Podcast

Carson Quinn from Iron Balls Gin

We talk to Carson Quinn from Iron Balls Distillery about their Gin, distilling in Thailand and why ‘You always have options if you have balls’

By: Tiff Christie|July 9,2020

Realistically, it’s very hard to stand out in today’s oversaturated gin market, but one brand, Iron Balls, has managed to do just that with its unusual flavour and steampunk aesthetic.

Operating out of a small distillery in Bangkok, the brand is founded by bar designer, Ashley Sutton, in 2015.

As a self-confessed pirate, you will more often than not find Sutton on the high seas rather than on land. While he’s away brand, ambassador and bartender, Carson Quinn, rises to the rank of head distiller.

So we talked to Quinn about what makes their gin different, how flavour adds to the experience, and of course, what cocktails you can make with it.

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Realistically, it's very hard to stand out in today's oversaturated gin market, but one brand, Iron Balls, has managed to do just that with its unusual flavour and steam punk aesthetic. Operating out of a small distillery in Bangkok, the brand is founded by bar designer, Ashley Sutton, in 2015. As a self-confessed pirate, you will more often than not find Sutton on the high seas rather than on land. While he's away brand, ambassador and bartender, Carson Quinn, rises to the rank of head distiller. So we talked to Quinn about what makes their gin different, how flavour adds to the experience, and of course, what cocktails you can make with it.
Thank you for joining us, Carson.

Thanks for having me, Tiff.

Now, obviously the first question, and the most obvious question, would be where did the name Iron Balls come from?

Well, Tiff, we were in R&D for a long time, and we were making a lot of different potential products. Iron Balls gin was one of them, as you know, here in Thailand, we have to make clear spirits. So vodkas were up for the product that we were going to make, also gins, and after a couple of years of basically R&D, which was a very crazy couple of years, the product that came to the forefront was Iron Balls gin. If you know Ashley Sutton, he's pretty straight talking and he doesn't really pull punches when he's talking to people. So Iron Balls was one of these things, like we worked on it for so many years with no income, and spent all of our money and we were living, basically, in subpar living arrangements. He came up with the idea of Iron Balls, is you always have options if you have balls. If you can take risks and you can push your way forward, there's always going to be options. If you're meek and you're scared and you're not going to go for it, then, yeah, your options are pretty limited.

Now you just mentioned that in Thailand you can only distill clear spirits, do you want to explain why that is?

Well, Thailand has a very strict monopoly market. I mean, there's actually monopoly offices here in Thailand. So a monopoly is something that, in the Western world that would be used to, Tiff, would be something that would be considered illegal. But in Thailand, the monopolies are kind of like, well, they're pretty standard. And the monopolies here pretty much dictate what everybody else can do, and one of the laws that other alcohol producers, mainly whiskey, or brown spirit producers have come up with to try to limit what other people can do, is making only clear spirits. Because Thailand never had really a vodka market, never really had a gin market, but they had a big whiskey and big rum market, where they're all kind of the same thing, basically. So that was one of the rules that we had to stick by this, there was a number of them, branding, putting the word gin on a bottle was illegal, and also bottle sizing. There's a lot of crazy things that we had to deal with, to actually get the gin made and get it out in the market.

Do you want to go into a little bit more detail about some of the difficulties that you've faced setting the distillery up?

Well, I mean, it's one thing after another. I would definitely never recommend anybody to come to Thailand and try to build a distillery. I mean, we got lucky to get the license that we did, we went to the licensing office after we had the distillery built, I don't know how many times, trying to get a license to produce and to sell, and they always said, "No, no, no." And then finally at the office one day, there was a different woman, this young woman who we had not met before, and she said, "Well, if you have a partnership with a Thai farmer, then you can get a license." And we're like, "Wait, who's that farmer we used to buy all the pineapples and coconuts from? Yeah, he's our partner." So we went back to him and said, "Hey, can you be our partner? We'll buy everything from you," which we already were. And so then he signed off on it, we took it back to the office and boom, we got a license. I mean, we were trying forever. It was completely... We thought it was never going to happen, you know?

