Mark Neal and Mikey Ball from Scapegrace Gin - Scapegrace Black

While candy coloured gins have taken on a life of their own, New Zealand distillery Scapegrace is bucking the trend by producing an all-natural black gin

By: Tiff Christie|April 2,2020

Pink Gin may be everywhere you look but New Zealand’s Scapegrace Gin is bucking the trend in the belief that there are some drinkers who are after a more sophisticated tipple.

Released at the end of last year, the Black Gin is selling out as fast as the distillery can make it.

To discuss the gin and how you can use it, we talk to Co-Founder, Marketing Director Mark Neal and bar consultant Mikey Ball.


Mark Neal & Mikey Ball
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Pink gin may be everywhere you look, but New Zealand's Scapegrace Gin are bucking the trend in the belief that some drinkers are after a little bit more of a sophisticated tipple. Released at the end of last year, the black gin is selling out as fast as the distillery can make it. To discuss the gin and how you can use it, we talked to co-founder marketing director Mark Neal and bar consultant, Mikey Ball. Thanks for joining us, guys.

You're welcome.

Cheers, man. Thank you.

Now, what is it that creates the black color of the gin?

Basically, we had a ton of requests from consumers, trade distributors, to do a flavoured gin, but the idea of doing, say a raspberry, a grapefruit, or a pink gin, was never really an option at all. I think personally, I don't think I'd be able to sleep at night with a colourful gin, which would be created. But from there, it just didn't really fit the ethos of the brand itself. So with this in mind, and after a couple of beverages, we decided to do a black gin.
At that stage, it was purely an idea, we had no idea of what it could be, et cetera. And the most obvious place to start was the color itself. So basically to create black, which is actually the absence of color, you need the primary colours of red, yellow, purple, blue, and orange. So with this in mind, we brought in the big guns, which was Mikey Ball, who's on the other line with us as well, to collaborate with and to bring the magic to life.
So to answer your question, what creates the black color? Basically, we knew that those colours would technically create a black liquid in some format once combined. So what we did is we found natural extracts that acted as a natural color agent that also carried a unique flavour profile itself, which would collectively create that taste, the black.
So for red, we use aronia berry, which is quite a sweet chokeberry type thing. For yellow, we use pineapple extract, which gives quite a tropical element to it. For purple, we use kumara, which is our native sweet potato, which brings an earthy tone to it. For blue, we use butterfly pea, which is obviously a flower, which brings the blue qualities to it. And then from there we use saffron for the orange, which gives it a bit of a savoury twist at the end. So go with the magic of sweet, tropical, earthy, floral through to savoury that's coming through, which is what we call the taste of black.

So basically it came from the color rather than the flavours?

Yes. Well yeah, exactly. It was kind of a mixture of both. When we came up with the idea around let's create black, it was an idea of a color, but then once we delved deeper into it and looked at what color is, we decided that colours can be flavours.

Did you consider it a gamble to be releasing something that was so darkly coloured?

Not really at all. It didn't really cross our mind. From idea through to development and execution, it felt naturally right from the word go. Scapegrace as a brand is all about exploring uncharted territories, and we felt the concept fully did fit with our brand ethos and so many good layers of uniqueness, authenticity, and overall it just tasted like a dream.

Now you've talked about the four botanicals that go into the color. How is it made though?

So basically we use a version of our Scapegrace Classic, which is our everyday gin at a higher ABV, so that as a staples. It's pretty classically citrus, super smooth, two dominant botanicals: dried lemon and orange peel. And from here each of the unique featured botanicals I mentioned earlier, the aronia berry, pineapple, the kumara, the butterfly pea, and the saffron. They're all individually steeped at different times and then blended secondary as a compound. So from here we have what we call the magic, which is fully the botanicals blended and balanced perfectly to produce that unique black taste and color. From there we add the magic back into a slightly altered version of the classic gin bringing the product to a desired ABV around about 40.6.
The whole process took just over a year or so. It was super, super challenging, which I'm sure Mikey can vouch for. For certain stages it would be like, to get the black to a certain shade, we'll actually need to push a bit more yellow and that would then turn the product green, but it would taste like pineapple, which isn’t an overly bad thing. And then it just had so many layers to find that perfect balance of colours to get the unique blackness. So yeah, months. Months. Over a year of development. We've found a perfect marriage with it now.

Saffron is a particularly expensive ingredient, and usually completely dominated by Fernet-Branca, I believe. How difficult was it to get all of these elements together?

