By Dave Brookes
There’s a beautiful thing happening here in South Australia. An exciting change is under way where a vibrant bunch of, if you’ll excuse the pun, kindred spirits, manning small-batch distilleries, provide some of the purest, most-delicious nectars in the country using the finest of botanicals.
Of course, South Australia has a long history in the spirit game, with various distilleries such as Seppeltsfield popping up in the late 1800s to service the booming fortified wine market. But this is a zeitgeist. I’m half-expecting to start seeing South Australia – The Distilling State number-plates on cars in Adelaide, such is the influx of new facilities and products available.
South Australian whiskey is one such beverage that has been kicking major goals recently.
The McLaren Vale Distillery
McLaren Vale now boasts the recently commissioned McLaren Vale Distillery. Founded by John Rochfort, former CEO of Tasmania’s Lark Distillery, and his family, together with business partner Jock Harvey, who also owns Chalk Hill Wines in the ‘Vale’.
The McLaren Vale Distillery will age its single malt whiskies in local ex-wine barrels, with each release also accompanied by a bottle of the liquid that was originally housed in the barrel.
It’s something several Scottish distilleries do with old barrels from some of the most famous wines in the world. Edradour, Glendronach, Arran, Bowmore and McCallum spring to mind but this will have a more local flavour. Think old famous Grange Hermitage barrels and you are on the right track.
Tin Shed Distilling Company
The Tin Shed Distilling Company sprung from the ashes of the ill-fated Southern Coast Distilling venture and owner Ian Schmidt, certainly seems to be on to a winner with the first release of his whiskey Iniquity selling out within six hours of release.
World renowned whisky critic, Jim Murray rated Tin Shed Distilling Co’s first release of Iniquity, as ‘liquid gold’ with a score of 94 points. Describing it as a ‘gorgeous experience’ and propelling the fledgling brand into the upper echelons of the world’s finest spirits.
In somewhat of a coup, South Australia will also play host to the World Whiskies & Spirits Conference to be held at the Adelaide Convention Centre in August 2017. The three-day event will bring together producers and experts from across the globe to debate and discuss the hot topics related to the distillation of spirits. Some of the big names in the spirit world will be on hand to advise the locals and educate the public on all that the delicious genre has to offer.
I think, it is also fair to say, that gin is the hottest thing around right now, and South Australia now lays claim to the largest number of boutique gin brands in Australia.
Kangaroo Island Spirits
The pioneer of the South Australian gin movement is Jon Lark of Kangaroo Island Spirits, which was founded in 2007. You’ll probably recognise that last name. Jon’s older brother Bill Lark is now widely acknowledged as the godfather of Tasmania’s celebrated artisan whisky industry.
Jon’s wife Sarah quips “the conversation was pretty funny between Jon and his brother when he told him that after spending our honeymoon on Kangaroo Island, we were moving there to start a boutique gin distillery, you can imagine what it was like”.
“We were drawn here by the purity and beauty of the landscape, that and it’s pretty much the perfect place to drink gin” Sarah jokes. “We now grow a lot of our own botanicals including mint and juniper, have a local South Australian supplier for coriander, use locally grown citrus and make use of indigenous botanicals such as wild fennel, coastal daisy bush Olearia axillaris and Boobialla – Myoporum insulare, a berry native to KI, known as wild juniper for our gins”.
Sarah continues: “There really is a gin renaissance taking place in South Australia. We were recently involved with Tasting Australia manning a stand called SA – The Gin State, along with five other boutique gin producers – The Antipodes Gin Co, Prohibition Gin Co, Encounter Coast Spirits, 78 Degrees and Ounce Gin. The crowds at the stand were three-deep for the entire week, people just can’t get enough of the small-batch gins and our award-winning Wild Gin and Old Tom Aged Gin were massive hits”.
78 Degrees Gin
The Adelaide Hills Distillery was founded in 2014 by local winemaker Sacha La Forgia, and their 78 Degrees Gin, a London Dry style gin sourced using many native Australian ingredients has quickly won acclaim, recently picking up a gold medal at the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Also producing a spiced white rum carefully distilled from sugar cane and molasses, as well as an Italian-styled, small batch bitter orange aperitif that is just perfect for negronis. It is the 78 Degrees Gin that steals the show though, complex and savoury infused with 12 botanicals. It is pungently aromatic and displays resinous, citrus and floral notes with underlying spice that makes for a mean ‘G&T’.
Another gin produced and bottled in South Australia is Ounce Gin by Imperial Measures at Applewood Distillery from a union of carefully selected botanicals highlighted by orange, vanilla and cardamom added to a traditional base of juniper and coriander to yield a characterful dry gin.