And it was just that they hadn't told you that particular provision?

In a lot of parts of the world here or this part of the world, a lot of countries in this part of the world, the immediate answer to everything is no, right? So you just have to do it first, and then let them come after you and say, "Okay, what are you going to do now?" And try to say, "Hey, can, can we do this?" Because then they just say, "No." Because easier for them, it's no work for them to say no. So, yeah.

If it was so difficult in Thailand, why did you try to do it there, why not try and do it in Singapore?

It's a funny story, Tiff, actually, we were living in Thailand. Ash had built a number of bars, and he was really quite successful, he built the of bars all over Bangkok. And through a number of different turns, he got out of all of those bars and he found himself with basically nothing to do, and he's extremely creative, this guy can not stand still. He hates watching TV because he hates sitting in his hotel room, he's got to be out doing something all the time. But he's one of these people who always has to be creative, if he's just drawing, or if you look at all the tattoos all over me that he's tattooed on me, like that's the only time I've really seen him smile, is when he's got a needle in my arm. But that's another story for another day.
He's a very creative person, he needs to keep moving, and so he opened up this little bar, it was called AR Sutton Engineering, which is Ashley R. Sutton engineering, and it was a very cool little space. And he had a fountain basically in front, and one day he said, "Carson, I'm going to take this fountain out." Sorry for that. "I'm going to tear this fountain out. I'm going to put a distillery in there." I said, "You're a complete lunatic, Ash." He's like, "No, I'm going to do it." He's like, "I already order the stuff." So he already ordered like $80,000 worth of distillery equipment from Germany.
I'm like, yeah. Yeah, so then he built a distillery, and he's like, "Okay, let's start making stuff." And I go, "Well, how do you know this thing's not going to blow up?" We didn't have a lot of experience at that time, and it was a lot of fun, but I mean we were a few years in R&D before we got down to really making stuff that's really, really good. And Ash is really good at... When he gets his mind on creating something, he's just amazing. So we did it, and Ash will tell you, if you talk to him, he'll say, "Never again. Never, ever again." He doesn't even live in Thailand anymore, he's out of here. But I mean, he's a funny guy. I mean, I was in Tokyo with him, I was in Hong Kong with him, I've been all over with him building projects and he's an interesting cat to work with.

Now I believe it was three and a half years from conception to product, how much of that time was actually spent getting the gin recipe right, compared to getting through the legislation?

Yeah, it was three and a half years, probably from the time he built the AR Sutton Engineering until the time we launched Iron Balls gin. But I mean, we weren't even planning on building a distillery at that time. The distillery came later, we were probably actually maybe two years in R&D, a year and a half in R&D, from the time that we had the distillery, up to where we really found a product that was... I would say it's a year and a half of R&D, that by the time the distillery was completely in and we started like... We were doing everything. We were making wine from passion fruit, and then distilling that into vodka, we were doing all kinds of wild stuff.
And also at the same time, trying to find what is our brand, right, and what's going to work? And then we have all these limitations of bottle size and can't make brown spirits, can't label the bottle. Even when we came up with Iron Balls gin, we've said engineered alcohol. And I told Ash, I go, "Let's just take the G-I-N from engineered," I go, "Let's just slightly move it down, right, and then change the colour." And he's like, "All right, let's try that." And then it's like, no. First they said is, "Cannot say gin on the label." It's like, "Well, it just says engineered alcohol, in kind of a crazy font with different colours." "No, no, no, no, no." Yeah, definitely challenges, definitely challenges. Now for export, we can put gin on the label, but for domestic, no.

Now, you've made the spirit base from coconuts and pineapples, how did you land on that?