At the start that was a real challenge. We've found good partners who can produce the botanicals for us. But the interesting thing is we actually never ... It was funny, the first crack at the aronia, the pineapple, the kumara, the butterfly pea, and saffron. We've never deviated away from those original ingredients, which is pretty crazy. When we started the saffron nearly tripled in price within three months. They’re vulnerable. But we stayed to the original master pilot, that sample that was created, and never deviated away from it. We've got good supply now, now that we're catching up on demand and stuff. Some are a lot more expensive than others. It would have been easier to not go down the natural route or to find as another substitute that wasn't saffron, et cetera. But we just wanted to stick to that original pilot sample, which I think the first time we sat down with Mikey and that we all had a crack at it. We're like, "Let's not change that." And we just stuck to that.

Apparently the gin doesn't stay black for long, once you add various mixes. Can you go into a bit more detail about how the mixes do change the colour?

Yeah, for sure. So I suppose it's an acid reaction, long and short of it. The big thing here is we've got two ingredients in the flavour pack that Mark just mentioned, which are really high in something called anthocyanins, which are essentially ... I suppose the best way to describe them is the plant's defense mechanism. Once they're hit with other and will put themselves in different situations, they'll change a different colour. So the two that we're using, obviously, butterfly blue pea, which is quite a well known one, which turns itself quite bright blue, but also aronia. So aronia, if you were to juice aronia, you'd be doing it for a long time, but the juice itself comes out kind of like a black currant. But once hit with acid, any form of acid, whether it's citric, malic, tartaric, whatever, all differing, it will go almost straight black, almost like a dark, dark purple.
So those two combined are actually, funnily enough, where our gin gets its major colour change profile from, and then with the other colours along with that, the saffron brings that extra red hue, as well as the pineapple, which drives the little yellow tints. The cool thing here is probably red. With the likes of things like tonic, that a high end citric acid, you'll get quite a lot lighter, brighter red colour to anything like soda water, which will give you almost a grey colour. So anything that has the smallest, smallest amount of citric acid or acid in it will only give you a small reaction.
I think one thing that I always try and point out is, as Mark's mentioned, we were looking to create a black gin. So the gin is based off of natural flavours that create black. So the colour change wasn't necessarily, although it's been something that's very popular, it wasn't necessarily the plan to start with.

Right, so almost like a byproduct.

Yeah, you got it.

Now you've talked a lot about the fact that all of these colours are coming from natural ingredients. How important is it to use only natural ingredients in a good gin?

I think personally it's not only the key to legitimate sourcing, but specifically for the R&D with black, some of the natural versus organic versus replicated flavours we chose, we went through, and as we kind of just touched on, we went through hundreds of different flavours of some of these botanicals to actually get the right ones, and in the end these natural ones were the only ones that would ever actually pull them through. I suppose if you think of it, it's kind of the same way as any great product starts. All gins are trying to use their classic natural products, so we only ever wanted to add something natural back on top. You know, we're using natural citruses, natural herbs and spices, natural juniper. We want to make sure that we are doing the same thing. Otherwise, we'd have quite a potentially transient product.

How difficult was it to balance the botanicals? Not only to create the effect, but also a smooth taste?

It was a year and a half in the making, so I think we built the pilot ... We probably built about 10 pilots, and just trying to get not only sourcing right, getting the same consistent ingredients to start with and having good supply of them and then being able to play with them and getting those small tiny increments of flavour profiles down to how long to steep each element, was a pretty hard task. I think Mark will probably back me up on that.
We spent a lot of time at different flavour houses and playing around with the product to the point where I think even once we came into testing we had quite a few curve balls, and the fact that you can make a beautiful product taste delicious, but then how long does that last on the shelf? How long does that last in different temperatures, and how quickly to things bind? You can have something quite quickly take over, i.e. the pineapple was quite a strong flavour. So we had to think not only about how it tastes right now, but also how it tastes down the line too. Because we're adding such crazy cool flavours.

I suppose if someone's holding a bottle for a year, will it taste the same as when it was first distilled?

You got it. Yeah. I suppose you could liken it to batching a cocktail and putting the bitters in the bottle with the batch. If you put too much bitters in and you tasted it six months down the line, it's not going to be a drinkable drink. Because the bitters will overpower.

Now talking of flavour, if someone is buying the black gin for the first time, what should they expect? And does the flavour change throughout the drink?

