Lawyer James Stewart says there’s nothing better than a classic dry gin, with good quality tonic and a hint of citrus. He tells us how his brand, The Splendid Gin, came to be.
There’s nowhere James Stewart is happier than sitting behind the wheel of his ute, with his dog in the back and the cricket on the radio, puttering across his farm in Richmond, Tasmania. The high-profile mergers and acquisitions lawyer spends some of his time in Sydney, where he works as a partner at DLA Piper and sits on the Australian Government’s Takeovers Panel. He spends the rest, however, in the picturesque Coal River region, northeast of Hobart, where he’s building a vineyard and has helped launch a gin label.
The rural lifestyle has come with a steep learning curve. For one thing, Stewart had never driven a tractor until he ordered one and got a five-minute lesson from the delivery guy. But he says he feels like farming has given him a new lease on life.
“I’d always wanted to have some space and be a farmer,” he explains. “I feel like I’m much more efficient in my use of time, and it allows me to spend much more time with my wife and kids than the more traditional structure of working in a big city and commuting to the office.”
Cultivating a vineyard from scratch is no simple feat, especially on rocky Coal River ground, and he tells LSJ he’s been helping the contractors as best he can as they transform the 11-hectare property into a working farm. Of course, offering unskilled labour on a job site essentially means taking on all the jobs that no-one else wants.
“Picking up rocks, I don’t think I could’ve found someone – even if I was paying them – to do that,” he laughs. “There were patches that were really bad. That bucket of rocks in the photo was not even one row of the vineyard. I actually lost a bit of weight and got quite fit there for a while.”
Whenever the plane lands in Tassie, I feel like this weight lifts off my shoulders. Life is less stressful here. Reconnecting here just feels like there was never any disconnection.
Returning to roots
Stewart is a born-and-bred Tasmanian, who began his career as a law graduate in Sydney before moving to Perth and jumping straight into the mining boom. He spotted an opportunity in the market, he says, and quickly gained a lot of experience dealing with international clients who were buying and selling assets around the Asia-Pacific. He made partner in about “five or six” years. But somewhere along the way, he realised he didn’t actually need to be sitting in an office in Perth to effectively support his clients. After detouring to Melbourne for a few years, he and his wife, Karen, decided it was time to go home.
“It was towards the end of that period in Melbourne, when I was about to turn 40, and I had a mid-life epiphany. When am I going to be leading the life I want, instead of always working towards it? I decided to do it now. To the credit of the firms I’ve worked for, they have been incredibly supportive of the concept,” he says. “When I was approached by DLA Piper, it was one of the first things I said: ‘You do realise that I live in Tasmania and I plan to stay?’ They totally embraced it.”
Stewart rents an office from a local law firm in Hobart, and travels as much as he needs to look after his clients. There’s no regularity or routine, and while some deals might require him to be in Sydney three or four days a week for six weeks, he might then enjoy a couple of weeks back in Richmond. He and Karen have two kids, nine-year-old Clare and seven-year-old Will, and he says he’s glad that his kids have the opportunity to have all the experiences that come with growing up regionally. The family is currently building a house on the property, and they hope works will be finished next year.
“Whenever the plane lands in Tassie, I feel like this weight lifts off my shoulders,” he says. “Life is less stressful here. Reconnecting here just feels like there was never any disconnection.”
Along the way, he’s started an innovative gin distillery with a couple of friends, producing a range of refreshing Tasmanian tipples under the label The Splendid Gin. Combined with the farm and the vineyard, he says the company provides him interests outside the law that allow him to fully escape.
The concept came about because two of his former schoolmates – a vineyard owner, with whom he shared a house back in his university days, and a branding expert – developed an idea. When they showed it to Stewart, complete with recipes and samples, he knew immediately it had all the elements it would need to be successful. Their gin is now available everywhere from boutique stores to Dan Murphy’s and BWS.
“My favourite is our classic dry gin,” he says. “But I must admit the Summer Cup – on a hot day – is very nice with lemonade or dry ginger ale. It depends on the taste you’re looking for, but a classic gin and tonic, with good quality tonic and a hint of citrus, is very tasty. There’s nothing better in summer.”
It’s a juggle, of course, with a family, a demanding workload, a farm, a business, and a seemingly endless amount of rocks to collect. However, he admits he wouldn’t have it any other way, and with travel temporarily off the agenda with COVID-19, there’s nothing to stop him enjoying the good life.
“Tasmania’s a very good place to be.”