Yeah, that's what we finalized. Well, like I said before a year and a half of R&D, we took everything that we could find in Bangkok, and fermented it. I mean, we in Thailand basically, like we are taking anything, like I said before, passionate fruits. We needed things that we could get a lot of, right? We're not going to use potatoes or grains, because that's not really what's growing here. So to do our own fermentation, we needed something with a lot of sugar, right, because sugar is what's going to translate it to alcohol. We needed a lot of sugar, we didn't want to add sugar, we wanted something that was real and true and raw. So after many, many different test batches with different products, pineapples and coconut basically came back with... It all comes down to your alcohol content in your initial fermentation.
So when we were getting 10, 10.5% alcohol through coconuts and pineapples, we're like, wow. Because look, in our first batches we were getting 3% alcohol, and then we were getting five and then we were getting seven. And then we were talking at first, we had a 600 litre mash tank was our first mash tech. So if you can have 600 litres of mash, you can get 60 litres of alcohol at 10% there. So we're like, "Wow, now we've got 60 litres of alcohol, right? Now we can make that into, what, almost 180 litres or 140 litres of gin, right?" So this is what it comes down to, and we have a pretty small space.
So our Thai farmer that I mentioned before, like he would come with a truck full of coconuts and pineapples, and the pineapples still have these giant fronds on the top of them, the coconuts are these whole, huge coconuts, straight off the farm. And so we needed to figure out how we could get all of that into a mash tank, get that ready, get the highest fermentation possible, so to get the highest alcohol level. Because at the end, what we're really doing is we're just harvesting alcohol, so we want to harvest the base alcohol, and then reuse that alcohol to create our final product, which is a gin.

It sounds as if it's all fairly labor intensive.

It is, I mean the great thing about Thailand is labor is come cheap, so we would have people that would... It's not like Australia or the UK where you do everything yourself. In Thailand, we have people that would unload the trucks, that would come and shuck the coconuts, butcher up all the pineapples. Our distillery, I don't know if you've ever seen it, has one door that you open up and you can see the distillery, it's basically a greenhouse, like a glass house aviary type thing. And there's doors on each side, on the left and right as well, so the trucks would come and drop off these big piles of coconuts and pineapples, and we had little guys, little Thai guys that would just be chopping up everything, taking out the best bits, and hacking the husks and all the leaves and everything on the other side of the distillery.
So it was a pretty streamlined operation, as far as getting that going. The first major issue we had was, even if you're making... It takes about 15 days, if you're talking about fermentation, initial distillation, second distillation, resting period is where the yeast dies. You're at you're at about 15 days, and even if you're making what we're making, we were making a hundred and something bottles, our full size bottles. We were making half bottles at that time, so we were making about 250 half bottles, but it took us 15 days to make 250 bottles. So your product runs out pretty fast at that point, and that's when we had to really expand the fermentation process, because most gins, they're buying a base alcohol, and they're just re-distilling that. What we do in 15 days, they can do in a few hours, so it's a little bit of a different animals together.

Have you quickened the process up from the 15 days at this point

No, we haven't, not really. Whenever you're talking about fermentation, right, fermentation is about 10 days to get up to where you're going to... Basically fermentation is yeast eating sugar, the sugar turning into alcohol, and once the yeast, the yeast will eventually die because it runs out of things to eat or it'll overheat itself or it'll do a number of different things. But once the yeast is finished its process, then you test your alcohol level, hopefully you're up into that 10% range. And then you it takes a day or two of what we call resting, or basically the yeast dies, settles to the bottom, it's also called the clarification process, otherwise it's very milky and toasty. And then you take that product, and then you do the initial fermentation.
Basically, this is what we call our vodka. So basically, as you know, I'm sure like all gins are made from a neutral distilled spirit, so basically like a vodka. And then we'd do an initial maceration with the vodka, with our botanicals, and then we reinstall the botanicals into the second distillation system. I'm sure we're going to go into that distillation system, the next few questions, but yeah, it does take the same amount of time, but now we have a lot more mash. So we've got nearly 4,000 litres a mash now, as opposed to 600, so you can keep that still running way more often. And instead of every 15 days, because when you have 10 days of fermentation here, you've got 10 days of fermentation on the next pot 10 is fermentation on the next. I mean, you can be distilling every other day, so it is definitely streamlined now. I mean, we're over 3,000 full bottles a month now, so that gets a little bit closer to the real world demand for a niche spirit like that, boutique spirit. Yeah.