I think by itself it's pretty cool. I've always described it as ... It's like a desert island gin, so it's a little bit naughty. It's pretty fun. It's still got enough proof for something to be driven predominantly through a highball style. But what you should expect in flavour is definitely that classic, almost London dry style base with a little hint of pineapple and specifically that sweet potato, but also a really cool texture. So I think one thing outside of the flavour profile of the saffron, the saffron is actually one of the heroes in this liquid. It brings such a cool texture. For the minimal volume that we actually use, it brings such a cool textural element. So yeah, I say desert island. It's big and it's kind of luxury, but at the same time it's still a London dry, and it's not too sweet. The perceived sweetness comes from the natural flavours.

So beyond just adding tonic, how would you recommend that people should use the gin?

I suppose being such a young product, use it how you'd like. Play around with it. That was the idea. The whole product itself was very much a fun project and it kind of pushed the boundaries, so definitely try and play with it as much as possible outside of tonic. Probably my favourite way to serve it at the moment is with fresh green apple juice, which is actually the garnish we use too. Works amazingly alongside citrus, so the likes of French 75s have been pretty cool to make. Sours. The world is your oyster, realistically, it can go along any with anything. I think the only thing I've tried it with that didn't really work was fresh pineapple juice, and that was like, it's just a bit too much.

I imagine that bartenders have been playing quite a bit with the gin and what they can do with it. Have there been any cocktails that have come through that that you can talk about?

We've seen a couple. Mark can probably touch on this as well. I've seen quite a few black martinis. So people have done straight naked style martinis with the gin, which is quite cool. I mean, what's better than warm gin? Cold gin, right? But also quite a few cool sours, so I've seen a lot of classic sours with grapefruit. Fresh lemon as well. They seem to go quite well. Mark, what have you seen? Have you seen much else going on outside of that? I've seen some cool mules with ginger works really well.

Yeah, the ginger mule works well. There's just so many. A lot of the twists on the classic. The black Negroni is the only one other that I've seen people have used. Just amplifying those unique notes.
Yeah. I think what we've tried to do is let people have a play with it. We're going to roll out some ideas of what we can see that's good, but personally, I don't like to restrict people with the signature serve thing. It's just what you like.

Now, you talked about the pineapple adding a little bit too much sweetness. Are there other flavours that you would perhaps recommend people avoid if they're experimenting?

What have we tried it with? It doesn't go super well with fresh juice outside of citrus juice. So potentially grapefruit juice or anything like that. I think we tried it with the East Imperial grapefruit soda and it didn't really go. But think about the flavours that are in there. There's a lot of crazy tropical notes. The one path you don't want to go down is using similar ingredients that are in the gin that are going to start to make it quite full on. Yeah, I think probably any form of grapefruit or orange juice doesn't necessarily work too much. Something with too much citric, and then definitely that pineapple. But outside of that, as I said, we played around with it quite a lot, specifically in these classic styles and it's worked quite well.

I suppose you could also take it down a bit of a tiki route.

You got it. Absolutely. Yeah. We did a little gin jungle bird style drink a couple of weeks back, which was quite cool because it's got that pineapple, it's got that bitterness that you'd expect to see in Campari already, and the gin by itself just strapped back actually works quite well, so yeah.

As we mentioned in the intro, the gin sold out really quickly when you first produced it. How has the reaction of consumers been?

Oh, it's been actually really phenomenal, really far beyond our wildest thoughts and imaginations. Like once we launched, the national Herald picked up the story. And we do have a Herald over here in New Zealand. It's quite a decent sized rag. But from there, pretty much we've sold out about three months' worth of stock within a day. And ever since then it's just been literally trying to ... It went viral after that, which is the power of media and whatnot.
But it went viral after that and since then we've just been racing, trying to get ahead of the curve and just when we think we're ahead of the curve, we just get whacked and we're back again. It's taken about five months, but we're now actually ahead of the light and we can ... We started to open up the product to other key international markets, including our great Australian friends across the ditch. The reaction has been amazing. It's one of those products. It's got so many good authentic layers which consumers can resonate with. Yeah. So that's good.

Now, I assume most consumers are buying it for the colour, but are you finding that they are rebuying once they have tasted it?

Yeah, yeah. And that's the biggest thing with any product. It's the second purchase which is the most important. We get a lot of data through retail and obviously through all our bars and whatnot. And it's one of those products which the repurchase rate has been fantastic. It's definitely not a one trick pony. The repurchase has been great.

