Hearing an expat British person living in Bulgaria for the last 15 years pronounce “trunki” and “drenki” could be among the most adorable and refreshing things on a summer day. It is also a little bit embarrassing, to be honest, because most Bulgarians don’t say these words anymore. Young people from the cities don’t even know what these fruits are and what they look like. A reason for that might probably be that Facebook is not full of of “drenki” and “trunki” memes, they are not featured in the latest music videos and so on – this should be it, right? In any case, if you are younger than the author of this interview, here are a couple of royalty free pictures from the mother of all contemporary knowledge – Wikipedia.
It is important that you remember them because these will be the main characters of our story. Oh, and also Barbara Page-Roberts from Rustic Reserve.
It is a pleasure to meet you, Barbara! How come you live in Bulgaria?
I have been around Bulgaria for an awfully long time. I think I did my first business here in 1984. I was providing equipment for products that could also be exported and my first projects was in Straldzha and Panagyurishte, making spectacle lenses and frames. I have done a lot of things since then, including running a pharmaceutical distribution company and so much more. At first, I travelled to Bulgaria every month in those days. I have my apartment in central Sofia since 1998 but I’ve lived here permanently since 2003 and I’ll probably remain here. In fact, maybe I’ll learn perfect Bulgarian and get a Bulgarian citizenship with all this Brexit nonsense.
I’m afraid we are getting into politics (we both laugh). How about more recently?
I was involved in tourism and made an application called The Best of Bulgaria. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to help me fund it, so after a while my pockets ran dry but it is still there and there is still nothing like it on the marketplace. It is the only photo app across all devices on the subject and I would love to continue and update it but it needs funding. Outside of that my day-job is my consulting company Tectrice Consult, which provides insider knowledge to Bulgarians wanting to do business with UK and vice versa, and in my spare time I have been making Trunki (Sloe) gin in this country for years.
How did it all begin?
I was south of Pleven in September at one time and suddenly I see the hedgerows are absolutely filled with sloes. So I went back, I picked and picked and I made Sloe Gin that year – probably 12 years ago. I made it for my friends for Christmas because traditionally in England you give it to your friends and you drink it at Christmas and it is nice to give something home-made and it solved all the problems with blind Christmas presents. I started working with Agrotime as a consultant and I was going through their cherry orchards and I noticed some trees that were not cherry trees, they were dogwood trees. We don’t have dogwood in England but it is very popular in the United States and my partner in this Ivan Krachunov, told me what the berries were and I decided to try making Drenki Gin the same way I made Trunki Gin and it was really delicious. It has a very fresh drenki smell and most Bulgarians know it.
Do you think so? I doubt that many young Bulgarians have ever smelled and tasted drenki…
Maybe not the young ones. I made it for a couple of years domestically and then one day we were sitting and asked ourselves… Why don’t we do this properly, commercially? And we did! Last year was our first commercial batch, a limited edition, not a huge quantity but it is enough.
What would the scale be now in the second year of the project?
There are specifics in making a fruit gin. The limitation on the product is always going to be the fruits. This year there will be a lot of trunki because the bad weather came a little bit before the flowering season and all we have to do is pick them. They grow on something called the blackthorn and that is exactly what it says it is and has black thorns. They are quite horrible to pick but that’s the way it is. But drenki is a bigger problem this year. They are one of the early flowering bushes and they were hit by frost. This means that there will be very few cultivated drenki this year. We will pick wild drenki but they are different – much smaller, much redder in colour but we will make a gin and sell it as wild drenki (Wild Cornel Gin) and it will be much darker.
This means you are expanding the portfolio?
Yes. This year we will probably make Aronia Gin for the first time too. At the same time, we are going to make craft gin because most gin in this country is not made from originally sourced junipers and botanicals. This will be our big new thing this autumn. We are miles behind England as there are above a thousand craft gin makers there and in the 12 months before March 2018, 55 million bottles of gin were consumed. Consumption is growing at 24-28% per annum still. In Bulgaria in 2017 under a million litres of gin were sold and it is growing at about 12% per annum, so it is growing very well and what I see, walking around the centre of Sofia, are all of these craft beer shops, specialist whiskey shops and people that are genuinely interested in these products. I am absolutely sure as we saw with the bartenders the other day at the launch of the gins – they were genuinely excited to work with a liquor that was with Bulgarian ingredients, made with love, care and attention and I am absolutely that our Craft Gin will be a huge success.
What happens after that?
We want to hit the Bulgarian expat market abroad. I am quite well connected with the Bulgarian expats in the United States and they are quite interesting people who absolutely love to have something original, Bulgarian that they can be proud of and show to their friends. To be perfectly honest with you, there is very little that fits that bill. It also fits our philosophy of making something that is very Bulgarian and promoting it.
How about the local market, how did you approach it?
We launched the truki gin at something like a soft launch for expats and influential people but we decided we would really launch in the summer and we were thinking about beach bars but quickly came to the conclusion that this was not the right places at this time. It is a sophisticated product. We decided to have a competition in Sofia, inviting the top bartenders in the city – it was crazy and completely secret. It was fun and they enjoyed it, then we had a second part of the competition and a launch party. The purpose of that is to get it into the bars because these days cocktail consumption is quite advanced.
Do you think there is cocktail culture in Sofia?
Yes, absolutely! I had no idea about it. If only cocktail bars were open at 6 in the morning, I might pop in but they are not or they are closing at that time and I am an early person. What I learned is that, number one: there is a cocktail culture. More importantly, I met some really nice, bright, young, mostly, men who really enjoy their business. They are creative, they are always keen to do something new and learn something new. We brought Nicki Veselinov on-board as our brand ambassador. He is extremely enthusiastic and good at what he does. We are talking to the bars and the objective is to get the product in the bars. At this time, we are deliberately not hitting the retail market. We are not selling a mass product and it works because there are not too many crazy British women running around and picking wild berries and turning them into a business. We have a long way to go but it will get there.
Indeed, there are not too many British women around picking trunki, let alone turning this into a business. I warned you at the beginning of this story that there are not too many Bulgarians picking them either. There is something very eclectic about Rustic Reserve products. On one hand, gin as an extremely British product (that is unless you are Dutch) and on the other… well, what sounds more Bulgarian than drenki and trunki? Seriously? Of course, we don’t own wild berries any more than any other nation owns ethanol. Some major gin producers source a number of their ingredients in Bulgaria and Macedonia, so nobody can really mark their territory on spirits any more. The point is that it takes the eye of a person coming in from the outside to embrace something local, no matter if their excuse was to feel like home. Apparently, it takes a British woman to introduce the new vintages of hipster Bulgarians to drenki and trunki in a sophisticated, contemporary way. To top this is up with a cocktail, do make sure you take a look at the Rustic Reserve cocktail recipes.