Now one thing I wanted to ask, having such a tropical base, with the coconuts and pineapples, could you argue that Iron Balls pushes the definition of what a gin can be?

No, absolutely not. If you look at gin today, what is gin really? I mean, London Dry Gin, are we London Dry Gin? No, absolutely not. London Dry Gin is going to be super juniper heavy, London Dry Gins, you don't even know what the base is, typically, because they're made in basically ethanol farms that are approved by the British government. Because this was the whole problem in the Gin Lane days where people were drinking methanol and dying, because they didn't know how to basically do fermentation and the initial distillation correctly. So people had to buy certified registered ethanol that they would make their gin from, could be potatoes, could be grains, could be anything. So to say that what we're making is not gin, I mean it's completely ridiculous.
It's not a London Dry Gin, it's a New Western gin, which we would compare... Hendrick's would be a New Western gin, Monkey 47 would be New Western. These are both using botanicals that are completely out of the park. I mean, to say what base product you used to make gin is... I mean, there's no real rules on it. It's like vodka, I mean, there's people make vodka from milk, from potatoes, from grains, from anything. You can you take anything, any carbon and sugar and yeast, and you can make a base alcohol. So, no, I don't think so at all. We're New Western, we're boutique, we do have juniper, quite a lot of juniper but not juniper heavy. Juniper is gin.

Now speaking of the botanicals, apparently you have 15 in Iron Balls, can you talk us through what they are?

I think if there was 15 in Iron Balls, that's one of our very early recipes. It's not really 15 anymore, I mean we have coconut and pineapple as a base, but they do come through. Pineapple maybe more than coconut, depending on with the right tonics and things, you'll get bits of coconut. These are not exactly, I mean, this is base, these are not added botanicals. Our added botanicals, of course, are lemongrass and ginger. Lemongrass is going to hit you right in the nose, ginger on the palate. We've got coriander seed, which is very basic for gins, we got lemon and orange skin, a bit of cardamom. But even if you can count coconut and pineapple in there, you're still only at about seven botanicals, really, that we're using now. There were more initially. Was it the best product at that time? No. I think you're looking at a very old flavour profile sheet or something that maybe that's still on a website somewhere. But no, we're not really using 15 botanicals at this time.

Well, why don't you talk us through the distillation process that you referred to earlier?

Sure. Like I said before, we do all our own fermentation, that's what separates us from 99% of the gins in the world, who are basically buying alcohol. So when you do your own fermentation process, you need a lot more space, and it's a lot more free radicals, per se, like things that can happen. Because distillation is a very scientific, easy process, it's like basically doing math. Fermentation is so wild, and it can go in any direction, and the slightest change in temperature can change how your fermentation process is going to happen. This is why we number every batch, and every batch is a little bit different, which I think makes Iron Balls very, very cool.
You get some batches that are more tropical, some batches that have maybe a lot more of the juniper or the lemongrass in them. I explained already the fermentation process a little bit, the distillation system is a great system that we have, we have a CARL pot still, and then we have double columns. So we're using, I think, there's one plate in the pot and another nine plates in the first column, the second column, there's no plates at all. But basically we have to... when people ask me, "Well, how many times do you distill?" I say, "Well, we have columns so you don't really need multiple distillations. You can let those columns to just keep running and running, and you'll end up with basically rubbing alcohol if you don't stop them."
So we basically limit our distillation rather than trying to push our distillation, because if we don't limit it, you'll lose all those beautiful botanicals from the coconut, from the pineapple, all these little bits of tropicalness that we've worked so hard to get into it. We don't want to take them away by over distilling. So yeah, for the layman who says, "Well, it's not distilled five times." I'm like, "No, if we had just a pot, yeah sure you could distill it five times." But we've got double columns, you distill it once, you make your base neutral spirit, or what we call our vodka run, and then we just do it again, our gin run, done, filter it and then bottle it up.

