Meet the Creators: How Feels Botanical Came to Be.
There are those times, for periods however long, when life lacks colour. When what we do no longer holds purpose, or when we have outgrown our circumstances. Years ago, it was from that spirit that our four botanical eau de vie came to be. Between our co-creators, Blake Vanderfield-Kramer and Steve Pillemer, it was the desire to inject the colour back in that led to a conversation about creative purpose, the future of craft spirits, and giving back.
Cue a few flights between Sydney and Los Angeles, late nights researching ancient apothecary history, and more than a few trials blended at Blake’s dining room table, and we arrive here—at the founding story told in Blake and Steve’s own words...
A throwback to those first conversations, where Feels Botanical was born
SP: "During those initial conversations, we both bonded over being somewhat uninspired and looking for something new, something life-changing through which we could funnel our own creative expression."
BVK: Exactly right. For me, I was at a point where I’d worked for a number of large organisations in the alcohol industry, which was an amazing experience. I’d learned a lot, worked with some great brands and met incredible mentors, but the time had come to start something of my own. Having had that visibility over what people wanted to drink, we saw a big shift happening in the world of craft spirits, and began throwing ideas around that fitted our values, too. From there, we took the idea to one of my mentors, Tony Stubley—who co-founded South Trade International, a major player in the industry here—and he immediately said, let’s go for it. Soon after I left my job, and was basically all in from there!
Evolving a purpose-driven business
BVK: Before starting anything, our goal was to minimise our impact on the environment, as well as looking at ways to give back to the community. At that time, my son had just turned one and I was, like a lot of parents, scared about the future they were inheriting. That value of giving back is something we’ve strived to build into the foundation of our business, from partnering with 1% for the Planet to ensuring our distiller was B Corp Certified...down the track, we’re planning on becoming B Corp Certified ourselves.
On growing up on the coast and cultivating a love for nature
BVK: I was brought up on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, in a coastal town called Newport. Some of my closest friends are people I met surfing. When I was 21, I was lucky enough to move to the Whitsundays and gained an invaluable appreciation for the ocean wildlife there. After that, I moved to the Adelaide Hills, which really opened my eyes to our world class agriculture and wine industry.
SP: It’s funny, because I’d been living in LA for 5 years and, my whole life, had always dreamt of getting over there. I was producing music tours and reality shows when Covid hit, and it rocked my whole perception of LA and the US being bunkered down for months on end. Looking at Australia, I started to get nostalgic for the home I’d left behind—my family, their safety, being surrounded by nature, heading out for a swim after work everyday. Coming back to launch Feels, it was a homecoming that all felt like a natural step forward—not back.
Landing on eau de vie: a spirit less traveled
SP: Australians like to discover, yet spirit-wise, it feels like we’ve been limited to rum, gin, vodka, tequila, whiskey and not much else outside of that. For me personally, when I first tried eau de vie, I was amazed at how soft and velvety it was, and couldn’t understand why there was so little being said about it. It became a really exciting point of difference for us, but it was by no means the easy path to take—I think few people realise grape eau de vie actually costs more to distill than a spirit made from wheat and grain.
BVK: With my background, eau de vie was something I’d been across, and knew it was relatively untouched territory in Australia. But I’d learned something from an old colleague that really stuck with me—about how a grape eau de vie has unique fruity wine flavours combined with that velvety creamy shape and mouthfeel. It was unlike anything else, really.
SP: There were also some health reasons—it’s a great option for people like me, living with gluten intolerance. We wanted to take that even further by ensuring the final product had no added sugars, preservatives or artificial colours and flavours. See that pink blush in Rouse? It’s all natural.
Harnessing grape over grain—a local and sustainable choice
BVK: Our wine industry is one of the best in the world, and because of that, we have an abundance of high quality grapes. To make our eau de vie base, we use a mix of grape varietals from South Australian vineyards, which is basically a combination of allocation and oversupply. So there’s the sustainability element to it too, using grapes that would otherwise be wasted.
From lounge room to distillery, and making our very first batch
The Concept: Mood and Flavour
SP: We started by workshopping which botanicals would eventually become Rouse, Bask, Vivify and Revel. More than that, we wanted to create a range of products that distilled mood and occasion through flavour, as opposed to a one-drink-fits-all approach. That then led us down the path of developing four products to launch with, instead of one.
