Australia never dallied with Prohibition. However, around the middle of the 19th century its governments, seeking to maximise tax revenue, made small-scale distilling illegal.
While a handful of larger local players emerged, foreign giants have long dominated the Australian spirits market.
In 1992, would-be whisky maker Bill Lark launched a legal case that resulted in small distilleries being able to open for business again. Lark and some fellow Tasmanian distillers set about producing what would become some of the best whiskies in the world. Yet nothing much else happened for years afterwards. Until, that is, a handful of entrepreneurial gin lovers all got the same crazy idea at around the same time: why not make an Australian gin?
“The craft distilling boom that took off around the turn of the decade in the US was an inspiration,” says Stuart Gregor, co-founder of Four Pillars and president of the Australian Distillers Association. “Australia has some of the best cocktail bars and restaurants in the world, as well as great food and wine. So it seemed strange that there weren’t any Australian gins.”
Gregor and two partners produced Four Pillars’ first gin in the Yarra Valley, a renowned wine region near Melbourne, Victoria, in 2014. In the same year, Four Pillars won a Double Gold medal for its Rare Dry Gin at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition (SFWSC), a feat they would repeat in 2016. (Double Gold is awarded to a spirit that receives a gold medal from every judge in its class.)
“Gin is undergoing a worldwide renaissance. That Australian distillers such as Four Pillars, The West Winds and Archie Rose are taking out Gold and Double Gold medals in San Francisco is a huge endorsement of our product at a time when more people than ever are making and drinking gin,” Gregor says.
What makes Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin so special? It combines spices such as a cardamom, cinnamon and star anise with Australian oranges, Tasmanian Pepperberry leaf and lemon myrtle, a native Australian plant. “The juniper is still there but it is layered with a blend of modern Australian flavours, Southern European citrus and South East Asian spice,” says Gregor. “All of which makes it an entirely too drinkable gin.”
Following their award success in 2014, Four Pillars received interest from many distributors; it now exports to Britain, China, Denmark, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore and the US.
Archie Rose Distilling Co.
Having attended one of Australia’s most prestigious schools, graduated with a commerce degree from its oldest university and secured a job at Deloitte, Will Edwards was destined for a corporate career. Instead, at age 22 he set up Archie Rose, one of the first distilleries to open in Sydney in 160 years, producing gin, rye and whisky.
“I was an enthusiastic home brewer of beer, rum and rye but I regarded it as a hobby,” Edwards says. “I couldn’t see how I could make it work as a commercial proposition until I visited Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn, New York. It was an urban distillery of the kind I wanted to set up in Sydney. I got home, checked no-one had beaten me to the idea, then quit my job.”
Just one year after launching, Archie Rose’s Signature Dry Gin won a gold medal at the 2016 SFWSC.
Three metres from the distillery is the bar, which took out ‘Best International Bar’ at the 2015 Restaurant & Bar Design Awards. Here, customers can event design a bespoke gin for themselves.
Archie Rose is yet to start exporting but it’s not due to lack of interest. “There have been enquiries from everywhere,” Edwards says. “Initially, I’m going to target those countries with Aussie expats and where the quality of Australian produce is recognised. I’m hoping to have my gin on sale in Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK soon.”
The West Winds Gin
Dreamed up by two Australian bartenders and two of their liquor industry friends, The West Winds Gin is another Australian success story. Its gins – The Sabre, a London dry gin at 40 per cent and the Cutlass, a stronger 50 per cent – took out Gold and Double Gold respectively at the SFWSC a month after they were launched in 2011. The Cutlass won another Double Gold in 2013. West Winds Gin’s most recent offering, a navy strength gin called The Broadside, won gold at the 2015 New York International Spirits Competition.
West Winds’ gins are now distributed in 18 European and Asian countries. South America is the next planned conquest. “We’re just about to launch in what is probably the most important market of all, the US,” says The West Winds Gin co-founder and publican Jeremy Spencer. “That noted, it’s not purely a numbers game for us. My partners and I also like to have a presence where there is a growing cocktail market – places such as Cambodia, Malaysia, South Africa and Colombia.”
The secret to Australia’s success
So how have a bunch of Australians managed to conquer the gin world? Part of the reason is the ingredients they have access to, in particular Australian botanicals.
“We use wattleseed, lime peel and lemon myrtle for our more traditional gin, The Sabre. That gives it both an incredible taste and texture,” says Spencer. “The Cutlass features lemon myrtle, cinnamon myrtle and Australian bush tomato, producing a wonderful savoury flavour. For both gins we use rainwater from clouds that have travelled from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa across an empty ocean to the west coast of Australia. It’s incredibly pure, soft water. Those who don’t like tonic water can happily drink our gins straight.”
Gregor and Edwards are also enthusiastic about adding the best of what the Australian bush has to offer into their gins. “Our gins include Tasmanian Pepperberry and Australian lemon myrtle, along with water that has been filtered through a catchment area that contains 157,000 hectares of old growth forest,” says Gregor. “Other ingredients aren’t native to Australia but are produced here to an exceptional standard. We source organically grown oranges from local suppliers that I believe are the best in the world.” Likewise, Archie Roses’ Signature Dry Gin contains Australian blood limes, Dorrigo Pepperleaf, lemon myrtle and river mint along with other premium ingredients sourced from within Australia.
As important as indigenous botanicals, quality juniper berries and pure water are in giving their gins a distinct and innovative flavour profile, Australian distillers point out that producing an acclaimed gin involves more than using excellent building blocks.
“Australians are competitive people – when we set out to do something, we want to be the best in the world at it. At Four Pillars, the goal is always to make the best gin of its type in the world,” says Gregor. “We only distil in small batches of 460 bottles at a time to ensure we get the best results possible.”
Edwards argues there’s also freedom in not emerging from a gin making culture “Artisan gin distillers elsewhere in the world have their own interesting local ingredients. They have access to the same equipment Australian distillers use. What separates craft distilling in Australia is a willingness to push the boundaries.
Given their glass is overflowing with critical acclaim, Australia’s ginmakers agree the next step in the development of their industry is scaling up. Only then will Australian gins be able to compete with long-established mass market brands such as Beefeater.
“There’s an outdated image of the unsophisticated, beer-swilling Aussie,” says Edwards. “The reality is that Australians are discerning consumers of premium spirits and, increasingly, producers of them.”
Written by Nigel Bowen