He left a developed business in Sydney and returned to his homeland and the village of Jovac near Kraljevo

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Marko Srdanov was born in Belgrade where he spent a part of his childhood before moving with his parents, at 8 years of age, to Sydney, Australia.

He grew up in Australia, finishing his schooling and later got into private business. Every few years he would come to visit Serbia and in particular enjoyed visiting his grandparents house in Jovac village near the town of Kraljevo.
In Sydney, where he lived, at just 24 years of age he bought his first business and started working in the Australian music industry. The business was involved in studio work, copyright and distribution as well as other aspects of the music business.
 
                                                   Return to Serbia
The theme of this story is Marko’s decision to say goodbye to the music industry and fast life in the Australian metropolis and move his life to Serbia, the country from which he came. However, he did not return to his native Belgrade, but to Kraljevo and Jovac village to revive the heritage of his grandfather. He returned to the land his family had been working on since 1795, located near the monastery of Žica, where seven Serbian kings were crowned.
The initial trigger that led to his return to Serbia was the birth of his daughter, which significantly changed his view of life. In a discreet conversation he confided to me that he was very sorry that despite running his own business, because of many work obligations, he had only three days off for the birth of his daughter, compared to other people who are home every day at five o’clock and who get special leave for the birth of their children.
Another big factor was his health and the stresses coming from working 12-14 hour days. The final factor that made the move possible is tha he noticed that bit by bit over the years things were getting better in Serbia since the upheavals of the 1990’s.
“Even though many people in Serbia do not see it, I noticed the changes and the possibility to start something in Serbia. The breaking year was 2013 in July, when I came to Serbia with my wife and two-year-old daughter. During that trip for the first time I was thinking to myself this could work. We could make a life here and some seven weeks later we packed our bags and moved to Kraljevo where we are still today” said Srdanov with noticeable pleasure.
Asked about how his decision was accepted by his wife Philadelphia, originally from Fiji, Marko says that he had her full support.
“She loved Serbia and was my main support in making this decision. She likes the smaller environment, the easy pace and the people, the things she misses is her family and food. The variety of food is something I also miss quite a lot” explains Marko with a smile.
He also admitted to me that both were already very exhausted and not so much in love with the metropolis and busy lifestyle of Sydney anymore. In Jovac and Kraljevo they found themselves, and Marko points out that he has the feeling that he has found his place in the world. Believe it or not, this young man first chose agriculture for his venture, initially as an experiment, now it has grown into a more serious, completely new story.
 
“Jovac was always close to my heart when I was younger because of my Grandfather, my fathers father, he was very important to me as a child. Later, on my trips to Serbia in the summer, I always had the need to visit the village even for a short time. I really loved the village as a kid, despite growing up in Belgrade before moving to Australia. Nature has always attracted me. The little dogs, kittens, the space, the scents and smells of the countryside make me feel at home. Somehow, I always missed it despite living in such a great place like Australia and travelling all over the world. For me, the village gives me freedom and inspiration in contrast to the office in the big city where I felt suffocated.The physical work on the estate in Jovac recharges me and gives me great satisfaction. Working on the land made me realize that this was me and that it somehow makes me breathe differently. There was no feeling of transition moving from Sydney to Kraljevo, it’s like I’d been here my whole life. It’s a weird and nice feeling, somewhat difficult to explain”, explains Marko with a lot of joy in his voice.
In Jovac he first started with a pilot project, a blackberry plantation, which led him to the idea of the gin distillery. The idea came from his godfather Dragiša, who, while talking about the constant price variation of blackberries, asked the question „Why not make blackberry brandy?”
That was in September 2016 and from that moment Marko had a complete picture in his head. As he says, everything else is history.
“I had a vision to re-establish centuries-old tradition of distillation, important for my roots and our people. I saw it clear as daylight and although nothing is guaranteed, I knew that is what I had been looking for since arriving here. Nothing was hard for me and I did everything myself and with great pleasure” That was the start of the story of the Hajduk Spirit distillery.

