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Luke Dawkins and Blue Hamel are bringing gin into the 21st Century with their new physical and digital NFT project. What's Hot New Zealand hits them up for a taste of what’s to come.
Blue is waiting for us in a busy café, and there’s no missing him. He’s wearing thick-rimmed, tinted, oversize glasses, beads and chains around his neck, and chunky rings on all his fingers. Everything from his high-line hairstyle to his distinctive footwear screams "I’ve got a style, and I’m here to put it in your face."
Blue’s a local boy from Christchurch who headed overseas and got big in the LA advertising scene. His business partner Luke is an English boy who headed to Christchurch and got big in the Aotearoa gin scene.
Luke joins us, brandishing a cardboard box containing the precious cargo we’re here to talk about: a matte black bottle of YEN Gin. A whiff and a sip proves what we already suspected: this is a fantastic gin. It smells juicy and fresh, and it’s ultra-dry on the palate with distinctive juniper underpinned by a savoury, herby taste.
We’re not surprised, because Luke is perhaps our city’s most well-known gin enthusiast. He’s co-owner and the face of gin gin., an acclaimed Christchurch speciality bar that started in Victoria Street and now has pride of place in New Regent Street. “I think I’ve watered the mouths of most of the people in Christchurch working the bar,” he says. Luke lives and breathes gin, facilitating events and promoting other gin brands in New Zealand and internationally where he can.
He knew he could make a great New Zealand gin. But there are a lot of New Zealand gins these days, and it could be easy to get lost in the wash of marketing, which tends to focus on which corner of Aotearoa each botanical is harvested from. Luke needed a new narrative, and Blue is a narrative specialist.
Blue is a digital creative, a marketing phenom, and a CGI artist whose Instagram (@halfofnothing) is flooded with animations and professionally-shot videos showing off his visual style and taste in fashion – think Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Gucci modelled in surreal cityscapes.
The YEN Gin branding is on point. The Champagne-style bottle paints a picture of celebrations, while the black-block colouring is a distillation of modern design. But Blue’s biggest contribution might be making YEN into an NFT.
For those of you who aren’t up with the play, an NFT (non-fungible token) is a unique piece of digital art that cannot be faked because its ownership is built into a blockchain. Still confused? It’s like Bitcoin, but it’s art. NFTs are so hot right now in the crypto investment and speculation markets. They have also been the subject of a lot of bad news: people getting ripped off buying crappy art; wild speculation leading to over-investment; money laundering; and scams.
When Luke and Blue released YEN Gin, they also released 100 NFTs, each one a video file containing a beautiful render of the YEN bottle. “I wanted to create an art piece that people can display, on a screen in their house or wherever they like,” Blue says.
The two are well aware of the mixed rep NFTs have. “There’s been a lot of flops… people don’t really believe in it,” Luke says. “But we’ve proven it by bringing the physical and the digital world together.”
The idea is that by tying the NFT to something physical, it will have real-world value for its holders. When someone buys a YEN NFT token from the official distributor on the Rarible NFT marketplace, they also get a numbered bottle of YEN Gin, and a solid metal membership card bearing their unique number. The NFT acts as a lifetime membership to the YEN Forever Club, with access to exclusive tasting events and other real-world benefits. Owners can sell or gift the NFTs – and the associated membership – to someone else at any time.
“We’re not this hype NFT that people are going to sell and flip for a dollar,” Blue says. “We’re something you want to be part of, because you like the brand.”
Luke has been working on the YEN recipe for a couple of years now, thinking that lockdown was the opportunity he needed to finally create his own gin. He set out with a mission.
“I wanted the gin for my bar that everyone walks through the door and asks for, but we didn’t have.” What he means is a proper London-style dry gin, distilled from grain, juniper forward, no artificial flavouring, made in New Zealand.
Some gins are essentially flavoured vodka, but this one is made traditionally, where all the ingredients go into the still. Luke has it produced by Christchurch artisanal distiller The Spirits Workshop. “I see it as a collaboration,” he says, “but one day we might do our own distilling.”
It’s a bloody good example of a London dry, with traditional ingredients like juniper, orange, and coriander seed, but expanded with a little native flavour including kawakawa.
“I like the idea of the medicinal benefits it brings,” Luke says. Kawakawa is used in traditional Māori medicine to treat wounds, stomach problems and other conditions. “I’m not saying it’s going to do that for you when you drink gin, but it can’t hurt having it in there,” he quips.
One YEN NFT costs 0.1 of the cryptocurrency Ether. The price of Ether jumps around a lot, but 0.1 is a few hundred New Zealand dollars. Most of the first batch of 100 are already sold, so keen gin and crypto enthusiasts might need to line up for the next release.
If the NFT scene isn’t for you, you can try YEN Gin at bars including gin gin., or pick up a bottle at high-end liquor stores.