Viewpoints from Aussie Cuisine

  • ‘Australia is experiencing a gin boom led by small distilleries intent on creating a flavour profile distinct of their region and backed by drinkers open to exploring local spirits made with indigenous ingredients.’, points out the author.

  • This isn’t the first time Australia has experienced a gin craze. The juniper-flavoured spirit was all the rage in the young colony of New South Wales in the 1820s, imported from England and Holland in enormous quantities.

  • “I think the beauty of gin, and why gin is in such a resurgent position worldwide, is that it can taste so clearly of where it’s from,” says Four Pillars’ Gregor. “It expresses a sense of place better than any other white spirit”.

  • Already in the 1820s ex-convict Japhet White established the first distillery outside Sydney, at Bathurst. At that time he settled on saltbush as the hero flavour. Clearly the “gin craze” was a long time coming and is not just a currently trendy phase.

 By Max Allan

Australia is experiencing a gin boom led by small distilleries intent on creating a flavour profile distinct of their region and backed by drinkers open to exploring local spirits made with indigenous ingredients. Green ant gin, anyone?

“My goal is to create jobs for Aboriginal people,” says Daniel Motlop, fixing me with a stare. “I want to help Aboriginal people stay on their land and work, and to put money back into community.”

It’s not the kind of thing you expect to hear at the launch of a new craft spirit. But Something Wild Beverages’ Australian Green Ant Gin is not exactly your usual new craft spirit.

Motlop is a Larrakia man from the Northern Territory. A former AFL star from a famous footy family, he is also general manager of Something Wild, an Adelaide-based, Indigenous-owned food supplier. Motlop rose to foodie prominence a couple of years ago when he and business partner Richard Gunner took international superstar chef Rene Redzepi to the Top End and introduced him to magpie goose, edible green ants and other native ingredients that in 2016 featured prominently at Redzepi’s Noma pop-up restaurant in Sydney.

“Traditionally, we’d take the ants off the tree and just pop ’em in our mouth, or mash ’em up and make a tea out of them,” Motlop says. “But then we started showing them to chefs and the guys in the distillery and they’ve come up with a whole new way of using them.”

The gin is made in collaboration with the Adelaide Hills Distillery. The ants – gulguk in Larrakia language – are harvested by Motlop and his community, on country in the NT and sent down to South Australia.

I take a sip of the crystal clear liquid and – whack! – the formic acid from the green ant pops in the middle of my tongue like lime Wizz Fizz. Then the flavours from a bunch of other native botanicals in the gin kick in: the herbal sweetness of native juniper, the citrus twist of finger lime, the spice of mountain pepper berry.

It’s about as far removed from a classic London dry gin – Gordon’s, say, or Tanqueray – as it’s possible to imagine. And, believe it or not, it’s not the only Australian craft gin out there on the market featuring ants. Another Adelaide Hills distillery, Applewood, also released a green ant gin earlier this year. And Bass & Flinders Distillery on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula has been making a gin featuring ants sourced from Wooleen Station in Western Australia since 2015.

Craft spirits boom

In some ways it’s no surprise that all of a sudden there should be three Australian ant gins on the market. We are in the middle of a craft spirits boom in this country. The boom has been building steadily since the end of the last decade, but it has grown exponentially over the past couple of years. And gins are leading the charge.

“We had about 30 members in 2014 and now we have 106,” says Stuart Gregor, president of the Australian Distillers Association and co-founder of Four Pillars Gin, in Victoria’s Yarra Valley. “And at least 70 of those make gin.”

Gregor says that the super-premium gin category grew by 39 per cent last year, with sales of the four leading local craft brands, Four Pillars, The West Winds Gin from WA, Melbourne Gin Company from Victoria and Archie Rose from NSW, growing between 50 and 150 per cent. Which sounds impressive, but it’s off a very low base.

“Bear in mind that most of the new local distillers are really, really small, making gin for their local market, or to be sold through cellar door,” Gregor says. “The biggest gin brands are the internationals: Gordon’s, Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray. We [Four Pillars] are the biggest Australian craft brand and we almost doubled production in 2016 – but we’re still only 1.89 per cent of all gin sales in Australia. There’s still a lot of people drinking Gordon’s out there.”

