Business Profiles

From Dublin to Canton and Back: the Story of Chinnery Gin

For more than two thousand years, Guangzhou has been a meeting place - of land and sea, trade and culture, old and new. Separated by mountainous topography from the rest of China, it evolved into a modern, liberal city with its own distinct cuisine and way of life. As the terminus of both the Pearl River and the maritime silk road, it has always been immensely wealthy. It is a city of vast markets; selling food, technology, textiles - anything you want, there is a market carrying it.

It is also a city of immigrants.  As a crossroads of international routes, it became home to travellers and traders from all over the world, all seeking their fortune in the City Of Rams. This is the story of two such travellers who came to Guangzhou via Dublin, and how their careers - one in 19th century art, the other in 21st century software - intersect.

David Havelin spent several years in the 1990s living in Guangzhou, or Canton as it was once known (the city government itself still uses Canton occasionally when translating to English). An enthusiastic traveller, the Dubliner spent his time there reading as much about the city's history as he could, focusing on the Old China Trade of the 19th century in particular.

Havelin kept noticing paintings by one artist, who specialised in portraits of western traders, local businesspeople, merchant families and street scenes. “I kept seeing paintings by this one guy, George Chinnery. He had spent the last 27 years of his life between Canton, Hong Kong and Macau, a portrait artist by profession and a prolific sketcher of local life too. His work is a huge part of the historical record of the early 19th century China Trade.

“Some years after I left China, I was browsing in a London bookstore and came across a biography of Chinnery. I started leafing through it and was surprised to learn he had started his professional career in Dublin. I bought the book, adding it to several shelves of books I had accumulated on China and Chinese history, some going back to Chinnery's time.”

But Havelin wasn’t just passionate about reading, or art, or software, or travel - he was also a supporter of the then dormant Irish whiskey category. His blog, Liquid Irish, is still a go-to for anyone looking to educate or inform themselves about Irish spirits, where he used his writing to champion Irish food and drink, celebrating all that was good about Ireland. “The intensity of flavour that can be carried by the tiniest sip of spirit really appeals to me, whether that's whiskey, gin, rum or something else.”

When he lived abroad he would bring Irish whiskey with him, to show that Ireland had its own craft traditions and could produce something sublime and world class. “I think it's easier to find Irish food and drink products these days of that quality, but 20 years ago whiskey was what I latched on to. Irish whiskey is an ambassador that represents the finest qualities of this country around the globe, well beyond the parts our diplomats can reach.”

In 2012, the award-winning Dingle Gin was released, and Havelin started to focus more on this rapidly expanding category.  “Whereas whiskey sends a little bit of Ireland out into the world, gin brings the world to us. It is a drink born of trade and empire, with exotic ingredients gathered from far off lands. It appeals to me in the same way stamp collecting did as a child. It's a glimpse of the unfamiliar.”

A chance encounter with drinks entrepreneur Marie Byrne saw them deciding to create a company. With Havelin’s background in whiskey writing, and Byrne’s role as co-founder and managing director of the Dublin Whiskey Company, one would be forgiven for thinking that the duo would release a whiskey. But they looked to gin instead.

“I started as an engineer, eventually moving into software development, so I always imagined I'd start a technology business. But the pleasure I got from exploring the craft of distillation and the great people I met in that industry enticed me away. Meeting my business partner, Marie, was the final key, because I had absolute confidence in her ability to form a company around whatever product we decided to make.,”

Byrne, apart from her experience setting up the Dublin Whiskey Company, which was sold to Quintessential Drinks in 2016, was one of the founding members of the Irish Whiskey Association and is an adjunct lecturer in Food Science with Dublin Institute of Technology. She is also the founder of the new B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Brewing and Distilling in DIT.

So with Havelin’s passion and Byrne’s know-how, they set to work. “Besides an interest in the liquid itself, the idea of creating something from nothing, being responsible for every decision and the success or failure of an entire venture, was something I wanted to attempt.”

In 2016 they created Chinnery Spirits with a view to releasing a gin, but in a crowded market with many remarkable gins on the shelf, they had to think global for their inspiration. Havelin admits that it took him longer than it should have to settle on Chinnery, but once he remembered those links between Dublin and Canton, he had his perfect narrative. “His story and the story of gin mesh so well. He took the trade ships in the opposite direction to the teas and spices and so on, stopping in India first for 23 years before moving on to southern China. His spell in India even coincided with the invention of the gin and tonic.”

So they had a story, but gin hinges on its use of botanicals - from Hendricks with its cucumber and rose petal, to Dingle and its bog myrtle, every gin needs to find a unique element that gives it life, and also makes it stand out from the rest. Havelin’s botanical choices were guided by the footsteps of George Chinnery, as well as his own. “I researched commodities that were imported from China. Tea was the big one, cassia bark was another. There was also rhubarb root which I distilled over and over, varying the process every way I could think of, but without managing to make it taste good. So I left that one out.”

After many trials and occasional error, he thought back to his time in Guangzhou, and the tiny blooms that give the city its nickname The City Of Flowers.

“I wanted to add my favourite aroma and flavour from my time in China: osmanthus. When I walk along the streets of Canton I am sometimes stopped in my tracks by the most wonderful fragrance. I look around and there is the osmanthus tree with its tiny flowers. It's sometimes used as a tea in China. So the cassia and tea represent the Old China Trade, while the osmanthus represents southern China. I was pretty sure in my head that these flavours would work together.”

