“So you’ve decided to move in here, Senhor Miguel. I’ll bring your food in then.”
Gin collector Ali Bullock is not talking to me, of course, but to the cat at his feet. Senhor Miguel is a handsome tuxedo gentleman, one of a number of rescue cats and dogs that roam around the Solar Branco Estate on Sao Miguel in the Azores, a volcanic island chain nearly a thousand miles off the west coast of Portugal. The estate is Bullock’s home, and I’ve come to chat with Bullock about what he’s doing here in the Azores, and exactly what that has to do with saving the whales.
After spending decades as a gin enthusiast, Bullock has created an impressive collection on the island — one he believes to be the largest in Europe, housed in the property’s Gin Library. The library features nearly 1,000 bottles of gin from around the world, which are displayed floor-to-ceiling in the tiny hilltop building, and each bottle has a story: More than 300 reflect Bullock’s time spent living in cities around the world, and nearly 700 that have been gifted by visitors to the isolated property. One of these many gins is from Baleia, the distilled spirits brand Bullock founded right here on the island, and is made using local seaweed and citrus.
Bullock, 48, is currently overseeing an ambitious project — or, more accurately, a collection of related projects — that includes this line of distilled spirits, a speakeasy, and a foundation to protect whales, on top of the 150-year-old, 10,000-square-meter estate he’s converted to a sustainable boutique hotel with eight distinct units, a sushi restaurant, an event space, and native citrus trees. Ambitious? Very. But with an extensive global marketing background at companies like Red Bull and the World Wildlife Fund, the support of his wife, Caroline, and the contributions of gin and funds from international visitors, the effusive, energetic Brit might just pull it all off.
1. So, why build the estate in Azores?
We moved here to the Azores in 2018 — we came here in 2006 on our honeymoon, and we just fell in love with the place. Of course, coming back after 14 years, things had changed incredibly since we were here. We stumbled upon this older estate. It was in ruins, and it had been abandoned for many decades. The price was very reasonable for what we wanted to do, so we bought the place. The local people thought we were nuts. Everybody on the island thought we were completely crazy, because it’s three times more expensive to restore [this] 150-year-old estate than it would be just to build from scratch, but we loved the space.
2. How did the Gin Library come to exist?
The collection originally started when I was living in Hong Kong with my wife in 2007, and we didn’t know anybody in a new city. We invited people over for Gin & Tonics, and we wanted to do a gin masterclass with the best of British gins to remind our dear American cousins about the colonial history of the United Kingdom. A good friend from America came over with an American gin, and then other people brought other gin. [We] went from [having] a very small collection of 20 or 30 bottles to almost 300 in Hong Kong.
When we moved here and started the restoration of this beautiful estate, that’s when we decided we’d open the Gin Library next door. I had the same idea for people who [would be] visiting us: If you bring us a gin. you’ll get a free gin masterclass. The collection grew and grew and grew. Over 300 of our 969 gins are from people coming from around the world, 56 countries so far.
3. How big is it going to get?
I, of course, would love for it to be the largest in the world. I think we’ll probably go for it. We need around about 1,300 to be No. 1. Right now, I believe the largest is Atlas in Singapore, so we’ve got to zoom past them and then just keep going. I don’t think we’ll ever stop, to be honest. I think we’re just gonna have to find more shelf space.
4. When did you decide to start producing your own gin?
During one of the Covid lockdowns, I was having a conversation with a friend over Zoom about making the perfect Martini. We’d had a few drinks, and he said: “Ali. You really should make your own gin.” I said, “That’s a ridiculous idea. I haven’t got enough money to make my own gin.” And I put the phone down about two hours later and thought to myself, “I have a really good idea. I should make my own gin.”
Coming out of Covid, we witnessed friends here [in Portugal] losing their businesses. We wanted something that would help bars, restaurants, and help hotels; something that was Azorean and very Portuguese. And that’s been our strategy since day one: We will always sell limited numbers, and only in Portugal. I’d rather stay local and be more sustainable in that context.
5. How does Baleia make its gin?
We’re quite unique in that the gin takes five days to make. We macerate the seaweed for three days, then [add it to the gin before the first distillation]. The seaweed is where you pick up on a little bit of saltiness — in the smell — but you don’t really taste it.
As far as I’m aware, we’re the only gin to make it in that way. Most people would put the seaweed in the second distillation, and that makes sense, because that’s a quicker way to do it. Now, we spent five days doing something ruinously expensive. It’s one of the reasons why we probably wouldn’t ever export it, because we only make 4,000 bottles a year. We don’t have the production facilities to go any bigger.
6. “From the ocean, for the ocean” is Baleia’s motto. What’s the meaning behind it?
When we came back here in 2018, we wanted to underpin sustainability in the things we were doing. It was really all about funding the Whale Heritage Site. We donate two euros from the sale of each bottle of Baleia Gin to [our foundation] the Ocean Azores Foundation, and each bar or restaurant that carries [the gin] donates two euros per bottle as well. The money is spent right here in the Azores.
By the end of 2023, we’ll have donated around 20,000 euros to the Ocean Azores Foundation. And by 2025, we’re looking to commit 150,000 euros to the University of the Azores across the three islands for ocean-based projects.
7. And that’s how your foundation, the Ocean Azores Foundation, started?
If we’re going to make gin here in the Azores, we want to give back to the Azores. The foundation started due to the Whale Heritage Site. You can find a third of the world’s species of whales here in the waters around the Azores. It’s got incredible marine life. We launched the foundation at the same time as Baleia.
8. How does the estate tie into the foundation?
With some hotels, it’s a lot of greenwashing: “Oh, don’t wash your towels, but we heat the swimming pool 24/7 and we have a water show every night and all the lights are on. But your room key is bamboo.” It’s all cosmetic.
We want to be a leading, high-end eco hotel. The technical people who designed this are far smarter than me, and they’ve designed it to track everyone’s energy use. For example, say the average energy usage is 10 euros. But if you save energy — say you only spend 8.50 euros — we’ll donate that 1.50 euros to the foundation.
One of the key principles of our sustainability is that we’re not interested in growing everything ourselves because that doesn’t help the local community. Our neighbors are all farmers. We want to buy their products and pay a fair price — no discount.
9. What’s the deal with the speakeasy, Senhor Raposa’s Drinking Den?
It’s Portuguese for Mr. Fox. The legend of the estate is that the citrus trader who built this estate ran away from home at age 14, and he jumped on the citrus boat to London, made his fortune in London, traveled the world, and came back to the Azores. When he came back, he was a gentleman in his 40s. Because nobody knew who he was anymore, they nicknamed him Senhor Raposa — Mr. Fox. He only had rich British merchants and rich locals over, and members of the royal family from Portugal would come and stay in the house. Local people never got in. He was a bit mysterious — he had these late-night drinking and parties — so that inspired the speakeasy.
10. So, in your opinion, what makes a perfect Gin & Tonic?
There’s a five-step process. The most important thing to making the perfect Gin & Tonic is to have an English accent. Next up is to use Spanish copa glasses or balloon glasses. The next step is one large piece of ice. Big ice, of course: It’s very important because it melts very slowly, and small ice melts very quickly.
Next step is the gin. It’s one part gin, three parts tonic water. You can go one to four, but never more than one to four. Any more than one to four, and it’s no longer a Gin & Tonic; it is known as an aquarium. Stick a f*cking goldfish in there.
Then, of course, the final step is your garnish: It can be dehydrated fruits — never fresh fruit, because that leaks juice into the Gin & Tonic and overpowers it —and then fresh rosemary or thyme, depending on the gin.