Botanicals in cocktails

When Sebastian Costello opened Bad Frankie, a small inner-city Melbourne bar specialising in local spirits in mid- 2014, he managed to track down all 20 of the Australian gins then available. Now, less than three years later, he has 108 gins crowding the shelves behind the bar (almost certainly more by the time you read this), plus a further 250 locally made whiskies, brandies, rums, vodkas and liqueurs.

“Customers are increasingly interested in finding out more about which indigenous ingredients are in each of the spirits,” says Costello, preparing for a booked-out masterclass on native botanicals in cocktails. “It’s a pretty exciting time to be a gin lover.”

This isn’t the first time Australia has experienced a gin craze. The juniper-flavoured spirit was all the rage in the young colony of New South Wales in the 1820s, imported from England and Holland in enormous quantities. And large, long-forgotten distilleries such as Milne’s in Adelaide were renowned for the quality of their award-winning gin in the late 19th and early 20th century.

What makes this current boom different, though, is the use of indigenous ingredients in the distillation process – at least, it is as far as we know. “I have come across old blokes who’ve told me stories about early distillers putting lemon-scented tea tree in their gin,” says Mark Watkins of Mt Uncle Distillery in Walkamin, near Cairns. “And I’m sure that in colonial times, when access to imported juniper or coriander was non-existent, people did probably experiment with whatever they had to hand in the bush, out of necessity. But there’s not a lot of documentation about it. Most of it’s hearsay. So I think it’s safe to say that what we’re doing now with indigenous ingredients is a pretty modern phenomenon.”

Watkins was one of the first to release a gin featuring almost solely native ingredients when he launched Botanic Australis seven years ago. At the time there was almost no competition. Now there are so many other distilleries looking to use Australian botanicals that some of the ingredients, such as strawberry gum, are in scarce supply. “In the 1990s every yuppie wanted a new vodka brand,” says Watkins. “Now every hipster wants a gin brand.”

Global renaissance

It’s not a trend unique to Australia. Gin is enjoying a global renaissance, and new wave distillers around the world are looking to their immediate surroundings for inspiration. Which is why you’ll find meadowsweet, sea buckthorn and birch leaves used to make the Napue gin from Kyrö distillery in Finland, for example, or seashore-gathered sugar kelp for the Isle of Harris gin from the Outer Hebrides.

“I think the beauty of gin, and why gin is in such a resurgent position worldwide, is that it can taste so clearly of where it’s from,” says Four Pillars’ Gregor. “It expresses a sense of place better than any other white spirit.”

When William McHenry started making gin at his eponymous Tasmanian distillery in 2011, he initially chose to use five of the botanicals associated with the classic London dry style: juniper, cardamom, coriander, star anise and orange peel. “But when I started looking seriously at the export market for our gin, I realised that using Australian botanicals makes more sense,” he says. “If someone in London or New York drinks an Australian gin, they want it to taste unmistakably of where it comes from. At the same time, I had a request from Parliament House in Canberra to create a gin they could sell in their gift shop – and one the pollies could drink – that featured a native botanical from every state and territory.”

The result, fittingly called Federation Gin, uses Kakadu plum (NT), lemon myrtle (Qld), strawberry gum (NSW), mountain pepper leaf (ACT), cinnamon myrtle (Vic), celery top pine (Tas), wattleseed (SA), and quandong (WA).

Tough export market

The export market that McHenry mentions is more a hopeful dream than a reality at this stage. Despite Australian gins regularly winning medals and trophies at international shows, trying to muscle up to the countless local brands in gin-producing and gin-drinking nations such as Britain and the US is extremely tough. “We do sell a little bit into LA and London, but we’re still about 85 to 90 per cent domestic,” says Gregor. “If you look at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition or the Global Spirits Masters in London, Australia is often the best performing non-traditional gin country. We’re quickly developing a reputation for quality. But overseas markets are ultra-competitive. There’s about 2000 craft distilleries in the US, with over half of them making gin. And selling Aussie gin to the Poms is like selling ice to Eskimos.”

As a result, most of Australia’s craft gins stay in Australia, crowding the shelves in independent bottle shops and bars. Which has inspired a growing number of distillers to focus on one or two unusual native botanicals – often grown locally – to help their gin stand out from the throng.