Now if somebody hasn't tasted the gin before, what would you say would interest them about the flavour?

I think Iron Balls is one of these gins that you could drink it neat. I ran Iron Balls bar and a distillery, and now I run the other bar in Iron Balls Parlour down the street, and I love it when people come in and they say, "Oh, I don't drink gin, Carson." And I say, "Oh, you don't drink gin? That's funny. How about I make you a cocktail with gin, if you don't like it, you don't pay for it." And everybody pays, and everyone pays. What I like to do with Iron Balls is let people taste it neat first, just room temperature, neat, just in a little tasting glass, try it, smell it, taste it.
I never had people go on, "Oh, that tastes like gin, that smells like gin, I don't want it." They say, "Oh, it tastes interesting, so tropical." And I say, "Okay, let's try the gin tonic." And when we pride ourselves on gin tonics here, we sell a ridiculous amount of them. So I think that's the best way to really understand the gin first thing, is try it neat first and then try it with a gin tonic. For tonics, I've got about nine different tonics on the menu here that all of them were great, so it basically comes down to your palate.

Well, I was about to say, what flavours work well with such a tropical gin?

Well, Tiff, I tell you, Iron Balls may taste very, very different to a lot of people, as far as like, wow, this doesn't taste like gin. But unlike the name, it's a pretty mild spirit, right, it's pretty friendly, it's pretty gentle, has a lot of soft undertones to it. So I would say stay away from anything too bitter, too citrusy. My favourite tonic to use with it is Fever-Tree Mediterranean. I don't use any lime in it, I just use pineapple and basil, lots of ice, lots of gin, yeah, and it's great. Even when I do, say, Negroni's with it, I don't do a one to one to one, I do like 45 a mil, 15, 15, give that a stir, and it's perfect. So basically let the gin talk for itself, because it doesn't need to be covered up. If you taste... I mean, whenever I'm traveling around and stopping at duty frees, I pick up whatever random gins I can find in the airport and bring them back to the bar and then we blind tasted them against Iron Balls, and most gins don't drink neat very easy.

Now if someone has a bottle in their hand, what cocktails, aside from a G&T or a Negroni, would you recommend they make with it?

I recommend like a Vesper style cocktail, gin heavy is great. I do a lot of cocktails with fruit, I mean obviously it's tropical, so it's going to lend itself really well to fruity cocktails. Anything like a fruity style sour cocktail is going to be great. And honestly, any gin cocktail you do, just keep it very gin heavy because it's not going to stand up like, say, Tanqueray is going to stand up, Tanqueray you can smell it from across the room. Iron Balls is much more subtle, it's when you put it into a cocktail, put more, and everything else just kind of bring your flavours down a little bit so that the Balls can shine.

Okay. Now with such a tropical flavour, could you use it in cocktails that would normally perhaps call for a white rum? So could you take it in a sort of a daiquiri or a mojito direction?

Yeah, you could. A daiquiri you could, a mojito you could. I mean, it's not a rum, it's not sugar cane based. Which, I mean, if you live in this part of the world, I mean, everything they call vodka is sugar cane based. So the more and more you learn about distillation, you realise that all spirits are kind of one. But yeah, I mean, Iron Balls would be great in a daiquiri, sure. I would love to do it in a daiquiri, classic daiquiri, right, nothing in a blender.
A Hemingway would work, sure. I mean, it works well with grapefruit anyways. So I love it with grapefruit, I do some things with grapefruit, with a pomelo. But yeah, you just have to remember with this gin that it's not going to stand up like a London Dry Gin. So as a white rum, it's really preferential. Me, I do everything because I'm the brand ambassador for it, so I think if you make a balanced cocktail with it, respecting the gin and letting it push forward, then yeah, you're going to be all right.

