The spirits industry has increasingly become an attractive space for entrepreneurs from all walks of life with all types of motivations. Many have entered the space driven by success stories of celebrity brand selling to the big portfolios for zillions of dollars and others are attracted to the fun party perception of being in the spirits and bar industry. However, it is the brand stories that are rooted in culture, care, quality, heritage and true passion for the industry that gets us the most excited to learn more about.
Johnny Livanos was raised in a hospitality family and as a Greek American family, their culture, flavors and hospitality has been the paramount cornerstone of the Livanos businesses. Raised with such a deeply rich connection to Greek culture, it made perfect sense that Johnny’s journey into spirits with his new brand, Stray Dog Gin, began in Greece.
When thinking of Greek spirits, many minds might think of ouzo, tsipouro and mastiha, and while there are incredible offerings of these spirits in the market, Livanos wanted to introduce a taste of Greece through gin. Although gin is a relatively new category in Greece, it makes perfect sense listening to Johnny talk about his inspiration for Stray Dog Gin. With only a short time in the market, Stray Dog has already racked up awards from the New York International Spirits competition with a gold medal, 94 points, and best Greek gin of the Year, and we are seeing it at some of the best bars and restaurants in the country being embraced by bartenders.
So we spoke to Johnny to learn more about the story of Stray Dog Gin and why honoring his culture and familial homeland was so important to him for his move from restaurants into spirits.
Talking to Johnny Livanos, Founder of Stray Dog Gin
The moment the idea of Stray Dog Gin came to him
On a wine trip in Greece in 2017, I had an epiphany while hiking through a field in Crete and picking some wild herbs that were growing nearby. I stuck a few various plants in my glass of tsipouro (Greek grappa), and after a few hours of letting it infuse, I put it to my lips and Eureka! I was taken back by how the aromas of the wild Greek countryside transformed my drink and I realized how there are so many beautiful herbs and botanicals that grow all throughout Greece. They are a part of our cuisine, gastronomy, and used in spirits like ouzo and tsipouro. But why not gin? I felt like gin was the perfect way to share these flavors I grew up with in a way that is more accessible to the global pallet. Especially considering how Greek spirits is a passion of mine, I felt like creating a gin using the wild and delicious botanicals of Greece was the perfect way for me to share my story, my passion and culture, with the rest of the world.
How growing up in a Greek American hospitality family influenced him
Growing up in the restaurant business has been a joy (besides 2020). It’s in my family’s blood to create fun experiences for our guests, and we have a lot of pride in sharing our culture, too. Growing up in a big fat Greek family, we always want to share the joys of Greek cuisine and culture. That’s what we did at Ousia and Molyvos, our two Greek restaurants, in addition to the other concepts in my family’s restaurant group.
I always had this fantasy to create a product that would allow me to share my culture and pride with more than just the people in my restaurant on a given night. Building a brand and a product is a way to share your story with the world, to capture a moment and put it in a bottle. This was always something I loved working with the hundreds of brands that my family’s restaurants carried.
The importance of Greek Culture
As a 3rd generation Greek-American, I have tremendous pride for sharing my culture and heritage with others. It’s sort of part of the Greek DNA – we love to give people food, drinks, and sample our hospitality all in the name of sharing our Greekness. In searching for what excites me and lights my fire, I realized that teaching people about Greek culture and sharing the flavors of Greece is something that makes me so happy and fills me with joy. I’ve shared this passion by giving talks about Greek wine and spirits through virtual events, and at Bar Convent Brooklyn in 2019 and 2020. Creating a gin that is able to capture the essence of Greek flavor and give people a taste of what Greece means to me is a very special experience.
The Rising Interest in Greece & Greek Spirits
I have become very inspired by the craft cocktail renaissance happening in Greece right now, as well as interested in Greek wine and spirits in the US. No trip to Athens is complete without partaking in their famous bar scene. Places like Baba au Rum and The Clumsies caused me to rethink everything I know about Greek spirits, and pushed me to think outside the box when trying to develop my own product that I hope pushes people to think differently about Greece. On top of that, there Is a rise In craft drinks coming out of Greece, like Three Cents sodas, and a bunch of other craft spirits brands on the market.
In the US, we have seen many amazing bars and restaurants open up that focus on only Greek wine and spirits and are doing It In such a fun way. Besides my family’s restaurants Ousia & Molyvos, there are amazing places all across the country that have become famous for their Greek beverage offerings. Krasi and Kava In Boston, Kyma In Atlanta, Zaytinya in DC and many, many more are showing just how diverse the world of Greek beverages can be.
On the decision of making a gin when Greece isn’t known for gin
What makes gin such a fun spirit is that there are no rules. Besides using juniper, I felt like Gin provided a blank canvas for creating a special spirit that conveys the flavor and attitude of Greece. In addition to using juniper, we create Stray Dog by distilling wild Greek botanicals such as sage, rosemary, fennel seed, and bay leaf. In addition we use other Greek botanicals such as Mastiha, and fresh citrus.
The Goal of Stray Dog Gin in the Industry
We hope Stray Dog can share the wonders of Greek flavor with people all over the world. It’s a way for the Greek diaspora to have a taste of the motherland while away from home. It’s a way for people who are not able to travel during these times to mentally escape to the Mediterranean for a drink. It’s a way to bring exciting and traditional flavors together in a new way. We hope that Stray Dog continues to be the best gin of Greece and will show people how amazing the flavors of our country are.
Stray Dog goes beyond just the name
Stray Dog partnered with Save a Greek Stray, a non-profit organization located in Greece that helps shelter and find permanent homes for some of Greece’s stray dog population. We give a portion of sales from each case sold to help them maintain their shelters, purchase supplies, organize adoption events, and much more. You can learn more about this great charity by visiting saveagreekstray.org
Stray Dog Wild Gin is imported to the US by Diamond Wine Importers.
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