So they had their botanicals, but then they had to find the perfect versions of those ingredients to make the combination sing: “I initially experimented with tea bought from the UK and osmanthus ordered online from China. Cassia is not an unusual botanical in gin so it's readily available from the botanical brokers that everyone uses. But I was only able to get the best quality by going back to Canton, to the wholesale tea market there, and hunting among the 3,000 wholesalers for the good stuff. The osmanthus I use is only harvested once a year, at its peak. The oolong is a very particular variety that distills very well, without the bitterness of other teas.”

Importing these himself from China, Havelin was now plugged into the old spice routes, like a trader of yore. But the old world was about to collide with the shocking new, as Byrne and Havelin got a grips with actually producing a Dublin Dry Gin.

Many of the gins you see in the supermarket will be quick to tell you about what they are, or who they are, but often share little about where they are from. Havelin and Byrne, with their shared expertise in the drinks sector, knew that complete transparency was an important factor in a modern, confident drinks brand. “We agreed right at the beginning that we had to be able to tell people what was in the gin, how it was made and where it was made. This put some constraints on the manufacturing process. If we were making a Dublin gin, we had to distill in Dublin. We couldn't contract manufacture in a location that had no connection to the brand story.

“Of course, as our label says, Chinnery Gin is distilled in Dublin and Cork. We would love eventually to distill entirely in Dublin once the finances allow it. Instead, we are distilling just the botanicals that are unique to Chinnery Gin - the oolong and osmanthus - in their entirety in Dublin.

“I went down to West Cork Distillers and sat in the lab with their distiller, Deirdre Bohane, to create a gin base with the other eight botanicals to complement the oolong and osmanthus. The final gin is a blend of the distillates from the two distilleries. Chinnery had strong family connections in west Cork so distilling there will let us talk about that side of his story too.

“Distilling in Dublin brings two practical advantages. First, I distill the botanicals individually, so I can choose the cut points to suit each botanical. Second, I am distilling under vacuum so the distillation takes place at a much lower temperature. This preserves the flavours of the osmanthus. It's too delicate to put in a traditional gin still to boil with the other botanicals.”

The base is infused with eight botanicals including cassia bark, juniper, coriander seed, liquorice root, sweet orange peel, grains of paradise, angelica root and orris root. The result is a fragrant gin, floral on the nose with notes of gooseberry and orange zest. Sweet, spicy and fruity on the palate, its finish is crisp, clean and satisfying.

Havelin was incredibly methodical in his approach to making the gin and crafting the brand - but the real obsessive in him came out with the design of the bottle. Just as the botanicals are used across the sector as a differentiator, the bottle design is crucial, as one gin after another strives to be the most eye-catching peacock on the shelf.

Like Jobs and Ive, Byrne and Havelin took the look of the bottle just as seriously as they had every other aspect. “I was a complete pain in the ass for the designers. I'll give you one example: we worked with one of the best companies in the business, Stranger & Stranger, in London. They were great, but I was never satisfied with the building on the front label in the early designs - the brick pattern was wrong for the Georgian period, the appearance of the sash windows wasn't typical, and so on. So eventually they told me to supply an architectural diagram of the building I wanted on the front label. I hunted all over Dublin but couldn't find one with the requisite detail. So I drew my own. Actually, since we were unsure about the bottle shape at this stage, I wrote a program to draw a Georgian townhouse, where I could vary every parameter to control the number of rows of bricks, window size, etc. Even to randomly vary the tone of each brick. I sent them the result and they put it on the front of the bottle. I fiddled with pretty much everything else on the label too.”

Chinnery Gin bears a Georgian Dublin townhouse façade - peer through the sash windows on the front label and colourful imaginings of the Far East are visible across the inside of the rear label. Set in this scene, near the landmark Pazhou Pagoda on the Pearl River, is the figure of an artist at his easel, honouring Chinnery.

Reminiscent of a Chinese lantern, the bottle shape itself is also unique: rather than using a template, they opted to go for a completely individual creation, as Havelin explains: “The glass bottle is unique to us. We didn't intend going down that road initially but somehow we ended up sculpting bottles out of clay and 3D-printing caps. Fun!”

The fruits of Havelin and Byrne’s labours are on the shelves at selected stockists nationwide (Celtic Whiskey Shop being their distributor). The label is beautiful, the glass even moreso, and the spirit is, like it’s own backstory, one of contrasts and intersections, cultures colliding and combining. This gin flows from a vast delta of stories, ideas, experiences and lives - from George Chinnery, to Havelin and Byrne, from Dublin to Canton - the route that Chinnery Gin took to market is mapped out by chance encounters, calculated risks, and passions pursued.

Havelin and Byrne started the business in 2016, with Havelin going into it full time after six months. In doing so, he walked away from a reliable job in an industry that moves fast, in which it is easy to become irrelevant once you leave. Knowing the story of Chinnery - a volatile eccentric who described himself as ‘the ugliest man on the south China coast’ - means Havelin is all too aware of the fact that the artist ended up in Macau and Canton after he fled mounting debts in Europe.

With his product now out there after two years of hard work, Havelin says he would do it all over again. “There are certainly things I wish I had known before I started, that would have got us to market much sooner. Compared to a salaried job it's been a lot more work for a lot less money so far, but it is also so much more enjoyable and challenging. Of course I still don't know whether this whole thing will pan out or not. The moment the business becomes self-sustaining will be a huge relief.”

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