In the vast (and generally unpalatable) world of “celebrity” booze brands, few have surprised me like Emma Watson’s gin. Renais—a family brand bolstered by the actor-turned-activist and her brother, Alex Watson—is actually very, very good.
Inspired by the people, production and provenance of Chablis (where their father, Chris Watson, has been investing in wine for over three decades), Emma and Alex’s gin has brought something unique to the not-quite-so-Gin-Boom-ing market.
Something distinctive. Complex. Luxurious, even. A gin inspired by (and extracting parts of) the winemaking process.
“None of this would have been possible without my dad,” Alex tells me, sipping a Renais highball at Paris’ illustrious Hôtel de Crillon, where the months-old brand has already secured a residency. “His passion for wine was about sharing it with friends and family when he bought the first vineyard [in 1992]. We’re just following the same passion in a different way.”
Domaine Watson, which exists separately from Renais, comprises a handful of small Chablis and Irancy vineyards that Chris has accumulated over the last three decades.
Renais, keeping things familial, crafts its gin using Domaine Watson grape skins, salvaged from the winemaking process, before enriching them with pressed grand cru grapes and a selection of natural botanicals. The result is not only a testament to the passion of two generations of the Watson family for all things Chablis, but the family itself.
“I went into it like a mad man,” Chris laughs. “The winemaking, that is, not the gin. That took some convincing.”
Alex spent years at Diageo before leaving to launch Renais
Renais, you see, was something Alex had been dreaming up for years.
Born just outside of Paris, both Alex and Emma had taken numerous trips to their father’s Domaine in their youth—not only to spend time there as a family, but to provide some “free labor” on the vineyards. “I’ve got to be honest, it probably cost everyone more than it made them,” Alex admits.
With little hope in becoming a vigneron in his own right, Alex turned his skills to the world of marketing—first, for property management group ETM, then for Diageo as Customer Marketing Manager On Trade.
“I learned so much so fast at Diageo, and it made me realize there was an opportunity to do something really different,” he says. “Ems and I are so passionate about Chablis, about the traditions, about the unique characteristics of the land, and I knew this byproduct [unused grape skins] would be the perfect way to capture the essence of the terroir in an unexpected way.
“But yeah, it did take some time to convince my dad,” he laughs.
Renais honors the Watson family’s love of Chablis
In the last ten years, Chris had not only turned what started as a small vineyard into an award-winning wine production, but received a prestigious Medaille d’Argent for second-best independent grower of Chablis in 2002 and was appointed one of the “piliers” of Chablis, becoming the region’s ambassador to the UK.
While Renais is categorically not a wine, or a product of Chablis (as a protected wine region), the risk of blurring any lines meant Chris wanted to see a fully-fledged business and production plan before sharing his wealth.
“Obviously, I was always going to agree,” Chris whispers, smiling into a glass of Domaine Yvon & Laurent Vocoret Chablis 1er Cru Homme Mort. “He’s a genius.”
The genius is evident in the product, too. Kimmeridgian soils and limestone, which are rich in ancient marine fossils, lend a unique minerality to Chablis wines (setting them apart from other chardonnays), and the Watsons went to extreme lengths to ensure this was captured in their gin.
Distilled in small batches for quality, the spirit undergoes Kimmeridgian stone maceration before being distilled with botanicals like linden flowers, cubeb berries and acacia honey.
The result? A feast of Chablis-esque minerality, packed with fresh citrus, white grape, garden herbs, florals and juniper. A product any Chablis-loving Watson would be proud of.
Emma Watson spent many years on the family’s Chablis vineyards
“To me, Renais is a family project. Not only does the Chablis region evoke cherished memories of growing up, but I also relish the opportunity to create something with my brother Alex,” says Emma.
While it would have been easy for her to secure sales as the sole face of the brand, Emma has taken a side-step out of the limelight at Renais. While she’s a shareholder in the business and oversees most of company’s creative direction, Alex Watson is at the forefront, shining in what others might describe as his sister’s shadow.
“Ems is…” he trails off, trying to find the right word. “She’s just the best. She had so much faith in me and in this idea—which actually isn’t so easy to do.”
The idea to produce gin in this way, in fact, is the antithesis of ease. The grape skins Renais uses are only available for a two-week window during harvest season each year, leaving a lot of Renais’ magic to the land’s schedule.
Emma and Alex Watson in Chabli
Of course, complex production processes also secure its credentials as a premium product. One that costs £45 ($54) per art deco-inspired bottle pop.
“It’s definitely a luxury gin,” says Alex, “and there aren’t many people doing luxury gin. You can count our competitors on one hand, but I think we do it best…”
A wry smile passes as we move onto neat serves of Renais (an experience I would normally object to, where gin is concerned, but one that leaves me more than pleasantly surprised).
“No, we definitely do it best.” And everyone, straight-sipping gin at the table, agrees.
They’re not making “celebrity” booze at Renais, they’re making a truly delicious little family legacy.