That's the spirit
NIPS IN THE BUD. From left: Bundaberg Solera, Belgrove Rye Whisky, Black Gate Single Malt, Lobo Apple Brandy, and Something Wild Green Ant Gin.
Small-batch craft spirits have captured the imagination of local producers and drinkers alike, writes Max Allen.
When Brian and Genise Hollingworth decided to start distilling rum and whisky in 2009 they were taking a huge risk. For a start, their distillery (well, the handful of barrels and small copper still in the shed) was just outside the tiny town of Mendooran, about five hours' drive from Sydney. There aren't many fans of craft spirit in this part of the world, and even fewer tourists. In fact, the whole concept of craft spirits was still very new in Australia.
"It was a pretty weird thing to be doing", says Brian, pouring a taste of his whisky in Black Gate Distillery's humble cellular door. "There are only a few other craft distillers around, hardly any in NSW. We'd been to see one - Ian Glen at Stone Pine Distillery in Bathurst - and it looked like he was having fun. And he couldn't keep up with demand. So we thought we'd give it a go."
The gamble paid off: since the Hollingworths started Australians have developed a seemingly unquenchable thirst for craft spirits, and Black Gate is now regarded as one of the best in a booming field, even featuring at the Noma pop-up in Sydney last year.
Small distillers have sprung up in Australia since the late '90s when Bill Lark became the first man for a century and half to start making whisky commercially in Tasmania. But in the last two or three years the number of local producers has grown exponentially.
Stuart Gregor is the co-founder of Four Pillars Gin in the Yarra Valley and President of the Australian Distillers Association. "When I took over at the ADA in 2014 we had about 30 members," he says. "Now we have 106. We think our membership might only represent 75 per cent of the producers out there."
This boom in local distilleries is a part of a global craft spirits revival. But its also indicative of growing interest in regional flavours and artisan production. And no spirit captures this better than gin distilled with Australian native botanicals. At last count there were at least 110 local gins in bottle shops and bars (up 20 we reviewed in 2014) featuring botancials such as lemon myrtle, strawberry gum, mountain pepperberry and finger lime, wattleseed and bush tomato. And its not just the local flora that gets a chance to shine: Something Wild's Green Ant Gin features the intense, lime Wizz Fizz flavours of insects, these ones collected by Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.
Two superb apple brandies were released this year (doubling the size of that category overnight): the sweet Charles Oates Single Cask Fine Apple Brandy (reviewed here last month) pays tribute to one of the settlers of Tasmania's Huon Valley, while the Lobo Apple Brandy, rich in spicy oak flavours, celebrates the fruit-growing heritage of the Adelaide Hills.
And you can't get more local than the stunning rye whiskies made by Peter Bignell at Belgrove, in Tasmania's central highlands: as well as growing, malting and peat-smoking his own grain, he builds his own equipment and fuels the distillery with biodiesel made from leftover cooking oil from the local roadhouse.
It's not all small distilleries, though. The clamour for craft has also inspired major players to invest in smarter oak, extended maturation and expensive packaging. Earlier this year, for instance, the Master Distillers' Collection Solera, an aged rum from Queensland's Bundaberg Distillery, took out the gong for Best Dark Rum at the World Drinks Awards in London and picked up a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. It's a rich, complex spirit, with flavours more like an ancient high-class Cognac territory, too, but that didn't prevent the first release selling out instantly (the second release went out sale last month).
And that's one of the most interesting things about this boom: high prices don't appear to be a problem for keen consumers. Back in the shed at Black Gate, Brain draws a sample of whisky from cask number 20 and pours me a dram. As I revel in the sweet, spicy aromas and hints of ginger snap biscuit, he tells me how his Sydney distributor pre-sold his first batch of whisky to her trade customers in just a day - for $200 a bottle.
"People are collecting my whiskies," he says, with slight bemusement. "They want to own something for each cask that we bottle. One bloke's even got a standing order for bottle number 143 from every run. They can't get enough of this stuff."