Now, does the brand have a specialty cocktail?

Our signature cocktail, for sure, is gin tonic, I mean this is what we do. If we have a specialty garnish, it's going to be a pineapple and basil. So, that's kind of our... Right, pineapple and basil is when you put into a gin tonic. If you're using an Indian South tonic, like a Schweppes, you do a little bit of lime as well. Ultimately, I try to use, like I said, Fever-Tree Mediterranean, or even Fentimans botanical works beautifully with no lime, just pineapple and basil.

What has the reaction of bartenders been to the gin?

As the guy who's been pushing this gin on bartenders since the very beginning, I had some challenges with Thai bartender, because they said, "Oh, a Thai product cannot be good." But when I go to Singapore, when I go to Japan, when I go to the UK, people go nuts over it. I mean, absolutely go nuts over it. We did, what was it? Junipalooza in London, and people could not... I mean, there was four sessions, like one morning, one afternoon, one morning, one afternoon, and I sold out. Every session I would sell out first, and I'd have to put a little handwritten tent sign on my booth saying, "Sorry, sold out. Come back next session, we'll have more," because they allotted us so much for each session.
People were going nuts over it, and people... I mean, I was in London by myself on this little booth. I'm by myself, and I didn't imagine I'd ever go through so much gin, and they told me, "Carson, this is the best gin in the show." And I'm like, "What?" I got a little canvas sign this is Iron Balls, and I'm by myself in London at the Tobacco Docks. There's like, I don't know, more gins than you can shake a stick at down there and how could my little Thai gin be best in show? But I was very proud of it. Yeah.

You were saying that it was difficult with Thai bartenders to present them with the gin, but is it hard to sell a Thai gin, because you would be the only one ever?

It is. It is in certain ways. I mean, now if you walk into either one of the Iron Balls bars here in Bangkok, I mean the bar is full of people holding big burgundy glasses of gin tonics, everybody. I go through basically more tonic than anybody else in the city, and I've got two bars that are about 50 square meters each, so we go through a lot.

Now, aside from the gin, you guys also do a vodka. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?

Sure. So the vodka is something that we recently launched, we wanted something that would be on par with being as different and as unique as Iron Balls gin, so we launched a vodka. We looked at a number of different types of vodka, and we finally came down, we all finally agreed on doing a rye vodka, which is super cool, it's super earthy. It's the absolute opposite of the gin, in the fact that the gin is very light and bright and tropical, and the vodka is very earthy and very complex as far as these kind of more dark tones. But it's beautiful neat, beautiful just with a slight chill on it. It's very cool.

Okay. Now, obviously you have distribution in Thailand, and I believe in Europe and the UK, where else can people get their hands on a bottle?

You can go to our Facebook page or our website, we'll show you everywhere where you can get it. The Philippines, we're doing a lot. Of course, we're doing a lot in Singapore, Japan, all through Southeast Asia basically, working on Indonesia next. But yeah, I think we're in about 21 markets now.

Okay, that's impressive. And I imagine fairly strong through Europe?

Yeah, Europe is mainly in Switzerland and Spain. We just launched in France and the Netherlands. So yeah, Europe is definitely getting there.

And what about the US?

The US, with our bottle size is a little bit more work, we need a 750 ML bottle, so we have to reformat everything. Also, US distribution is... You kind of need a lot of money to get into that market, so that's something that's on the books, but we're not quite there yet.

Right, okay. All right. Well look, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us today, Carson.

It's been my pleasure, Tiff.

And if people want more information, they can obviously go to the website, which is ironballs.com.

Correct, or the Facebook page.

Facebook page as well.

Correct.

All right. Well, thank you very much for that.

All right, thank you, Tiff. Look forward to talking to you again.

Cheers

For more information about Iron Balls Distillery, go to ironballs.com

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