Researching the ancient apothecary
BVK: Then came the deep-dive research phase. We spent a lot of time reading up on the ancient apothecary art of blending botanicals with alcohol, an art that dates back to 2600BC. We then started delving into our incredible bounty of unique and widely unknown Australian botanicals with therapeutic applications used by Indigenous Australians for over 60,000 years.
Individually blending each trial
BVK: We began seeking out the most sustainable and local ingredients—and from there, began individually blending each trial. At home right now, I’ve got a bit of an apothecary going on from those early days. The final stage involved testing our favourite trials with family and friends, and then blending and re-blending (and re-blending!) until we landed on the final four.
Taking it to the distillery
BVK: Making a trial at home is one thing—scaling it up is an entirely different beast. We’re lucky enough to be able to mass produce with an award-winning B Corp Certified distillery based in South Australia. In those early days, it was all about working with them to refine our botanical ratios, which went on for another 7 or 8 months of batches and trials. Back then, we were in the middle of the first big Covid outbreak, so instead of flying down to Adelaide, we’d be posting the samples back and forth and holding virtual tastings with a mentor and master distiller & blender, Liam Costello.
On seeing the final product out in the world
BVK: It’s probably been the highlight of 2020/2021. Watching people taste it, ask about eau de vie, comment on the packaging which we worked on with Squad Ink. It’s been the best feeling. Everytime we do a tasting, whether that’s with the team from Applejack Hospitality, Bert’s or Bar Elvina, they all pick up the quality and mouthfeel we recognised in the beginning and are really excited about the shape of flavour and versatility of the liquid.
SP: I’d say it’s been an overwhelming response and a validating experience for all the work we put in to get it right. What’s been so eye opening for me is there has been no one favourite product emerge—everyone has their own favourite in that moment. And really, that’s what we had always set out to achieve.
The dance of working together as co-creators
SP: Challenging one another as business partners and co-creators is really important to the end product. It’s not a battle, but more of a dance of problem solving together and coming to this place in the middle where we feel we’re covering all angles. It’s a good thing to be challenged and to feel like you're evolving in your way of thinking.
BVK: Yeah, and that’s a big part of our business's DNA. We want people to be raw and authentic and honest and expressive. We want to challenge the orthodox. It’s a really beautiful thing to try and understand where someone’s coming from and why.
SP: There’s also nowhere to hide (laughs). At this small stage, if we’re not operating the business as a team, it just isn’t operating.
On creative collaboration
SP: So much of it comes down to finding people who understand what you’re trying to achieve and who help to craft the vision of the brand. We’ve been very fortunate. Together with Leah Barylsky and Buffet Digital, we’ve been able to shape the creative direction, and develop a vision together.
BVK: I think we’ve been very lucky in our previous roles to have met a lot of diverse, creative people from videographers and artists to illustrators and photographers. To present our vision to them and ask them to respond to it with their own eye has been so cool. They’re all experts at what they do—from our illustrator Miranda Sofroniou to photographer Ben Osborne—and have their own perspectives and emotional connections to the brand, as well as to specific products. As creative collaborators, it’s so important to give them freedom to do what they do best, and again, we welcome being challenged. It’s a big part of our individually blended philosophy.
What we mean by “Individually Blended”
SP: It’s the idea that you’re not compromising your individuality—you’re owning it and celebrating it. However! As much as it’s about individual expression, it’s also about community, and about coming together to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. It’s not just something nice that we say, it’s deeply rooted in who we are and how we work, to the physical product and the actual botanicals we’ve selected for each.
Right now, on Blake and Steve’s bar cart:
BVK: My go-tos are the Basking Tommy’s Margarita. It’s so easy. Just 45mls Bask, 30mls lime juice, 15ml agave syrup, shaken and served over ice with cracked pepper and salt to finish. I also really like to park over a Revel after dinner with a wedge of orange.
SP: Mine is evolving as we go, and I’m getting really into trying different combinations. It started as Vivify, soda and fresh lime. Now it’s Rouse, soda, a splash of tonic and fresh lime. It keeps changing, depending on how my days are going or where I’m at. I can’t keep track of it, and that’s half the fun.