Johnny Livanos was on a wine tour across Greece back in 2017 when he was handed a clear native spirit similar to Italy’s grappa. With wild herbs growing all over the countryside, Livanos picked a few leaves, placed them in his glass, and went for a hike. When he returned and took a gulp, he exclaimed: “Oh my God — that’s gin!”
That fated trip to his ancestral homeland was just one of many throughout the Armonk resident’s 32 years. And as a member of one of Westchester’s preeminent restaurant families (City Limits; Moderne Barn), Livanos had been envisioning “something I could create that would embody the essence of Greece. I have huge pride and passion for all things Greek.”
Fast-forward a few more trips and many more sips, and what you have is Stray Dog Wild Gin, born in early 2020, just moments before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the U.S.
Crafted in small batches in traditional copper-pot stills, Stray Dog is made at a family-owned distillery in the mountains of Northern Greece, in an area flush with wild botanicals and natural spring water. “Most spirits are about 60 percent water,” explains Livanos. “The water used in the distilling process is rich in minerals, which gives [the gin] that smoothness and character.”
Concerning the quintessential, hand-foraged herbs that make Stray Dog Wild Gin everything it is: Sage, rosemary, bay leaf, cardamom, fennel seed, and coriander are in the mix, along with juniper — the foundation of all gins — and mastiha, the crystalline tree resin responsible for the brew’s piney finish. Lemon and orange lend added zest. “These are the luscious, herbal, savory flavors of Greek and Mediterranean cuisine,” says Livanos. Neat, on the rocks, or swirled in a cocktail, it’s “soft, smooth, and full-bodied.”
One of the first Greek gins available this side of the sea, Stray Dog Wild Gin is in liquor stores and bar menus in 16 states (at press time), as well as Puerto Rico. As for how this gold medalist in the New York International Spirits Competition got its name: “I’ve never had a dog, but I love them,” gushes Livanos. Putting his money where his mouth is, a portion of his profits fund organizations and shelters in Greece that provide food, veterinary care, and homes to stray dogs and cats.