One of the best parts of working in the spirits business is getting the opportunity to connect with fascinating people from all across the industry. Partnering on the recent “High End Spirits” Seminar gave Chris and I the chance to meet distiller Ben Capdevielle and his partner in business (and life), Holly Robinson. He hinted that there was a great story behind his brand, Big Gin. So we couldn’t help our curiosity.
This article is the result of that curiosity. We partnered with Ben and Big Gin to tell you the awesome and odd story that took his family legacy and turned it first into a hobby, and eventually into an award winning Gin brand. Come along for the ride!
The Family Legacy
Ben starts his story a few generations back. His family had been moonshining since his Granpa Ted, who used to make rye whiskey in Iowa, “just one whistle stop from Templeton.” His Grandpa taught his father Jim, who would eventually do the same for Ben – but not until well into his 20’s. “As a child, I saw equipment and stuff like that, but I was never involved. I wasn’t really interested” admitted Ben.
None of the family’s spirits were ever for sale – they were to be enjoyed among friends and family or given as gifts. Jim was especially against commercialization of his spirits and liked to say he was “sticking it to the man” by making his own booze.
Time Behind Bars
Without an interest in distillation, a young Ben followed the work he could find. He had a few brief landscaping gigs before finding his way into the restaurant business – where he’d stay for nearly ten years. Starting with a bartending class at age 19, Ben found his first restaurant role while living in Montana – working nights left lots of room for snowboarding all day.
A few years later he returned to Seattle to go to college but quickly found another role in a restaurant, making his way from the back of the house to the front. On his Dad’s suggestion, he gave bartending a try and realized how much he enjoyed it. He’d continue bartending for 15 years in various bars and restaurants across Seattle.
A Spark of Interest
In 2006, everything changed when Ben found himself distilling alongside his Dad for the very first time.
“I was on a fishing trip in Florida with my Dad and his friend Doug.”, said Ben, ” They always distill rum when they are together, (they do the cane based stuff, fermented molasses, raw sugar juice, that sort of thing.) So Dad and I went fishing while Doug got the ferment ready. When we got back the sour mash was ready to distill. We cooked it, and that was my first experience with distilling. I was hooked.”
The rest – as they say – was history. Armed with a tabletop still, all of the information he could find on the internet and an intimidating stack of books, Ben and his buddy (and future business partner) Todd Leabman started moonshining in Ben’s apartment basement.
“Todd and I had a little lab. We fermented and distilled all sorts of grains and whiskeys. We made some neutral spirit and then made gin out of that. We really enjoyed the process.” Over the next few years they kept distilling and found themselves gravitating towards gin. “We’d moonshined for quite some time and discovered that we were making great gin… it got us started talking about whether this was something we’d like to do professionally”.
Legalizing the Legacy
They knew they were on to a great product, and they wanted to make something they could sell. That meant they had to go “above board” and get fully licensed. So in 2008 they hunkered down and wrote a business plan for the distillery. Unfortunately it was an awful time to ask for funding, and the team had to rewrite their plans with less funding two more times before getting a small $50,000 investment from a friend.
The excitement was unfortunately not shared by everyone early on. “Dad didn’t like it”, admitted Ben, “we’re supposed to be sticking it to the man.”
But Ben was confident. As he told me, “we knew something was missing from the gin category – and it was a bold London Dry.” Plus, he had the benefit of years of experience behind the bar. He knew to choose a bottle that would fit in the well (and in the bartender’s hand), and to find a label that could easily be read in a dark bar. Plus – he and his partner Todd loved juniper and had a feeling they weren’t the only ones out there who did.
They named their gin “Big Gin” for two reasons: first, because Ben’s Dad always went by “Big Jim” and the product wouldn’t have happened without him. And second, because it’s a gin with a big juniper flavor. The name just fit.
Ben’s then-girlfriend Holly Robinson joined the team in 2008 to assist with marketing and sales, but the work was far from done. It would take four more years before all of the experimentation, paperwork, and hard work paid off. In 2012 Big Gin was available for purchase in Washington state, followed quickly by Arizona, Illinois and North Dakota.
“I’ll never forget Big Jim’s reaction when he saw it on the shelf at whole foods.” admits Ben, “He rubs his hands together when he gets excited. And there he was just smiling and rubbing his hands together. That was a good feeling.”
Ben and his team branched out quickly beyond Big Gin – they have released a bourbon barreled and peat barreled versions. Ben believed the strong juniper flavor in the gin make it a good candidate for spending some time in barrels – as it wasn’t likely to be overwhelmed by the barrel flavor. It seems he was onto something – in 2014, bourbon barreled Big Gin took home top honors in the International Wine and Spirit Competition.
“We’re going to keep distilling juniper based products”, Ben insists, “but we’ve been talking about some genever. And maybe a sloe berried Big Gin, made without the sugar.”
He assures me he’ll continue experimenting and doing his best to create great gin, but also mentions his young daughter and wanting to find time for the family as well. I can’t help but wonder if she might just find herself a fourth-generation distiller someday. (If she does, she’ll have “Big” shoes to fill!)