Nestled among the green hills south of Batroun, in the village of Smar Jbeil, André and Ralph Malak's distillery is a true oasis of peace. Housed inside what used to be a church, saved from demolition, the air inside the distillery’s 500-year-old walls is cool and mineral. This is where the Three Brothers produce their famous Three Brothers Bathtub Gin.
"This place is perfect for inspiration. Its history is unique and so is ours," said Ralph Malak. Ralph and André first channeled crafted their concoction of gin alongside their younger brother, Alain. With a passion for spirits, the Malak siblings opened their first bar, The Rabbit Hole, in 2009. It quickly became one of the must-visit bars of Beirut's Hamra district.
The Three Brothers soon set up new venues across the city, including Li Beirut, Chaplin and The Jerry Thomas Experience.
"We had this dream of bringing something more to Lebanon as bartenders, through our fine knowledge of flavors," said Ralph.
However, this dream took a sad turn when Alain died in 2012. Now working as a duo, Ralph and André have decided to keep the spirit of the brotherly trio alive by continuing their adventure.
"After Alain passed away, we wanted to encapsulate his spirit in a bottle of spirit, right down to the design of the bottle," confided André. In 2018, after three years of trials, The Three Brothers finally released their bathtub gin and it has been rapidly gaining popularity ever since. "Our bathtub gin is American in style and Lebanese in spirit," explained André. This combination is the key to their success. In 2022, the Malak brothers' gin won the prize for best composition at the prestigious World Gin Award competition.
Contemporary bathtub gin
It all started when André and Ralph discovered a juniper tree, thousands of years old, during a trip to the Lebanese mountains. This inspired their adventure. Soon, they learned the art of distillation and began producing their own gin in collaboration with local growers.
"Initially, we set out to produce classic gin. But after a more detailed analysis of what the Lebanese spirits market was receptive to, we quickly moved on to a more unusual product, bathtub gin," they explained. Bathtub gin, an infusion-flavored gin, was developed clandestinely in the United States during the Prohibition era of the 1920s and has since disappeared. "We've set ourselves the goal of reviving this style of gin in Lebanon, both in terms of taste and brand image, using local plants and flavors," said Ralph proudly.
The two entrepreneurs put an initial investment of around $40,000 in the business. "For the first six or seven months, we were producing the gin at Ralph's. There was this amateurish, passionate side to it. We didn't really know where it was all going to lead," André recalled fondly. Every evening, once their shift at the bar was over, the two brothers got together to work on their gin recipe, often into the early hours of the morning. "The first few years, we didn't get much sleep,” they confessed in chorus.
During their initial trials, the brothers enlisted the help of friends and family, which they claimed was “one of the keys to their success." Loyal customers and friends from the sector served as invaluable tasters. "Everyone feels differently and expresses their taste in a very personal way. It was important for us to have access to these opinions," said André. And it worked — the Malak brothers' bathtub gin was soon in high demand among both consumers and specialist retailers.
To meet growing demand, the brothers opened their first distillery in May 2018. They invested a further $250,000 in the company from their personal savings "supplemented by investments from our close circle in the industry, our friends and family," said Ralph.
Gin, wine, arak and, soon, beer
Although the succession of economic, political and health crises of 2019 represented a major challenge for the young Lebanese company, this period also “opened doors for us," said André. "The major spirits brands were no longer able to export their products to Lebanon, and that enabled us to start our business in a very open and receptive national market," he explained. To take advantage of this complex situation, the two entrepreneurs had to react quickly. "We had to adapt and review our market positioning. Our bottles, initially sold at $22 for a niche clientele, have now been marketed at a more affordable price, in order to reach a more diverse public."
Following local success, the distillery started exporting its bottles in 2021. As soon as the restrictive measures of the Covid-19 pandemic came to an end, consumers around the world began to demand a variety of products with unique stories. This was a window of opportunity for The Three Brothers, who in addition to their bathtub gin, now offer a variety of products. These include their dry gin Mother of Eight, their wine Les Trois Maladroits and their mtallat arak and liqueur Ash to Ash. Additionally, their Brothers Brew beer is soon to join the lineup.
The company has increased its productions "by around 80 percent" since the pandemic, said André. It produces some "400,000 bottles a year for both the local market and for export." However, the majority of the company’s turnover comes from exports, with a solid presence in more than 16 countries, including France, the United States, Nigeria, Turkey, Jordan, Hong Kong and Trinidad and Tobago. While the Malak brothers proudly share the success of The Three Brothers around the world, they said "no land other than Lebanon has the diversity of botanical plants that we use for our creations."
This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour.