Corpen Gin is the most recent addition to the Barcelona gin scene. In the middle of a global pandemic, with shutters going down in businesses across the globe, somehow the company has managed to launch a unique craft gin brand.
At Corpen, the focus is firmly on the gin, not the marketing: no extravagant back stories written by PR teams here. Corpen concentrates on making a unique gin with modest ambitions and a fabulous taste.
Barcelona-based founders Brian Burgess (from the US) and Pablo Barrera (from Colombia) met while pursuing master’s degrees and are making their dreams come true. A few weeks ago, they invited us to join them for a socially distanced tour of their small distillery in Barcelona’s bohemian Poblenou district, where we tried their gin.
It was delicious. And here’s their story.
Tell us a little bit about yourselves
Brian: I was an officer in the United States Navy for eight years before moving to Barcelona to study. My real passions are graphic design, travel, trying unusual spirits and pretty much anything to do with food. Oh, and barbecue, lots of barbecue. But we both enjoy getting deep inside the minds of our customers.
We love understanding what motivates them, and coming up with new ideas. In this case we’re starting with gin, but we’ve always considered adding other spirits in the future.
Pablo: I have a different background altogether. I began my career as an industrial designer but I’ve done lots of things since then. What I really love is observing people’s behaviour. I love trying to work out what makes them tick. I’ve done that all through my business life and I still try to apply it to any project I get involved in.
How did you meet?
Pablo: We were both studying for our master’s degrees at the Istituto Europeo di Design in 2014. Brian was studying design management and I was going for a master’s in fashion management. Brian came to the city to get back into the design world after being in the Navy.
I did it to internationalise my career after owning and growing a fashion business in my home city of Medellín. We quickly discovered that we shared the same passion for home brewing. It was that initial shared interest that made us start to think about the opportunities.
The ideas that would eventually become Corpen really all started at that moment.
What made you switch from brewing beer to think about starting a gin distillery?
Brian: At the start, our top priority was finding a way of building our careers so that we could remain in Spain. It all began with some casual conversations about how to start a craft brewing business. But then I traveled to the UK and spotted another opportunity.
One of the things I noticed was that wherever there was a craft beer revolution, a wave of craft distillation soon followed. That’s the evolution that we mapped out and once we identified it, we saw it all over the UK, US and Australia, among others.
There were consistent shifts in the market away from industrial spirits which made room for small, bespoke craft distilleries.
What gin experience did you have before you started this project?
Pablo: Our experience with gin was limited. We were fully accustomed to the mass consumer brands and we both liked experimenting with new cocktails, but we had no deep connection with the distillation process. Brian also brought a lot of entrepreneurial knowledge with him from the US and spotted an opportunity.
Brian: Yes. At the beginning we really saw the opportunity in craft distilling, but the actual product wasn’t as clear. Truth be told, my gin experiences were not good ones until I had a craft gin at a distillery in Washington DC. The light bulb really came on for me at that moment.
We dove into gin after that, and spent considerable time studying the market, the process, the profiles of gins we liked, the equipment and space we’d need, before we decided gin was the place to start.
How did you learn distilling and what equipment did you use?
Pablo: We started off using a small, basic 1-litre copper still that we bought online from a Portuguese company. It was very traditional in style, shape and functionality. But that small still gave us a chance to learn the principles of distillation. We did all our first experiments on this little still. It allowed us to create our first recipes, conduct tests.
We even held some personal workshops, which was a great way for us to validate our ideas and test our recipes.
Brian: Absolutely. That was our starting point. And slowly, as we learned more about the process, it led to larger production batches. We learned about distillation the old fashioned way: by reading, watching videos and talking with other more experienced distillers. That’s the way most businesses start.
It was a process of mistakes and errors and try and try again.
There are loads of craft gins out there now. What makes Corpen Gin distillery different from other Barcelona gin distillers?
Brian: There are lots of things that make Corpen gin different from the rest. One of those is flexibility. We react quickly to changes. That makes us ideal for companies or special clients who want to customise or personalise their products for events or for their own businesses.
We can help them make unique, branded personalised gins in small batches at a sensible price.
Pablo: We also take a unique approach to our customers. We include them in our decisions. We want to be really clear about what they expect from their spirit. We want to involve them in the process right from the start. We work with them to create new recipes. For us, the customer is the starting point for any product development.
