Whangamata local Sam Brown knew he was on to a winner when he thought up the idea of a sheep milk spirit. And so for the next three years and a half years he would chip away at the concept in his free time.
Brown was living in Shijiazhung, two hours south of Beijing, working in the field of international trade when he first had the idea; out having a drink with friends.
«We were all from different countries, we were having a drink for each of our nationalities; we had some tequila for Mexico, vodka for Russia, and a few other ones, and it got to me and I kind of just drew a blank, there wasn’t a spirit that represented us to the same degree, that’s where the idea all started,» says Brown.
«I was looking at if New Zealand were to have its own uniquely native spirit what that would be and there’s a lot of native plants and trees but I didn’t think any had the same kind of appeal to people so I kept on thinking, and [eventually] got to sheep.»
He later moved to Australia to work for Chinese mining company Citic Pacific while continuing to research fermentation processes and working away at the project, but it wasn’t until he moved back to New Zealand at the beginning of last year that he really put the cogs in motion.
After months of research he took his findings to Massey University in Palmerston North and together Brown and the university did eight months of research in the laboratory to understand the science behind it.
Turning sheep milk into alcohol is «quite an involved process», more tricky than conventional spirits, as the sugars in sheep milk are not as easy to ferment, Brown says.
There’s no yeast you can buy to convert the sugar in sheep milk to alcohol so Brown had to grow his own. To make a single batch it takes 12 days.
«To turn sheep milk into alcohol you need to use special kinds of yeast that like the sugars in sheep milk.»
The White Sheep Co was born at the start of the year and its spirits went to market in January. It first launched with the gin and cream liqueur. The vodka came a little after.
Brown says the products would have gone to market earlier if he had help but he didn’t want to risk his idea being nabbed by a company or person with readily available capital.
«I thought it was better if I did it myself, I knew it would take a bit longer, but at least I have that control over it.»
The White Sheep Co is targeting the Asian consumer, as well as those in Europe and the United States. «With the ties the drink has to New Zealand, using sheep’s milk and [New Zealand] being well-known around the world for having large numbers of sheep, hopefully it will have appeal to people of all countries.»
So far, the products which are made in Tauranga have been well received. The vodka also last month won a gold medal at the inaugural New Zealand Spirits Awards.
The spirits are currently only sold in New Zealand but Brown says he is preparing to export product to Asia, including Japan, in time for the Rugby World Cup later this year.
Brown is the sole shareholder and only company employee but says he is getting pretty busy and will soon need additional help.
The common reaction to the spirits has been surprise mixed with curiosity, he says.
«Most people they want to know more about it and how it’s made – they are just as interested in the process as how it tastes.»
The spirits, which use sheep milk sourced from the central North Island, smell like sheep milk and notes of the milk can be tasted in the drinks. The vodka has stronger sheep milk flavours. The gin is «a little bit more delicate» with a honey ingredient, and the best selling product.
«It’s good to finally get it out there, I’ve had to keep it to myself for so long and work away on it so it’s really good to see it out there. It’s quite satisfying to see that it is well received and people are interested in.
«The long term goal is to create a drink that’s synonymous to New Zealand just as tequila is to Mexico.»
Brown, now working on the business full time, is taking a bet on the gin and the cream liqueur to drive the company’s growth.