Meet The Distiller—Holly Klintworth from Bass & Flinders Distillery, VIC
Enjoying a glass of Australian-made gin, whisky, brandy or rum is always a pleasure, but what about the remarkable people behind each bottle? We talk to the Aussie craft distillers that make the magic happen.
Hooking into the Bass Straight and round the bay of Port Phillip, the Mornington Peninsula is a unique landscape that’s known for its excellent wine. But since 2009, Bass and Flinders Distillery has been crafting incredible spirits from its home in Dromona.
We talk to Holly Klintworth—Bass and Flinders’ second-generation head distiller—about her journey to the still and some of the elements that make this distillery so special.
Holly Klintworth from Bass and Flinders Distillery, VIC
We mentioned wine earlier, and for good reason. Holly and her father have always worked closely with the wine industry here—as many on the Mornington do.
From the beginning, Bass and Flinders has set out to make their own base spirit from wine to truly represent the distillery’s location and provenance. As Holly says:
“It’s a very unique thing to actually be producing our own eau de vie from scratch, used across our entire portfolio of gins, brandies and liqueurs, rather than buying in pre-made neutral spirit. We call this process our our ‘Méthode Eau de Vie’ - the art of distilling wine into spirit.”
Doing this isn’t an easy choice and has its challenges, but Holly believes it brings a whole extra level to the premium nature of their spirits: “the grape based eau de vie spirit tends to produce very smooth and round products,” she explains.
It’s a fascinating relationship that Bass and Flinders have developed with the local winery, who has “allocated a couple of plots of vines solely for our use at Bass & Flinders, which means that our Chardonnay wine and our Shiraz wine is sourced from single plots of vines.”
This gives Holly incredible control over the grapes that will eventually go into the every bottle of spirit she makes. It also provides a sense of place knowing that every single parcel of fruit has come from just round the corner.
But let’s step back a moment and learn a bit more about this brilliant, award-winning distiller and how she got into distilling in the first place.
Ladies and gentlemen, Holly Klintworth:
How did you get started in distilling?
I stepped into Bass & Flinders to work with my father in 2016, but prior to that I would help him out here and there with bottling, labelling or lemon zesting and could see how much passion he had for the business.
My background is in business and marketing, not science or chemistry, but since stepping into this role I’ve learned that it’s never too late to pick up a completely new trade.
Even though I didn’t come from a science background, I was lucky enough to be able to learn everything I know from him and was given a lot of scope to create, dream big and further explore my own passion for gin and brandy.
There are many Australian distillers out there with such varied backgrounds, from science and education, through to accounting and law. Many of these distillers produce fantastic spirits, and they add a different lens and modern approach to an ancient craft.
For me it’s a constant journey and learning curve, and I think the most important thing is to have a strong sense of curiosity, a drive to learn, and to always be planning ahead on ways to do things better and more efficiently as your business and distillery grows.
What do you love about being a distiller?
I love the idea of taking something traditional and putting a new spin on it—whether this be by using some of the more obscure yet aromatically alluring native Australian botanicals that have not yet infiltrated our palates for gin, or working with different and non-traditional grape varieties for our brandies.
With brandy, I love that every vintage has its own story and that this is told through the coming together of three traditional crafts; winemaking, barrel-making and distilling—all three of which rely on each other to produce a spirit of balance and finesse.
Gin on the other hand, is where I’m really able to explore and create in small batches, and I find the Australian gin market so exciting at the moment. It’s wonderful to be part of it and to be able to contribute to this gin movement that is happening all around the word now.
What makes Bass and Flinders Distillery special?
Firstly, definitely our location. There’s nowhere else quite like the Mornington Peninsula, where the hinterland meets the ocean, and this location inspired us to do what we do today: drawing on local produce as much as possible as inspiration for our spirits.
We love to collaborate with local producers on the Peninsula wherever possible, such as sourcing cherries and raspberries for our Cerise Gin from Red Hill, Red Hill truffles for our Truffle Gin, and Peninsula Pinot Noir for our Heartbreak Gin, to lower our carbon footprint and also to celebrate the truly incredible fresh produce found all across the Mornington Peninsula.
We also locally forage for botanicals including kelp, samphire and salt bush for our Maritime Gin, and this gin was made as an ode to our surroundings on the Peninsula too.
We are also proudly family owned and operated, with my taking over the running of Bass & Flinders from my father in 2016, as one of few second-generation distilleries in Australia.
Using only grape-based spirit made from fruit sourced from a single vineyard must present a lot of challenges for you. What happens with things like vintage variation? How much can the flavour of grapes from one year to the next effect your final products?
Each year, after we distil the shiraz into our base spirit for our gin, we have to re-assess our gin botanical blend and adjust this according to the base flavours and aromas of our vintage shiraz base spirit—some years the fruit will be more peppery and others it will be richer in forest fruits.
It’s certainly an additional challenge that comes with making your base spirit from scratch using wine, but it’s the path we have chosen to take and one we are very proud of.
When it comes to gin, consumers expect consistency of flavour.
I’m a huge fan of your Maritime Gin, but what is Bass and Flinders’ flagship spirit and what’s your favourite way to enjoy it?
It’s very hard to choose, but I would say our Ochre brandy is our flagship product as this is the product we set out to achieve when Bass & Flinders Distillery was first established. I love sipping on this one neat to really savour its flavour and aroma, being distilled from 100% Chardonnay wine, then aged in ex-cognac barrels for a minimum of five years.
My favourite brandy cocktail of all time is a Vieux Carre: Ochre brandy, sweet vermouth, Bénédictine and Peychaud's bitters.
Maritime Gin really does represent the Mornington Peninsula flavours in a bottle, so this gin and probably also Heartbreak gin would be our two flagship gins.
As a G&T Maritime Gin is fantastic with Mediterranean tonic, garnished with saltbush and lemon. I also love a Maritime Paloma with Pampelle, grapefruit and lime juice, and sugar syrup topped with lime and yuzu soda. Great served with oysters too!
What's something we should know about craft distilling in Australia?
Australia produces some truly incredible spirits. You only have to look at how many international awards we as a local industry are winning. I think this is a testament to both the quality of craft Australian spirits being released to market, as well as the innovation coming out of Australia.
We as an industry are introducing the world to native Australian flavours, and have even created a whole new gin category of wine-infused gins, like our Heartbreak Pinot Noir Gin.
And yet with over 400 distilleries now in existence across the country, we still have a long way to go given total spirits consumed in Australia that are made locally is still less than - about 5%.
At Bass & Flinders we’re also keen to help lead a change in perceptions when it comes to brandy in Australia too.
Whisky has experienced its renaissance in Australia over the years, as has gin.
Unfortunately in the ‘60s brandy had a bit of a fashion crisis in Australia and for some, brandy is still thought of as a drink for the older generations.
We hope to reinvigorate the brandy industry in Australia, which historically has an important place in Australian culture.
Some people think that distilling is a dangerous pastime. Any near-death experiences?
No near death experiences luckily! I have come up against some aggression from some very angry ants before though!
I think the most unique thing I’ve had to do though is help catch native gravel ants as we use their alarm pheromones for our Angry Ant Gin. This involves stomping around on ant hills to draw them out, and they can be very aggressive—they charge as one towards you. Even though they’re tiny they can be intimidating as a great big hoard!
If you get one or two climbing up your boots or on your hands, their pheromones are extremely fragrant. So we also drop an ant into every bottle of Angry Ant Gin. I had the pleasure of being the first to try this out too!