 

It is interesting that Marko planned and researched everything by himself except for a visit at the begginning by a wine expert from a nearby winery who was also experienced in distillation. He tells me the story about her visit to Jovac and how she gave him some invaluable advice about distilling.
“That day she showed me a few things on how to distil Rakija (Serbian fruit brandy) and I am very grateful to her for that. Such an amazing woman! After that everything else I did myself, from researching the equipment, distillation technology, to creating the gin recipe. My idea was to make a gin, a uniquely Serbian gin. I chose to go local with the copper pot still by getting a custom build by Barbut still producers from the town of Prokuplje, they are the best in Serbia with a tradition going back to 1937”
The distillery is housed in an old house that was completely renovated and converted into the Hajduk Distillery.
                                                   Invented the recipe himself
“Gin is called gin because it must have juniper as a main ingredient. After that it you can be add whatever you want. Most traditional style gins also include coriander seed and angelica root. These three things are the basis, but finer gins contain at least six botanicals and more. I chose eight botanicals because less than that the gin would have lacked complexity and more would just have been pointless as the distinction between flavors would be lost. It took over 50 different combinations before the flavor I was looking for came to be. In the case of gin it is very particular in that it has one taste when it is drunk neat and another when it is mixed with tonic or other drinks. That is where the mastery lies, getting the balance right so it tastes great in any combination. I chose to go with a distilled London Dry style, as it is one of the hardest ways to make gin. All the ingredients are placed in the still and distilled together with the result being as good as your recipe and distilling. Nothing can be added except for water to bring it down to drinking strength”
I learn from Marko that other gins out in the market include botanicals from all over the world. He on the other hand wanted to make a gin with botanicals that grow in Serbia.
“In addition to juniper, coriander seed and angelica root as a base, instead of, for example, lemon peel and orange peel, which are used by most, I put in wild bilberry. Included also are gentian root and yarrow which has something specific that marries the flavors” explains Marko omitting two of the ingredients.
To my inquiring look he continues with a smile that the unique taste of Hajduk Spirit London Dry Gin is completed with two secret ingredients, two secret ingredients that will remain just that, secret.
He did however reveal to me that they are botanicals used in Serbian traditional medicine. Recalling his grandmother Budimka, who was constantly treating him with concoctions of herbs and copious amounts of garlic!
His grandmother’s book on healing with herbs, which every house in Serbia used to have, was the inspiration for the recipe of the Hajduk London Dry Gin. He still keeps her copy to this day.
                                                         Why Hajduk Spirit?
“For me, the 18th century freedom fighters known as hajduci (pronounced ‘hai-doo-tsi’) embodied the greatest qualities people should strive for. They were resourceful and brave, competent and strong. Their fierceness and determination was legendary. In a way it is how I see the Serbian people and approach life in general. I particularly admire their resourcefulness and the way they won out against impossible odds”
His explanation led me to see him as a modern day hajduk, who returned from a faraway land to his family estate and bravely began this mission on his own having never stepped into another distillery.
I wondered why he didn’t go out and see what others were doing or ask for advice?
“Everyone has their own idea and vision as I have mine. To go out and get help would have been easier of course however it would have also affected my creative process. Figuring out things for yourself leads to innovation and uniqueness and that is very important to me. Your creation becomes an extension of yourself, to preserve that as much as possible it is best to do things yourself. After your creation comes into existence it is also a great source of pride knowing you did it without a team of people”
Listening with how much enthusiasm Marko is talking about life and work in Serbia, without using the words ‘hard’ or ‘difficult’, I ask him how doing business in Serbia differs to Australia?
“Basically when it comes to bookkeeping and those things, there is no big difference. The administration side is a bit more time consuming here, in fact everything can be done, but it takes longer. Main thing is you get there in the end.
People say that everything is very complicated here, but I don’t see it this way because I’m used to administration. Things are getting more digital in Serbia and that is a good thing, there is a long way to go until things catch up to countries like Australia but it is heading in the right direction. A positive thing many people aren’t aware of are the different subsidies the Serbian government and the European Union have on offer. Some digging around is required to make sense of it all but for those that are persistent there are lots of opportunities”
As our interview comes to a close i ask what are his plans for the Hajduk distillery post product launch on the 21st of December.
“Initial plans are to establish the brand here locally and also in the start of 2019 to enter various spirit beverage competitions around the world. In this way the world can see what a great premium gin from Serbia is like. I am convinced that the gin with wild bilberry and gentian from Serbia, will more than hold its own on the world stage” says Hajduk distillery founder Marko Srdanov, once a businessman in Australia, now an entrepreneur distiller in the Serbian village of Jovac near Kraljevo.
Author: Senka Lučić / Photo: M. Srdanov, private archive/ Translation: Jankica Lučić

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