Meet the Makers of Suncliffe Gin, an Arizona Spirit Foraged in Sedona | Phoenix New Times
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Soulful Spirit: Meet the Couple Foraging Flavors to Craft a Uniquely Arizona Gin

Juniper berries foraged from the Sedona wilderness flavor this uniquely Arizona spirit.
Ryan Lawrence and Thomas Giddings hit the trail in search of juniper berries.
Ryan Lawrence and Thomas Giddings hit the trail in search of juniper berries. Chris Malloy
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On a fall morning in a sleepy Sedona neighborhood, two men stand in the sunshine of a grassy stretch of roadside. While chatting, they pick small, chalky, blue berries from a giant tree roughly the size of a hot air balloon. The tree is a juniper.

Cars pass. The drivers look over, wonder, and drive away. Bikers whiz by. Two elderly women approach, staring at the men armed with baskets and focused on the great tree, one of the 60 or so juniper species in the world, and one of the many swaying in the canyons of Sedona.

"What do you do with those juniper berries?" one woman asks.

"We make gin!" replies the man in the straw hat, Ryan Lawrence.

The woman squints. "Out of these berries?"

"Is it good gin?" asks the second woman.

"You can buy it at Clark's Market," says Lawrence's companion, Thomas Giddings, dangling an unsaid invitation that they taste the answer.

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A Suncliffe Gin bottle in the Sedona wilderness.
Chris Malloy

The gin is indeed a good gin. Suncliffe Gin is a new-wave spirit launched in 2020 by Lawrence and Giddings, along with a third partner, Clare Byrne. It gets a uniquely Arizonan flavor from 12 botanicals that are mostly foraged from Sedona by Lawrence and Giddings. The flavor? Earthy, fresh, clean, elusive. It shines a surprising light on the juniper without a tsunami of pine, despite being born from a cool, pine-treed land of hard blue skies, mystic energy vortexes, and sidewinding red canyons.

In its short life, the 45 percent ABV spirit has become a staple at bars across Arizona and has gained traction in New York City. Byrne is based in New York. Lawrence and Giddings, who recently got married, split their time between Sedona and Tucson. They forage around Sedona, including at a juniper grove on Suncliffe Drive, where the pair did their first wild harvesting. The spirit is then distilled in Napa Valley.

For the roughly 12,000 bottles of the 2022 Suncliffe batch, which is the third vintage, they'll need some 200 pounds of juniper berries from three species: shaggy bark, oneseed, and alligator. Procuring the berries takes about one nonconsecutive week. The gin — made like all gin by infusing a neutral base with juniper and other botanicals — also calls for about 50 pounds of ponderosa pine bark and 40 pounds of other local plants.

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Chalky blue juniper berries accumulate in a basket on the first day of foraging season.
Chris Malloy

Foraging begins in the fall and continues at a leisurely pace throughout the winter. The Suncliffe crew has big dreams, including opening a distillery, releasing barrel-aged gins, and ditching their day jobs. So at the beginning of their biggest season yet, Lawrence and Giddings paid a visit to the fecund 20-foot juniper they call the "bobcat tree," where two curious walkers approached.

"What was the name of the gin again?" the woman asks, calling back from the house-lined road as she walks away.

"Suncliffe!" Gidding replies. "Top shelf at Clark's!"

Giddings turns again to the bobcat tree. He and Lawrence continue plucking choice juniper. Pale berries drizzle into their baskets, forming heaps.

A New Era of Gin

In the popular mind, gin is a dusty spirit. It has the reputation of something enigmatic, esoteric, and never-changing. Green bottles of Tanqueray and blue bottles of Bombay Sapphire feel teleported from some past British era of galleons and funny hats. Gordon's Gin dates to 1793. Beefeater London Dry Gin predates the U.S.

But this reputation is unfounded. The universe of gin has expanded. Today, its classic styles are joined by modern additions. You can find gins that lean into citrusy overtones, use nonplant ingredients, or are pink in color. You can find new western or New American gin. These are small-batch gins straying from the London Dry and other older-style spirits, often using local ingredients to explore new flavor zones.

Suncliffe is New American, as it uses only Arizona-native botanicals. It speaks powerfully to place — to Sedona.

