I almost didn’t finish my interview with James Waugh, co-founder of Wellington Bootleggers Craft Soda Company (tagline: smuggled for the people). Somehow, on that sunny capital Saturday, where I met him in a garage at the back of Wellington Burger Restaurant ‘Burger Liquor’, a spoodle, a loud ice machine and Wellington’s most successful restaurateurs all fought for James’s attention. I felt like it would maybe be easier just to admit defeat. But James is someone I have had on my wish list since I started writing on The Residents, because I admire the work and conviction he put into making his company from scratch. I knew I couldn’t let something as really loud ice stop me. But I really wished I had had a glass of James’s soda to enjoy it with.
A little sip of New Zealand - smuggled for the people
Originally from Hamilton, James and I met in 2012 when I moved in with some new flatmates - two guys called Luke and Caleb (DJ K+Lab). I didn’t know them at the time. However, almost immediately I met their friendly posse of mates who were as tight knit as the cast of ‘Friends’. At the time, James was working at the Matterhorn and building. But looking back, it would have been around this time his idea for craft ginger ale was brewing. A couple of years on, Bootleggers has grown from strength to strength, and is now stocked all over New Zealand. Now Kiwi’s know it for its delicious flavours, including lime and soda, lemon, lime and bitters, dry ginger beer, and dry lemonade (amongst others). There can be no doubt - Inside that delicious drink is ‘smuggled’ the best ingredients New Zealand has to offer. It is a cool, crisp drink for the knowing purveyor of crafted goods.
When you meet James, you can’t help but be struck he his Kiwi-guy chill. He seems so relaxed you can be fooled into thinking being a founder of his own company is a bit of a cruise for him, a enjoyable bit of work, but nothing to get in fuss about. But you would be wrong. Behind the laconic persona, there is a hard-working, gritty business man, working to build the brand he shares with his business partner (Auckland based Jimmy Cooper). Currently James is still doing a bit of building work on the side, but is likely to switch to Bootleggers full time in 2016.
On the day we meet up, I am accompanied by Cinnamon, the spoodle (for the second interview that day). I love dogs, but by this time I am working out that they are a nuisance to haul through town on a Saturday. James has kindly sourced the back garage behind Burger Liquor as a place for us to chat in peace. But there is a delay to get started. People keep on going in and out of the garage, doing odd jobs. Suddenly, legendary Wellington restauranteur Mike Egan (of Monsoon Poon and Burger Liquor, amongst others) pop’s in greeting James and cracking jokes about the dog. He then fills up bags of ice from a very loud ice machine. I sit awkwardly while ice crunches very loudly in the background. James on the other hand, casually lends a hand to put the ice in Mike’s car. He seems un-phased by all the noise a kerfuffle. This seems to be the Wellington way for James; helping people out, and knowing everyone around town.
Starting a Wellington Life from scratch
James fell in love with Wellington almost by accident. It started when he was heading down to Wanaka to do a Ski Season. On the way, he caught up with an old friend he had grown up in Hamilton, with that was now living in Wellington. His friend took him out in the city “We went to Cuba Mall - it was a sunny day. I was like “Man, this place is cool - it would be really great to live here”, remembers James. After the ski season, James went through Wellington again over a few days. He grew more passionate about the place and somehow left his heart there. He returned to Hamilton, and while he stayed a few more years, eventually, James moved to Wellington for good.
Beginnings are always make-shift, whether moving or starting a business. The first place James lived in Wellington was in Mount Cook, in Hargreaves Street “It was in my friends place, a two flat place” he remembers.”His sister had the upstairs and he had the downstairs flat. I lived with him for about 6 weeks, in the lounge sort-of-styles. I wasn’t working at the time so we were just hanging out. Eventually I ended up in a room in the sister’s flat, right next door. James soon found work, building for Park and Clarke.
Despite success in building, James had a curious side that wasn’t quite fulfilled, and found himself drawn towards entrepreneurism. Bootleggers soda was born out of an infatuation to create a product. “I looked around the house one day and I saw there was shampoo, cleaning products, food that we eat, things we need. I thought it would be cool to do something like that”. He just didn’t know what at first. James’s AH-HA moment took a bit of time coming “About 12 months later I got up one morning, went to the fridge, had a drink of dry ginger ale - I was like ‘Woah - that’s what I am going to do - an all natural craft ginger ale’”.
The process of making the idea real involved a lot of research to begin with. “I googled dry ginger ale. It was the most commonly used mixer during the prohibition of alcohol in America during the 20th century”, James notes. “During prohibition, all the breweries switched to making dry ginger ale. It was believed to be as big as the sale of illegal alcohol. People would buy spirits from the bootleggers, and mix it with the dry ginger ale. It was the best mixer around”
From this idea, came the name. James says today being a ‘bootlegger’ in today’s day and age is more about being independent in an industry where the big commercial companies control almost everything with contracts and heavy branding. “I turned into a bit of a mad scientist” remembers James. He experimented to find a ginger ales recipe that worked to make a good quality product. James soon pitched to his friend, Jimmy Cooper - who loved the idea. The pair spent two years on research and development, working out how to get to market. “The drinks industry is really hard to get into with very little money” says James. “The right manufacturers came again down to word of mouth and getting out there”.
Getting out there
Bootleggers launched at Toast Martinborough in 2013. “We gave out about 400 bottles of lime and soda” for people to try as they got on the bus” James remembers. “It was pretty cool for a little soda company like us”. The brand also launched it’s slogans “Follow the fantail” and “Be curious”, encouraging drinkers to read the ingredients label, and ask what was in their drinks.
Bootleggers is indeed a rebel, bucking the trend for mass produced soda. Currently, the main focus is aligning with bars, restaurants and cafes - the healthier and more independent the better. James likes dealing with small businesses. “Relationships are key - we pride ourselves on that. Whether it is the bar person, manager - and we like to get into the places and educate and share our story with other people. It’s not just another product. There’s a lot more behind it.
Pure soda, no fizz
Bootleggers indeed uses fair-trade organic cane sugar from India, from the growers. They recently got their fair-trade certification, giving 2 per cent of Bootleggers total turnover to the fair-trade organisation. “We want to contribute - in line with our tag-line “Smuggled for the people”. It’s about offering a better alternative for everyone, from the bar tender to the drinker and the growers we source our produce from.” Lemons and limes come from the Hawke's Bay.
In typical Kiwi style, everyone has got behind James and Jimmy and pitched in along the way. With new projects for 2016 and a growing drinks line. It certainly looks as if things won’t be slowing down. Being curious - for James it seems - has paid off big time.
So Wellingtonians, should you be looking for a cool beverage to enjoy throughout January and February 2016, why not reach for a Bootleggers Soda. And remember - include plenty of ice (presuming it is quiet)…