As with many of the new boutique gin offerings, the people behind the venture, Chris Jones, David Danby and Ty Swan, in their words are “friends, colleagues and really just a bunch of old soaks who have spent the better part of their lives either behind, in front or on top of bars”.
There does seem to be a recurring theme with these small spirits producers and new brands. A lot of the people behind the spirits are ex-bartenders, winemakers or restaurateurs. People who, in their previous work capacities have seen a lot of the world’s best spirits and who in turn, enjoy the fruits of their labour.
One of the funkiest packaged gins around and delicious to boot, is Prohibition Gin, with its bottles’ sharp lines and a photograph of some guilty looking bootleggers adorning the label.
Their mission, much like the bootleggers of the 1920s is to bring the people what they want and gin was the liquor of choice for the clandestine spirit makers of the time. Almost 100 years later, the Prohibition Liquor Co was formed to echo their small-batch craftsmanship without the risk of jail time.
It is quite a heady gin, not the fresh citrus blast of many others, more broody and complex built around wormwood, the base for absinthe, with higher-toned citrus elements of blood orange and ruby red grapefruit added into the mix. Juniper, coriander and ginger root add to the chorus along with native lemon myrtle, green tea and lavender. In the glass it finishes complex and peppery with a slight citrus twist.
Antipodes Gin is another fledgling spirit from Adelaide-based photographer, Shane Reid, and Melbourne-based food industry professional, Rory Gration. Australia’s first certified organic gin is a beautifully clean and long spirit which is triple distilled with native and traditional botanicals. It is just perfect for a dry martini with a smooth deep palate resonant with pepperberry, juniper and citrus notes and a lovely bright clean finish.
One of the more interesting projects is the Applewood Distillery, located in an old apple store in Gumeracha in the Adelaide Hills. Applewood is the brainchild of Brendon and Laura Carter, the energetic duo also behind the wonderful Unico Zelo wines. Their Applewood core gin and salt and sake gin are my current weapons of choice in the liquor cabinet.
Brendon says “funnily enough I was into distillation before I got into wine. I come from Queensland, we don’t have much of a wine culture up there and my intention was always to get into spirits. Moving to South Australia, we started making wine and imported our still in 2012. Now the distillery is a perfect way to keep the business ticking over all year once the grape harvest is over”.
Applewood has become somewhat of a catalyst for many of the recent gin brands that have popped up in the marketplace in the last year. “Once we had our own gin production off the ground we opened the still up to contract manufacture. The idea was to create an influx of cool, new gin brands, not just from us as we can only really have one brand but actually open it up to people who didn’t have the expertise or couldn’t afford the quarter of a million dollars to set up a distillery”.
“Unico Zelo our wine brand basically bankrolled the idea so we could get this idea running and the contract still concept allows new small gin brands to hit the market with the funds for marketing to establish South Australian gin as a legitimate thing. We needed a catalyst to open up the boutique spirits industry in SA and now we have it and the whole paradigm has shifted”.
Brendon continues “We make our own range of small-batch gins and spirits including a whiskey which we are very excited about. We also distill Ounce Gin, Prohibition Gin and Brocken Spectre from Tasmania”.
“We also work with a number of smaller clients such as farmers. They get their produce such as cherries knocked back by the big supermarkets for being too small or whatever which I find unacceptable. We can use that fruit to produce liqueurs, it’s like an insurance policy for the farmers where we can guarantee that 100% of their crop will be sold.”
Barossa Distilling Company
The newest kid on the block is the Barossa Distilling Company, whose smartly packaged Generations Gin is due for release mid-July. The brainchild of some battle-weary Barossa Valley winemakers it utilises traditional juniper, South Australia citrus and toasted French Oak delivers hints of vanilla, a generosity and robust mid palate weight.
Whether you are a gin aficionado, whiskey sipper or your tastes lie with the more exotic spirits, there has never been a more exciting time to be a spirits drinker in South Australia. The groundswell has started and the boutique spirits movement is going ahead in leaps and bounds.
Whispered rumours of a new gin, or whiskey; ideas hatched at a bar perhaps or maybe something more serious are constantly being circulated. It is a scene that crackles with energy and is alive with innovation and camaraderie.
The big future lies with our native botanicals and much experimentation is going on behind the scenes; something uniquely Australian, something that simply cannot be replicated overseas and provides a point of difference in export markets. The future of small-batch distillation in South Australia is looking very bright indeed.
You’ll find the producers listed above in the better wine/liquor stores around the city and of course in many of the venues in Adelaide’s vibrant bar scene. Try the Salopian Inn in McLaren Vale or Hains and Co or The Howling Owl in the city; all specialise in boutique gins and spirits. Now we just need a boutique tonic water producer.