When we make our gins, the customer is the beginning and the end of everything we do.
What is your mission at Corpen Gin?
Brian: We are distillers that literally started from scratch. We’ve learned everything from the bottom up. And, actually, the fact that we didn’t know too much at the start was probably a good thing. It made us think that many spirits drinkers were in the same boat.
They’d love to know more about the actual gin that lies behind the glossy branding and marketing hype. We also noticed that many craft spirit brands had started to develop convoluted back stories. Lots of fancy narratives about ancient processes and local legends. This struck us as a bit fake.
In reality, distillation is a very simple process. You can do it in your kitchen.
Pablo: Yes, part of what we want to do is to open our brand up to the public. We want to empower them to understand how these gins are made. That way, they can make better buying decisions.
With all the gin choices available on the market right now, we want customers to choose the exact gin that’s right for their tastes, not just the ones the industry decides to push. We want to educate people about gin and other spirits. Distilling alcohol has been done for centuries.
These days,we are lucky enough to make much better spirits than ever before, even with relatively simple equipment.
Tell us about your brand philosophy
Brian: Our philosophy is built around one of the most important values of business: transparency. We want to show people exactly what our gin is all about. In the same way as the craft brewing industry did in the beer business.
These days customers already know exactly what type of beer they like, they make an informed choice and have it in their mind at the point of purchase. In the same way that beer drinkers understand about hops, we want gin drinkers to understand about juniper berries.
What makes Corpen gin different from other gin brands?
Pablo: When it comes down to it, a brand is as simple as perception. We want people to think of us as their ‘spirit guides’. We want them to understand where we’re coming from and what goes into their drink. We don’t want to do this as the sole proprietors of knowledge.
Brian: Yes. Ideally we want people to think of Corpen as open-source, freely sharing what we know. We don’t want to invent imaginative back stories to convince people of their fantasies. You won’t find us telling tales of ancient forgotten recipes found in great-grandma’s drawer in the attic.
We want to bring our gin to life in practical terms. The ultimate test is in the taste and we think people react better to that reality. Not the one created by marketers.
What are your plans for Corpen going forward?
Brian: We want to scale up our production although we’ll still only do small batches. That’s enough for us to cover the demand that we already know about. We also want to start developing new recipes and collaborate with some companies who we’ve been talking to.
Some of them are already waiting for us to start working on projects. Once we get rolling, we hope we will find other partnerships with industries, businesses and private customers.
How hard has it been to set up a craft gin business?
Brian: The process has actually been really hard, and especially long. By hard, what we mean is that we’ve been challenged by bureaucracy. No single task was that hard by itself, but the accumulation and sequencing of those tasks definitely tested our patience and resolve.
Also, since we’re the first official distillery operating in the city of Barcelona, we needed to navigate fresh ground to get the appropriate activity license to sell and distribute across the EU. Being the first is never easy.
Pablo: I agree. Understanding the governmental procedures and regulations here has been our biggest challenge. Also it was clear that some government institutions, agents and inspectors didn’t know how to deal with us, since nobody had asked these questions before. Time has also been a constant challenge.
It’s been more than five years since we had our first conversation about this. But it’s all been worth it. We’ve managed to open a new craft distillery in Poblenou, right in the heart of Barcelona. We’re surrounded by some of the most innovative businesses in Europe but we operate from a small facility.
This is just right for us to produce the volume we need and helps us to control the quality and the production capacity while retaining our flexibility.
What have been your highest moments so far–and your lowest?
Pablo: Thankfully there have been lots of high moments to punctuate some long periods of slogging away. One of the best moments was when we finally found the great location we’re in now. It is an amazing spot, beyond what we could have hoped for.
After that, the day we got our activity license approved by the Ajuntament of Barcelona was a big day, and it allowed us to start operating.
Brian: Yeah, that licence was really the capstone of a long process that included a half dozen other licences and permissions, which of course had to be done beforehand. So when we finally got it, it was a cause for real celebration, with a Corpen G&T of course!
We’ve had our down moments as well, like when the Spanish government rejected our business plan in our applications for entrepreneur visas. They argued that starting an urban distillery in the city of Barcelona lacked innovation and made no positive contribution to the national economy.
We also had a subcontractor do some terrible construction work that we had to tear out and completely redo. Luckily, we’re not easily deterred!