When Ian Glen of Stone Pine Distillery in Bathurst, for example, started to develop a new gin 12 months ago as a tribute to ex-convict Japhet White (who established the first distillery outside Sydney, at Bathurst, in the 1820s), he settled on saltbush as that hero flavour. “People tend to think of saltbush as a pasture crop,” says Glen. “But when I infused it I found it gave the spirit some really interesting flavours. I was expecting a savoury, grassy note but I was surprised to find blackcurrant aromas, too. The beauty of it is that it occurs naturally around here so I can grow some myself.”

And this month, Mark Watkins of Mt Uncle Distillery in Queensland is launching a gin called Bushfire that takes the idea of evoking a sense of place to another level. “The concept came about after a bush fire swept through a couple of years ago,” he says. “There’s a native lemongrass that we harvest from the hills behind us. As I was walking through the bush after the fire, I could smell the smoke mingling with the scent of the lemongrass that had sprouted back. So we’ve literally smoked some of the botanicals before distillation to try and evoke that experience.”

Indigenous community link

For some Australian distillers, the use of native botanicals is not only a way of producing a drink with a unique local flavour, but also a way of engaging with Indigenous people and culture. Jon and Sarah Lark run Kangaroo Island Spirits in South Australia, and use two local indigenous plants – Myoporum insulare, or native juniper, and Olearia axillaris, coastal daisy bush or wild rosemary – as botanicals in their gin.

The couple met when they were working in remote Aboriginal communities in the 1980s. They would go into the desert with the local people and learn about the bush foods they were collecting. Three decades later, Jon is taking inspiration from this connection to country for his next distillation. “We have a family relationship with the community at Tjuntjuntjara, in the Great Victoria Desert,” he says. “There’s a lovely native lemongrass in that region that I think will work beautifully in gin. So this year we’ll be talking to the ladies we know out there to see if they can get some of it for us.”

One of the newest gins to hit the market is Brookie’s, made by Pam and Martin Brook and family at their Cape Byron Distillery in the Northern Rivers of NSW. Through a shared interest in native foods (the Brook farm is known for macadamia products), the family became friends with Indigenous chef Clayton Donovan, presenter of ABC TV’s Wild Kitchen. During one visit to the farm in the late 2000s, Donovan went for a walk with Martin and his son Eddie out into the 12-hectare rainforest that the Brooks have on the property.

“I said to them: did you know you can eat that plant – and that one?” says Donovan. “I gave them some insight into what I’d been taught, growing up around Nambucca Heads, walking through the bush with my aunties. I told them: it’s not just a forest you’ve got here, it’s a supermarket.”

So when the Brooks decided to set up a distillery to make their own gin, it made sense to head back to that forest supermarket to source ingredients. “We use 26 botanicals in our gin,” says Eddie Brook. “Eighteen of them are native to the Northern Rivers – and most of those we forage from the rainforest on our farm. We’ve been lucky to work with [Scottish master distiller] Jim McEwan on this project; he told us that he tasted flavours in those botanicals that he’s never come across in 52 years in the industry.”

Taste of the bush

Clayton Donovan also incorporates native ingredients into his own range of drinks called Wild Cider: quandong in the pear cider, finger lime in the apple cider. “I think it’s great for Australia that there’s so much interest in native ingredients now,” he says. “Our identity is these flavours that we have in the bush.”

For Adelaide Hills Distillery’s Sacha La Forgia and Toby Kline, developing the green ant gin with Something Wild has been educational. “We were thinking about putting ants in one of our own gins last year, so we approached Daniel [Motlop] and Richard [Gunner] to supply us,” says Kline. “Then Richard asked me some simple questions: ‘Are you doing the right thing? Are you sure that by using that traditional food, you aren’t taking advantage of culture? Are you contributing to the sustainability of that industry?’ It was a real eye-opener for us.”

So a new company was formed, Something Wild Beverages, ensuring that control of the product, and profits from it, went back to the Aboriginal community from where the hero ingredients – the ants – were harvested. “And that’s what it’s about,” says Motlop. “A lot of people are selling Aboriginal ingredients and Aboriginal culture, but are they giving anything back? It’s native Australian food. We think Aboriginal people should be reaping the rewards.”

Reference:

Allan, M. (27 June 2017). Australian gin brands: more than 100 and rising fast. Financial review. Retrieved from http://www.afr.com/brand/afr-magazine/indigenous-gin-leads-craft-spirit-boom-in-australia-20170511-gw2bec#ixzz4pEV9zlOm

Image:

How we make gin. (n.d.). Manly Spirits Company. Retrieved from https://manlyspirits.com.au/gin