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Lawrence and Giddings drinking a gin and tonic on the roof.
Chris Malloy

It all began on Memorial Day 2020, when Lawrence and Giddings helped Lawrence's parents move into their new Sedona home. This was early in the pandemic, and the duo couldn't do much, so they explored the local trails for two weeks. One journey sparked their new venture.

"We were hiking Fossil Creek on the Mogollon Rim," Lawrence said. "And we found this species of elderflower that only grows in Arizona. We realized that this was something a lot of gins use." As they walked the cedar and juniper forests, the thunderbolt of a realization struck: They were surrounded by many of the fragrant botanicals that go into gin. "So we picked a bunch of stuff from all over," Giddings said. "We experimented," Lawrence added.

Giddings grew up around alcohol, working at his brother's pubs in London. Lawrence, who is from Arizona, liked to make elaborate vodka infusions for parties when he lived in New York. The two met in Tucson at Tiger's Tap Room, a bar inside the historic Hotel Congress.

Using the provisions from their forage, they infused vodka in Tupperware containers, testing various combinations. Though the liquids were "dirty yellow," results were promising. Byrne, a longtime friend of Giddings', suggested they were good enough to hone a recipe and start a gin company. What followed was a period of intense research.

"We both had time," Lawrence said. "We weren't working. And the people who made alcohol were making hand sanitizer, so they had time to talk to us on the phone about our creative project."

They spoke to lawyers, designers, and distillers. After linking with a Napa Valley distillery, they experimented with five batches of gin. Eventually, Lawrence and Giddings settled on vapor-infusing a base made from non-GMO Missouri corn — and a final recipe.

In the tightrope botanical balance, juniper leads from start to finish. Other key ingredients include the light influence of earthy, almost chocolatey ponderosa bark, which the duo breaks to free oils from before adding to the infusion. The gin is floral, though this quality is peripheral and serves to embellish the persistent juniper flavor. The gin is not citrusy, though it has citrus. "We use a little bit of orange to turn up the manzanita," Lawrence said.

For the 2020 vintage, Suncliffe produced 2,000 bottles. Producing more is the goal. Lawrence and Giddings would love to own their own distillery and make many spirits. But the hands-on act of foraging can be a whole lot of fun.

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The "Bobcat Tree" is a juniper the size of a hot air balloon.
Chris Malloy

"Juniper berries are so beautiful here," Lawrence said. "I just love the color of them. They glow in the dark. At night, your headlights catch them and they reflect. Like the waxy, glaucous kind of surface they have with the red rocks. It just gets me."

In the expanding universe of gins, Suncliffe occupies a distinct nook — one that has resonated with attentive drinkers for its refinement and aggressively Arizonan terroir. Since 2020, the brand has established a following in Arizona's major cities, and people are thirsty for more.

"When we think of what gin looks like, we think of Bombay, Tanqueray, Hendrick's," Lawrence said. "It's a very cold blue-green vibe. It's somewhere between pirates and Mad Men. We wanted to create something that felt modern, inclusive, and warm."

Pathway to a Prized Spot at Valley Bars

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This Rough Rider punch draws on Suncliffe's "super cool dryness."
Rough Rider

You may have noticed a Suncliffe Gin bottle with its simple design and rust-red label perched on a prime bar shelf. Many progressive mixologists in town experiment with the spirit, and many watering holes known for their liquid intelligence are using the brand. Though the consensus seems to be that the liquor is one-of-a-kind, opinions about Suncliffe's place in the gin universe vary.

"Suncliffe Gin is very loud in its aromatics and flavors," said Michelle Jacob, general manager at Gertrude's Restaurant in Desert Botanical Garden, where all cocktails feature at least one Arizona ingredient.

"You have the London Dry [style], which tastes like a Christmas tree, and the American wet that's more soft and muted, like [Oregon-based brand] Aviation, which appeals to a softer palate," she said. "Suncliffe has a spice to it that almost lends toward a Scotch inasmuch as you pick up the botanicals."

Jacob notes that the vapor-infusion method Suncliffe uses to create its spirit results in less of a metallic flavor, which she believes is imparted to some gins that macerate their botanicals in the neutral base more conventionally.

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The Painted Sky, a juicy liqueur-boosted Suncliffe cocktail at Highball.
Kyle Ledeboer / KPLStudios

In downtown Phoenix, Suncliffe is a staple at good-drinking spots such as Sauvage; Sottise; Little Rituals; So Far, So Good; and Rough Rider, where bar manager Alex Montoya uses Suncliffe for a tropical punch. "Suncliffe has a super cool dryness to it and a soft juniper presence," they said. "It's cool to see it popping up at a lot of bars. If you have a passion for local makers, it's something you know about."