What is your ultimate ambition for Corpen gin?
Brian: Our ultimate goal is to encourage people to think of these new gins in the same transparent way that they have begun to apply to craft beer. We want them to appreciate the ingredients and understand how they impact taste. We also want to make sure that the processes are visible for all to see.
If we do this in the right way, then we’ll have helped people to make better decisions when they go to buy their gin, and really understand what they’re drinking.
How did you cope with the Coronavirus? Did it set you back or spur you on?
Pablo: It certainly slowed things down. We had initially planned to launch in May 2020, but this crisis has been tricky for many people. Despite the fact that the crisis has driven higher domestic alcohol consumption, the industry actually shrank by 40% in 2020.
We managed to avoid the impact of this drop, since we were only just getting started. We had no track record, no sales to anniversary and no customer base to disappoint.
Brian: Actually, it gave us a great opportunity to understand a new post-pandemic scenario. There will be new rules and new opportunities and we’re agile enough to position ourselves appropriately. For us, existing during the crisis while building the facilities allowed us to keep working, while avoiding any potential bigger impact.
We wouldn’t call that completely ‘positive’, but the situation we are leaving maybe has favoured us.
What does Corpen mean and why did you choose that name?
Brian: This is a nod to my naval background. The word corpen is the term used for a naval signal flag used by NATO countries. When a ship formation needs to communicate, they often use flags. The corpen flag literally means a change of course, a change of direction.
We chose this name after sharing some ideas with a group of trusted friends. We held a creative workshop in which we analysed each name to understand the feelings they evoked and their potential to represent our product truthfully.
In the end, we listened to all the feedback and decided that Corpen was the most appropriate name for us. Plus it was a visual expression of choosing a new route, which is exactly what we are trying to do with this brand.
Now that you’ve officially launched, what is your business strategy?
Brian: Initially we plan to target the people who are already curious about spirits. People who like to explore new things and who appreciate the love and effort that goes into making a gin with craft processes and unique ingredients. People who want to experiment with new things.
We want to tap into people’s curiosity for a new gin brand, located in the heart of the city of Barcelona with Mediterranean spirit. We also want to let them know that we’re respectful of the environment. We want them to see beyond the marketing stories to understand the real value of the craft gin process.
Those are the people that we want to reach.
Pablo: We also don’t intend to only make one recipe forever and ever. Our plan is to have three or four gins at a time, each named after a classic Mediterranean wind. Ideally we’ll have two all year, and rotate seasonal recipes in the spring/summer and autumn/winter, using seasonal ingredients.
Tell us about the process. How did you settle on the right flavours and balances?
Brian: This is a real collaborative effort. In the early stages, we both worked together experimenting with about 40 different botanicals. Then we validated our findings in a workshop with people close to us. We asked them to mix things up. We wanted them to experience different flavours and combinations.
Based on their feedback, we started mapping out our first recipes.
Pablo: Yes, that’s the same way we do all our product development these days. We try not to decide on any recipes without testing them with somebody who gives us independent feedback. We like to try different combinations of flavours.
These are then adjusted to a small scale for the initial tests before being ramped up to see how it works in a bigger production run. Then we test the final result, check what is right regarding the balance and complexity we’re after and figure out what needs to be fixed.
Tell us about your gin. What is its flavour profile? What are the botanicals? Why did you choose them?
Brian: Clients will always have significant input into the product development. Of course, juniper is a given. But in our recipe profiles, we try to build deeper combinations of flavours that are different from what the market usually offers, which tends to be led by fruity/floral or citrus/spicy flavours.
We want to discover more rooty, moody, earthy, herbal and dry flavours. But we want to be careful that we don’t stray into eccentric or extravagant combinations just for the sake of being different. That requires some discipline.
Many of our inspirations for flavor combinations come from the food world, and translating those into liquid is fascinating and fun.
Pablo: We chose these flavour profiles not just to offer variety and choice to the market, but also because we believe that gin is a drink that is good enough to be consumed in cocktails but also good enough to be sipped neat. Corpen is a gin full of complex and complementary flavours.
It’s been made to be enjoyed in the right atmosphere. We think it’s best served in an elegant glass with a large ice cube and a generous serving of our 45% ABV gin.
