NEW YORK – Though gin is perhaps not the first spirit that comes to mind when you think of Greece, Stray Dog Wild Gin, produced in Thessaloniki, highlights the natural, wild flavors of the homeland in its signature recipe. Stray Dog Wild Gin founder Johnny Livanos spoke with The National Herald about the company and what inspired him, a second generation Greek-American from the third generation of a restaurant family, to produce this unique, flavorful gin in Greece.
TNH: What inspired you to found Stray Dog Wild Gin?
Johnny Livanos: As a second generation Greek-American, I was inspired to create a product that captures the beauty and essence of Greek flavor in a modern recipe. Greece has a longstanding history of distilling, from ouzo to tsipouro, mastiha to Metaxa. I wanted to build off the traditional spirits to create something with a broader vision that can be easily be used in lots of different cocktail recipes as well as savored neat.
I was inspired by flavors often found in my yiayia’s kitchen, like faskomilo (wild mountain sage) which is one of the main botanicals in our gin. We also use other classic Greek botanicals such as daphne (bay leaf), rosemary, fennel seed, mastiha, coriander, as well as fresh lemon and orange peel.
TNH: How long did the process take from idea to realization?
JL: The process took almost three years from idea to realization. I came up with the idea while on a trip to Greece – we were hiking with locals from the village and had some tsipouro in a flask. While hiking along the trail, I came across some wild herbs. I decided to experiment and put some of the herbs in the tsipouro, and a few hours later I was blown away by the taste. That’s when it hit me – Greece is full of such amazing raw ingredients and delicious herbs, yet the only spirit we use them for is ouzo. Ouzo and gin are so similar, except ouzo is mainly distilled with anise and gin with juniper. So after that moment, I began my research to try and find out how to make the best gin possible using Greek ingredients. Once we decided on the direction, it took many different tries to make sure we found the perfect recipe that was both balanced, delicious, and captured the essence of Greek flavor.
TNH: How did you decide on the name and also to produce the gin in Thessaloniki?
JL: We came up with the name Stray Dog because, as all Greeks know, they make up a tremendous part of our towns and villages, but also because we are using wild herbs in our recipe. The stray dog represents the wild ingredients we collect to make our gin. We also work with animal shelters in Greece and donate a portion of our profits to help take care of the stray dogs in Greece. Our distiller is located in Aridea, north of Thessaloniki, and is in an area with an abundance of amazing raw ingredients, including one of the most pristine natural springs that supplies the water for our gin.
TNH: What’s been the most rewarding aspect of working on Stray Dog and with Master Distiller Dimitris Melissanidis?
JL: Working with Dimitris and his wife Nopi has been a true pleasure as they both share the same vision as us. They are third generation distillers and come from a family business, like myself. I come from a third generation restaurant family. We bonded over the shared vision to do something new that has not been done before – taking raw Greek flavor and tradition and marrying it with something new. We are lucky to have found such passionate people like them.
TNH: What is your favorite cocktail made with Stray Dog?
JL: There are so many great cocktails to make with Stray Dog. It is a very herbal and savory style gin, so it works well in simple drinks like the Martini and the Gin & Tonic with a Sage leaf as garnish. I also love to drink it in a Negroni, which accentuates the herbal characteristics of the gin.
TNH: How is the business going during this difficult time?
JL: There are definitely some challenges now since we launched only a month before quarantine began. Our biggest challenge is that our original customers were bars and restaurants, so we had to quickly pivot to market into retail and liquor stores. It is difficult to share our gin with people while having to stay at home. But we’ve been offering virtual tastings, virtual cocktail classes, and sharing samples to people interested in trying something new and have had some success here. If someone wants to be in the know for our next virtual cocktail class contact us at hello@StrayDogGin.com.
TNH: Where can people order Stray Dog Wild Gin?
JL: You can visit our website at www.StrayDogGin.com/buy to see the full list of places that carry our product, as well as order it online via ReserveBar.
More information about Stray Dog Wild Gin is available online: www.straydoggin.com.