Smidgin - Meet the Makers
What made you decide to establish MCM Distillery?
The MCM Distillery is owned by me and my friend / business partner Ivan Skenderoski. I am a native of Scotland and Ivan is native to Ohrid in North Macedonia. We have been business partners for the past 15 years and after a stressful day we very often ended up together with a good Gin and Tonic, to review the events of the day and take some time to relax. A few years ago, I went on a distillery tour in Scotland, and I was completely hooked. When I told Ivan about my experience, he said that Macedonia has the best juniper berries in the world. The light went on and we looked at each other and knew we had to do find a way to make gin in Macedonia.
What is the inspiration behind Smidgin?
We felt as though we were bringing gin back to its source, back home to the best juniper. The initial trials with fresh juniper absolutely convinced us we were on the right track and with gins appearing almost every day with whacky ingredients or that change colour, or that sparkle, we wanted to create a classic gin that respected Macedonia’s beautiful juniper, a purist’s gin, if you like. It felt like an injustice that people in North Macedonia are surrounded by such superb juniper but without a single gin distillery in the country to release its potential, until now. (Smidgin is North Macedonia’s first and only gin distillery).
Can you tell us more about the distillery?
The distillery is in one of the most iconic buildings in North Macedonia’s capital city of Skopje. Anyone in the city knows what you mean when you say MCM. It is famous as one of the few buildings that survived a devastating earthquake in 1963. It is a beautiful building, a symbol of resilience, and you can see a quick walkthrough on our website. We are very proud of the space we have and there are lots of plans to do more once we have some more funds.
Can you tell us more about your still?
Katherine is the name of our single still and she is a thing of beauty to me. Katherine is an alembic pure copper still, handmade to our specifications in Portugal. At 300 litres, Katherine is quite a small still but making Smidgin in small batches is how we control the quality. We built a water bath with a digital thermometer that allows us to control the entire heating process with precision. Our still heating is done in stages to ensure consistency and the water bath offers a much more economical use of energy than direct heating.
Can you tell us more about the MCM Distillery team?
We have an amazing team to make Smidgin. Smidgin’s master distiller and advisor, Milica brings years of experience in spirit making and Ivana works to make gin almost every day. Evgenij manages the whole operation and our brand ambassador Kristjan is a charismatic mixologist who brings Smidgin to life with cocktails using his home-made syrups. I can honestly say that Smidgin is made with care and love by the team at MCM.
Can you tell us more about the distillation process and botanicals?
Our botanicals are what make Smidgin unique. We talk a lot about our fresh juniper and I have been to the mountains where it grows; it is a truly amazing sight. Hundreds of square kilometres of juniper bushes growing wild on dramatic mountain slopes.
Equally special is our mountain tea botanical. Harvested by hand, mountain tea (Latin name Sideritis) has been used for millennia as a health tonic, and in ancient times the army of Alexander the Great (who was from the kingdom of Macedon) used it to pack soldiers' wounds. It has natural antiseptic properties and a strong earthy taste. Mountain tea can only be found in the mountains bordering Greece and North Macedonia and only at altitudes above 800 meters. It is mountain tea that provides the rich mouthfeel of Smidgin and imparts a lot of essential oil into the gin.
Tuning our recipe to keep Smidgin clear at 41% was a real challenge, because we wanted to keep as much mountain tea as possible, we love the floral earthy tones we get from the mountain tea and the way this combines with its mountain neighbour; the wild juniper.
What can visitors experience if they visit the distillery for a tour/tasting?
We will be starting tours in Spring 2022 and offering gin-making classes as well. The tours will begin with a Gin and Tonic on the patio bar outside the distillery, which is shaded by a huge old tree, then a presentation on the history of gin and information about why Macedonian juniper is so good for gin. Guests will be able to taste the raw botanicals and have a cup of hot mountain tea if they wish. We will then walk through the entire process of how we make the gin, from NGS to the bottle.
For gin making classes we have five 2-Litre stills and can provide classes for up to 10 people (5 couples at 5 workstations). Gin making will include a full tour and guests will be tutored through the entire process, from selecting their own botanicals, to distilling the gin, cutting the heads and tails, and then filling their own bottle to take home with them.
What have been the biggest challenges and achievements so far?
We are the first micro distillery in North Macedonia, and the current policies and process from Customs is designed for large distillers. Negotiating our way through the paperwork was a challenge, as it is when you do anything that has not been done before. The North Macedonian government was very supportive though and, in the end, we managed to get all of our licenses and permissions in place.
How would you describe Smidgin in 3 words?
For me I would describe Smidgin as “My Favourite Gin”.
What's your favourite way to drink Smidgin?
I like to drink Smidgin with some fresh juniper in the glass and a good tonic, but then I have access to a lot of fresh juniper. Our recommended garnish is a slice of burnt orange peel on the rim of the glass. This really helps your nose bring out the citrus notes in Smidgin.
Which gins would you always have on your gin shelf (other than your own of course!)?
I am a big fan of spicy gins. Pickering’s 1947 Gin or Opihr Gin. I have been testing spicy gins at the distillery and hope to have our own twist on a Macedonian spicy gin for Christmas 2022. There are a lot of ingredients that are unique to the region, and we plan on using some of these, assuming we can get the right taste and texture from them.
What's next for you and MCM Distillery - any exciting plans?
Lots of plans! We are going to launch a Summer Gin, and then a Spiced Gin at the end of the year. I am also working on wine-barrel Aged Gin. In the Balkans there is a unique grape variety called Vranić. This grape produces a bold red wine, like a Malbec on steroids. I have bought a couple of used Vranić oak barrels from one of the best wine makers in Macedonia and am looking forward to seeing how Smidgin copes with being aged in these barrels. I expect a very interesting colour!
We will also launch our own tonic brand call Smreka, which is the Macedonian word for juniper. This will be a traditional quinine-based tonic with juniper notes that will be designed to mix with Smidgin, or with any good classic gin. We will also be working to expand the MCM distillery by renovating the outside patio space and bar this summer, so a lot to keep us busy!
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