Anybody can enjoy the elegant taste of our gin, whether it’s sipped in their living room, enjoyed while reading a beautiful book, relaxing in a calm space or with people you love. That is what it’s all about.
What production method do you use?
Brian: We use two different capacity stainless steel stills. Each of them has different copper plates that help us to purify the spirit in the distillation process. Having two still sizes gives us flexibility for different batch sizes.
We’re happy to do short personalised distillations or medium/small industry size batches for bigger, more specialised demand.
What’s your perfect recommended serve for your gin?
Pablo: Our gin began its life during the explosion of gin and tonic consumption here in Spain. Classic G&Ts really let our gin shine and we garnish with a squeeze of fresh orange peel. We always recommend using a neutral, high-quality tonic water. The brands may vary, but key is that it’s made with natural flavours and no artificial stuff.
That way, you’ll be able to appreciate the ingredients better, with no interferences of distractions from unnecessary flavours. The classic gin cocktail will always be the Dry Martini. We think that our first gin, Corpen Llevant, is the perfect pour for a Dry Martini, allowing its delicate and complex flavours to stand out in the drink.
We like Dolin Dry vermouth in ours, but we’re always open to experimentation.
What is your personal favourite gin and why?
Brian: I’m not sure if I have a singular favorite, but I have favorites in certain categories. We’re lucky in Spain, we have many good Spanish gin brands and a great tradition of gin drinking here and I love Gin Mare as a new-style gin. On the traditional end, I love Plymouth Gin, and not just for its historical connection to the Navy.
Also that distillery in Washington DC that opened my eyes to craft gin all those years ago must be mentioned: it’s called New Columbia Distillery and they make Green Hat Gin.
Do you have a particular gin hero?
Pablo: There’s not one in particular. But all those whose curiosity has led them to experiment at home have taken the first step. They will be the ones who drive change in the next phase of gin production. We encourage all of these gin heroes to be a part of a new generation, taking this old spirit to new places.
Besides those, Brian is definitely an unstoppable entrepreneur who has put his passion into the development of the company but also into gathering all the processes and technical knowledge that have helped us both to understand gin and the distillation process.
Can you recommend a great cocktail to make with Corpen Gin?
Pablo: Corpen gin is packed full of flavours. Our recipes suggest different aromas and tastes that we think are enjoyed best with as few additional flavours as possible. But we would love to hear back from any bartenders or gin enthusiasts to find other combinations.
The possibilities are only limited by your imagination and your personal tastes. There is a perfect gin for everyone.
Brian: We have received lots of positive feedback from people who’ve tried our gin, including many suggestions about how they think we should pair our gins. We believe in the sense of community, sharing.
So, we’re happy to share all the results of our experiments with gin and all its possible combinations with anybody who might share our passion. That’s how we’ll be able to identify the right combinations for each palate and for every taste.
Any unusual anecdotes or stories?
Brian: During our three-year research and development phase, we were able to share our recipes with more than 1,000 people visiting Barcelona. We did this in a workshop called ‘Make Your Own Gin’. In those workshops we discovered many things that helped us to prove our assumptions.
We held these workshops in a beautiful historical protected building in Plaça Real, Barcelona. They were held in a small room on the third floor, with no lift. We had many guests complaining about the stairs on the way up. But for some reason, they seemed more than happy on the way down.
Pablo: It was wonderful to see them arrive and watch their surprise as they discovered that gin doesn’t come from fermented juniper, but juniper infused into a neutral spirit, vodka. We watched the smiles appear on their faces as they watched the first drops of gin appear in their little personal stills.
But the less beautiful thing was hand-washing dozens of valuable glasses and fragile equipment in a 20 cm² stone sink in the corner of a 17th century building in Barcelona’s Gothic quarter. That made us dream about having the fastest and biggest dishwasher on the market. Luckily, we have already bought it and it’s working.
So feel free to join us any time you like. One thing we won’t have to worry about is the washing up.
What’s next for Corpen gin?
Pablo: Now we’re up and running, we’d like to spend as much time as possible delighting people with our creations and exceeding their expectations. We want to show people what gin is about so that we can build this craft industry together, not only in Barcelona but also across Spain and Europe.
We understand that by combining our knowledge and enthusiasm we can reveal to you the joy behind the gin that some of the bigger spirit brands hide under a blanket of made up marketing.