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  • Writer's pictureSam MacKinnon

Knook #16: Dancing Sands

Dancing Sands is New Zealand's most awarded distillery. Photo: Supplied

Craft spirits have exploded in both the growth of the category and the number of producers in the last few years, hot on the heels of the craft beer trend. To the casual observer, the trend seemingly came from nowhere, but trend-watchers were well on top of where craft spirits were headed before it hit the mainstream. Ben Bonoma is one of those people who spotted the trend coming. Along with his wife Sarah, Ben founded Dancing Sands Distillery in Takaka in 2016, and they have fast grown the business to one of New Zealand’s most popular premium gins. “Our mission is to make simply stunning spirits in the most beautiful location in the world,” says Ben. “Te Waikaroropupū Springs in Golden Bay is the clearest spring in the world with underwater visibility of up to 81 metres - the English translation is ‘the place of the dancing sands’ which is where we derive our name. The spring is the aquifer where we get the water for our gin from, and it’s so important for the quality of our product. “The spring really is a daily reminder that we live in the most beautiful place in the world. For us, I feel like we therefore have an obligation to make beautiful products to represent the region well.” I asked Ben how Dancing Sands got started. “The impetus for starting Dancing Sands was really that Sarah and I wanted to get out of the corporate lifestyle and run our own business. We came across this still for sale here in Takaka. After doing some research, it seemed like it was the right time to get into the craft spirits space. “There was a nice personal connection for us with gin because Sarah and I really connected and fell in love over drinking martinis in New York bars. “We bought the still equipment and the building lease in Takaka, and then have developed the brand, products and recipes ourselves. “We launched into sales in August 2016 - about 10 months after we bought the distillery. It was a year of hard work, trialling product and figuring out what we liked and didn’t like. There was a lot of tasting what the competition was producing to see how we could make something better. It was a bit weird to get my head around though because often I’d be sampling gin at 7 or 8am,” Ben laughs.

Dancing Sands founders, Ben and Sarah Bonoma. Photo: Supplied

I asked Ben what factors he sees as key to their success thus far. “We are hyper-focused on what liquid is in the bottle, and what’s on the bottle. Getting those two roughly right gave us a starting chance for sales. “We don’t have a food and beverage background but we’ve actually found that very useful. We’ve had to work out how to make everything from scratch, and it’s made us focus on what good tastes like. We’re incredibly driven to innovate not imitate. “The aquifer provides beautiful water - it takes 11 years for the rainwater on Takaka Hill to filter through the marble and limestone into the spring. It means that putting liquid on lips is our best sales pitch, and we get a lot of word of mouth endorsements that drive sales - the quality of the product really is our greatest asset. “We’ve also invested a lot in how we market and sell the brand. We’re much stronger making the product than marketing it, but we’re actively investing to get better in that space. It’s been the biggest challenge for us in this business - I guess while not being in the industry previously has been a real strength for how we make the product itself, we’ve also had to learn a lot about effective marketing very quickly. “I don’t think we really appreciated how much effort it takes to get into consumer awareness, so it’s become really important for us to use existing networks through distributors. Navigating that relationship can be challenging - we’re one brand of many in their portfolio - but building a direct-to-consumer channel is quite a different model, so the effort we’ve put into our distributor relationships has been worth it because it’s allowed us to spread our wings further."

As touched on briefly, the craft spirits industry has exploded, and I asked Ben what he thinks has influenced that. “There’s been a global trend towards craft beer, and spirits is only a few years behind,” Ben says. “But I think the other factor is the wider food and beverage trend around consumers wanting to know some thought has been put into the product, wanting the story behind who made the product, and wanting to understand if the product is good for them, especially in the premium space. “Gin exploded in the UK 8 to 10 years ago, and a large part of that is the quicker process compared to other spirits. You can complete the process of making gin in the space of 24 hours, and you can’t do that with whiskey or rum. But I’m expecting to see more of a rise in whiskey and rum on the market in the near future as time goes on. “We also make and age our own rum but it’s less of a priority because the gin side of the business is taking off. We’re wanting to expand our spirits portfolio but that all takes time - and anyone running a business knows that time is always something you’re short on.”

I asked Ben what advice he’d give to aspiring founders and business owners. “Unless you’re passionate about whatever you’re doing, don’t do it. “You need an intrinsic motivation to keep going, and you have to be prepared to embrace failing everyday. Business is the highest of highs and the lowest of lows - so you need something more than ‘I’ll get rich from this’ to keep yourself going. “You need to find something that you’re willing to work 80-90 hours a week on and not be necessarily rewarded for it, otherwise it’s a hobby. I think it’s so important to understand the distinction between motivation and drive or hunger. Motivation might give you a short jolt of energy, but passion, drive and hunger will sustain you over years and a lifetime.” I ask Ben what’s next for Dancing Sands. “At the moment it’s a focus on new product development. “For every 20 ideas I have, one might get to see the light of day. My favourite part of the business is trying new things but it’s tricky to find enough time and capacity to take on new ventures. So I’ll definitely be looking to dedicate more time to trying new things and expanding our portfolio. “2019 was a great year so we're looking forward to what the next few years bring!”

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