right track, so come down and do some work with us.”
He uses a national distributer to get the products into retail stores, bars and restaurants; and dispatches all on-line orders himself.
He has personally door-knocked and gained shelf space at Duty Free outlets in Queenstown, Christchurch, and Auckland.
The White Sheep Co Sheep Milk & Honey Gin won best Alcoholic Beverage, and best Novel Beverage, at the New Zealand Food and Beverage Awards in Auckland in October. The vodka also won best spirit at the Inaugural New Zealand Sprit Awards earlier in the year.
Sam is looking to offshore markets and has signed an MOU with a top spirit and wine importer in New York. He is preparing to send the first shipment of The White Sheep Co product to the United States.