“I don’t see myself as a normal citizen in Lebanon,” says Faouzi Issa, winemaker and owner of the award-winning Domaine des Tourelles. “I see myself as more of a pioneer.” It’s certainly a philosophy and objective that helps Issa look outside of Lebanon for his inspiration and has helped him build a successful export business, first for his wines and now, he hopes, for a new focus on artisan spirits, starting with one of the country’s first premium gins – GinBey. He talks to Richard Siddle about the new lease of life distilling gin has given him.
As Lebanon continues to struggle from Covid-19, the 2020 Beirut explosion and on-going economic hardship, Faouzi Issa of Domaine des Tourelles is determined to stay positive, innovate and look at new ways to tell the story of the country he loves through the wines and, now, spirits, he makes.
Faouzi Issa is not a man to hide his emotions. Far from it. Within minutes of picking up our last conversation together, this time through Zoom, he is deep into explaining the deep problems that exist in Lebanon and the difficulties anyone trying to run a business there has.
“The country is suffering and there is a lot of uncertainty here,” he says. “Our currency has lost 90% of its value and there is a lot of anxiety here. We don’t want to be stuck with the same corrupted people since the end of war in 1975.”
But rather than suffer in silence, Issa wants to get on and do something to change what is happening. “We are surrounded by the situation we are in, but I am also part of the of the resistance to change things.”
As a winemaker and drinks producer Issa has the ability to travel the world through the drinks he makes, sells and promotes. His passion to make quality drinks also gives him an escape, an opportunity to push against what is happening in his home country and reflect and illustrate a very different image of Lebanon.
Covid-19 and the subsequent international lockdowns has also forced Issa to stay put and hide away his suitcase for a few months more. For a man who admits he was “addicted to the airport” it has been a different 18 months, particularly as he was used to being away for two to three months at a time travelling to all his important export markets to meet existing and prospective customers.
“I have not been on a plane for over 20 months, but my exports have trebled in that time,” he says. All the hard work he has put in over the years travelling all over the world, time and again, paid off during the global lockdown as his customers knew his wines and were able to get on with selling them. “They know how serious and professional we are about our work and they have been willing to keep that momentum going for us.”
He adds: “When the Beirut explosion happened all our markets called us and asked how they could help. That meant so much to us. We have had so much support from so many people. Like the fundraising that Madeleine [Waters] did for Lebanon in the UK. It’s still emotional now to look back on the response we got.”
Instead of flying on a regular basis to the UK, Finland, Malta, the US New York, Hawaii or Japan, Issa has been able to stay at home and focus on developing new areas for the Domaine des Tourelles business. “When I stopped travelling I had the time to be more creative, which you don’t normally have,” says Issa.
Which brings us to his new spirits business and in particular his premium Lebanese gin brand – GinBey.
“With all the problems in Lebanon we have had to think outside the box,” he explains. “Creating a gin from Lebanon is sort of a story in itself.”
Which is very much what the gin category needs. Genuine stories of gin breaking ground in new markets – which Lebanon most certainly is.
The gin has only been released for just over three months and it has already attracted strong interest from those that have tasted in the UK and VOS Selections in New York, run by the influential Victor Schwarz is looking to take it on for the state, as well interest in Norway and Sweden.
“Everyone is really excited about it. I did not think it would have this quick a reception,” he says. “I see it as sitting somewhere in the mid-range – it is premium but with an affordable price (around rip £30), to make it as accessible as possible.”
But this is no overnight success story. Issa explains: “We have invested hard to make the most of this opportunity. GinBey is something we have been working on for three years. Experimenting to find the right botanicals and working with small batches so that we can make as smooth a gin as possible. We have had to learn how to make it in the best possible way.”
GinBey is described as ‘The Mediterranean Spirit’ to capture the refreshing notes of lemon peel combined with natural and local spices, pomegranate and petals to give it a floral note.
Making spirits is nothing new for Issa or Domaine des Tourelles as it has been one of Lebanon’s primary arak distillers for many years. So introducing a new gin still was a natural fit for the business.
“Having the leading quality arak brand in Lebanon has definitely helped us introduce the gin,” says Issa. “It has opened the door for people to try it.”
Issa imports high end proof spirit – a premium wheat alcohol from France – that is diluted with spring water from Lebanese mountains. This then provides the platform on which Issa then makes GinBey from. “I initially tried to use the local juniper and did not like it. It was too oily and greasy, so we started to import Macedonian junipers.”
Instead GinBey uses a mix of 14 local Lebanese botanicals, from the traditional base of juniper and coriander seeds to other ingredients such as citrus, florals and spices. Part of the botanicals are steeped 24 hours before distillation in a 400-litre copper still which is heated by a steam jacket to keep the temperature steady. The more volatile botanicals such as tilia and rose petals, and pomegranate seeds are placed in a basket for a more delicate extraction. The final gin is rested in traditional amphora jars for six months to give it extra finesse and roundness to the taste.
Issa believes GinBey is a new gin style that works particularly well in a gin and tonic. It is the rose petal touch that makes the difference, combined with the citrus notes and touches of lemon zest.
Making and selling spirits in Lebanon makes a lot of sense considering how expensive imported spirts are. Not helped by the appalling currency exchange. It means GinBey is on average a third of the price, if not cheaper, than an alternative Tanqueray, or Monkey 47 in a premium Lebanese bar.
The first year production of GinBey will probably come in at around 200,000 bottles, with plenty of capacity to grow that in the coming years.
Issa has also worked hard to make the bottle stand out on shelf and gone with a bespoke bottle made in Italy that looks more like a medicine style than a traditional spirits bottle. The arabic writing on the label means gin – which translates as “go crazy”.
GinBey is now being distributed in the UK by Boutinot, alongside Issa’s wines and is proving to be a popular cross sell with independent wine merchants and specialist retailers that already have Domaine des Tourelles in their range, as well as new online specialist listings. First to list was Arabica Bar & Ktichen both in their restaurants and online shop and it’s proving to be a great fit.
The brand will be pushed through 2022 at consumer shows as well as trade tastings as momentum grows.
As for where GinBey goes next? Issa is very open minded: “We are not looking to make a gin exactly the same every year, we will evolve it and adapt the recipe and try different flavour combinations. It’s clear from our experiments that people most love a gin that is smooth, refreshing and round.”
The less travelling he does, the more gin flavours and spirits we can look forward to seeing.