Now the brand itself has been around since about 2014. Am I correct in saying the black gin is the first time that you've dabbled in a little bit of, shall we call it, alchemy? Is that something that the brand is going to continue?

Yeah, yes. Since launching just around six years ago, we've focused on getting the brand, but more so its core products, well established. So that's our classic silver and also our navy strength, which picked up based London dry gin in London last year. So we've kind of focused on these two core products in our 38 international markets we're trading in. So we felt key to get those foundations and build the product before we jump into innovation. But now we're six years old, which is quite old and we're starting to really dabble in some exciting slices of innovation. So we've got quite a bit on the horizon within gin, but also looking to dabble within some other categories and whatnot. But yeah, for sure. I think now the foundations are set. We've got some very, very exciting things over the next 12 months and beyond about come out.

Now gin has been steadily riding a wave of popularity. Where does the category go from here, to your mind, and how does it stay relevant?

Good question. So yeah, absolutely, no doubt. Gin has had a sizzling resurgence within five, 10 years. Different stages and different countries that we've noticed around the world. There's also no doubt that the category is getting bloody busy in different markets at different stages. But I think, for the category to keep its relevance, I think smart innovation is going to be key. So producing products which actually have a purpose and they fit with that brand purpose as opposed to just bringing something out, see if it sticks.
I think smart innovation. I think quality is absolutely critical. Continuing to produce products which are the best you can physically put out into the market, and being sure you're not cutting corners just to make that quick buck. And finally maintaining a strong level of authenticity with every touchpoint, from product to brand, and just ensuring every move that you made has a positive impact on the industry versus this is a negative.

Let's talk about food pairings. With so many flavours within the black gin, if you are going to have nibbles with it, what would you be looking towards?

I currently work in a restaurant. We actually play around with it quite a bit. We actually use it for ... We do some little treats at the end of the night, which are little gummy bears. So they're actually black gin gummy bears.

Oh really?

It's a kind of sweets, which is pretty cool. So they've become part of the meal. But I guess to answer your question, we use it in a champagne style drink to start with, which comes alongside our snacks. It works really well alongside rich elements, so truffle and cream and that kind of thing. Mushrooms. Anything big and green and gamey. But it's still not too full on to help cut through something a little bit brighter and fresher. So salmon sashimi and that kind of thing works super well. Anything cured is really good too, because it's got that brightness and that tropical sweetness. It's got a really nice breaking down quality, so it's really cool. Yeah, super versatile on the whole. We've served it just as a shot or a taster before, alongside even, funnily enough, a coconut style dessert, and it works really well as well.

Now that you're catching up with demands within New Zealand, what are your plans for expanding the black gin globally?

Yeah, yeah. Good question. Most importantly, products are just starting to hit Australia now. In terms of other markets outside of Australia, we're about a month away from the UK, launching over there. So we got our first order on the water over there. The US is not far away. And then a handful of key markets within Europe as well. Starting to dabble it out into the big old world. So looking forward to seeing how it goes out there.

And has the reaction from buyers overseas been as phenomenal as it has been locally for you?

Yeah, absolutely. So Australia was the first export market. We sent some product in December and it sold out within three weeks, and we've just sent another shipping over to Aussie, which is arriving probably as we're talking. First signs, Australia has been amazing. Other export markets that received through us before that was throughout Europe. Denmark, again, they've gone through their first allocation. The UK is going to be a pretty exciting one. So we've got quite a lot of stock going over there, which is about to land now. And so it'll be interesting how that goes, but overall, the feedback has been like it has here. It's just one of those products. The minute that we had it, you put it in front of the consumer, put it in front of trade or distributor, you get that same reaction, which I think is hopefully going to be a global reaction. Yeah.

Are you ready for the possible demand?

Yeah, we are now. We've definitely got the foundations right in terms of all the raw ingredients. All our bottles. We've had to put quite a bit of investment around producing the product in larger quantities. There's a certain steeping process, which is a minimum of 10 days, which you can't speed up. But we're definitely increasing the opportunity of scale and whatnot.

Okay, cool. All right, well look, thank you for speaking to us. So thank you Mark. Thank you Mikey. If people want more information on Scapegrace, they can go to your website, which is Thank you both.

Thank you.

Thank you very much to you, Tiff.

For more information on Scapegrace Black, go to

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