At Highball Cocktail Bar, Libby Lingua and Mitch Lyons use Suncliffe in an exceptional drink called the Painted Sky. It's a juicy, fruity, clean blend of many liqueurs, guava puree, and lemon and grapefruit juices crowned with a purple Lambrusco float.

"What I really enjoy about Suncliffe is that it has a complexity that lends itself to berries more," Lyons said. He believes Suncliffe belongs "in its own category of gin" — not too juniper-heavy like a London Dry; not too citrusy like many new-wave products.

"Honestly, it's exciting to see Arizona coming up with its own distillates that can rival the big names," Lyons said. "Suncliffe has a unique flavor that's equally comparable to something of the stature of a Hendrick's or a Bombay."

In Phoenix's Melrose District, Valentine's Blaise Faber was among the first Phoenix barmen to taste Suncliffe — and he uses it widely in both the restaurant and the connected Bar 1912.

"There are some excellent American-style gins that push the boundaries," Faber said. "Suncliffe is somewhere between the two, but closer to a London Dry palate. It has a lot more juniper and a lot more pine." The Valentine house gin is a blend of three Arizona gins, including Suncliffe.

Faber believes that the American spirits scene has evolved and become more free-form. Gins such as Suncliffe reflect the evolution. Now, craft spirits here are made to be more drinkable, he explained. "We're turning a corner in American spirits where we can be more adventurous and bold."

'A Lot of It Is Scouting'

On the fall morning in Sedona, the first official day of the 2022 harvest, Lawrence and Giddings climbed into their white Jeep with a Suncliffe-branded spare tire on the back and took off for another favorite juniper spot. They turned through neighborhoods southeast of town. Outside a house, Lawrence jammed the brakes. Giddings popped out to inspect a juniper tree in the front yard.

"This one has dropped everything," Lawrence called out from the driver's seat. "All the juniper fell on the floor," Giddings said. He took a berry and sank his teeth into it. "These are super brown and dry."

Giddings didn't intend to harvest from the tree. He and Lawrence considered it as part of their general scouting. They've realized that the juniper trees in the area are on differing multiyear cycles, so it's important to observe, to keep tabs on natural rhythms.

Driving away from the house, headed toward what they hoped to be a lush juniper spot based on recent observations, Giddings explained further. "This is a true reflection of a day in the life of us foraging," he said. "A lot of it is scouting. Last year, we were foraging in October, but we were also foraging in February."

The pair also spoke about how proud they are to be an LGBTQ- and woman-owned business, one with a product that promotes unity and inclusiveness." "We're very transparent," Lawrence said. "We love openness. We love bringing people together no matter what."

As the road turned and ramped downhill, the two men also noted that profits from online sales, including their cocktail kits, benefit the Navajo Water Project, an ambitious effort to expand the water grid to more Navajo Nation families.

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Lawrence "milking" a juniper tree for berries.
Chris Malloy

Soon, the houses are gone. The white Jeep swings into a dirt lot below a mountainous ridge needled with conifers and low cactus. The vehicle comes to a stop with a small plume of red dust. Lawrence and Giddings get out, toting baskets, and follow a trail through a grove of amply spaced trees. The sun falls. Birds chirp.

Lawrence leaves the trail, stepping over toppled cactus, for a juniper. The berries look nearly ripe, but the foragers aren't so sure. Hands gloved, Lawrence grabs a branch and cradles a woven basket underneath it.

"Generally, you kind of want to squeeze it, and they fall off," he says of the plant and its seed cones. "In a weird way, it's kind of like milking." But so far the berries aren't falling. "When they're ripe, they go darker in color," Giddings says.

"There's a ripe one," Lawrence says. "These are some green ones."

Giddings reaches for a branch. A bracelet of dry juniper berries slides along his wrist. He picks a tiny berry and bites in, gauging for ripeness and whether this tree's berries have the qualities needed to give a Suncliffe batch the soul of northern Arizona. He nods, approving. "Yup, you taste the gin."

Find Suncliffe Gin at bars around the Valley, or at suncliffegin.com.

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