The last few years has seen a flood of small batch spirits hit the market, and a closer look reveals a clear theme. Gin is definitely in for South Australia’s craft distillers.
“The reason most distillers will generally start with something like gin is it represents really good cash flow,” explains Brendan Carter, who started Applewood Distillery with his wife Laura. “The turnaround time for gin is not very long – it can be as little as a couple of days to create the product.”
Speedy production also means it’s possible to get quick feedback, an essential element of the trial and error process that most distillers use to hone their recipes.
Starting with neutral spirit, a single pass through a still with a range of botanicals is enough to turn it into gin. Along with stalwarts like juniper berry and coriander seed, many local producers add a range of native ingredients to their mixes. Indigenous plants like lemon myrtle, coastal daisy and strawberry gum impart unique Australian flavours and have helped to drive demand for Australian gins internationally.
For Carter, this is one of the joys of his job, which he believes can help to “normalise indigenous botanicals” and make them more familiar to consumers.
As well as a wide range of products released under their name, Applewood distils under contract for other labels including Ounce, Prohibition and Barossa Distilling. Including limited releases, Carter estimates that they’ve released a new gin every fortnight since launching in late 2015, and that pace is set to continue.
It’s a supportive and tight-knit community, and many distillers have developed strong personal relationships. Rather than being worried about the competition, Adelaide Hills Distillery’s Sacha La Forgia welcomes it.
“Compare it to vodka – if you have five or six vodkas they’ll all taste pretty much the same, but if you have five or six gins they’re all a bit different. They’ve all got different botanicals, they’ve all got their own story. These new gins create more excitement and a bigger category for us all to enjoy.”
Sacha La Forgia of Adelaide Hills Distillery working hard at a still (photo: supplied)
78º gin was always just the starting point for Adelaide Hills Distillery, and one of La Forgia’s goals is to release an aged rum. In Australia, dark rum must be barrel-aged for a minimum of two years (the same requirement as whisky or brandy), which means the first batches won’t be ready until mid-2018. Even then, he isn’t sure how they’ll turn out.
“They’re just the first things that we’re doing. If they’re good we’ll release them, if they’re not so good we may find another way of using them or just getting rid of them. We’re still in the trial and error phase.”
In the meantime he’s released The Gunnery, a white spiced rum that utilises local flora like native pepperberry and bush tomato with cane spirit from Queensland.
The Gunnery is Australia’s first white spiced rum (photo: supplied)
At Applewood, the Baby Malt is a prelude to their upcoming releases. While their whisky is slowly maturing and developing flavour, they’ve drawn some of the spirit from the casks and bottled it after just three months. It’s very much a niche release though, and the finished whisky is still years away.
This long wait for return on investment is a heavy burden, especially for young companies. But gin plays an important role for distilleries of all sizes.
Renmark ‘s 23rd Street Distillery recently opened in the former Renmano plant after a $6.6 million dollar upgrade. As well as Black Bottle Brandy, the facility produces a range of craft spirits and one of their first releases was the Signature Gin.
23rd Street Distillery’s recently upgraded premises in Renmark (photo: supplied)
Head Distiller Graham Buller’s challenge is to keep a steady supply of brandy of all ages, including 18 year old spirit for the XO. That means meeting the immediate market requirements as well as trying to put as much new product in barrels as he can.
“If you’re not looking to put down more for the long term then that supply will dry up,” he admits, and that’s where gin comes in. “Any company that says they’re not considering cash flow would be lying. Cash flow is king because if you don’t have the cash coming in then you can’t put the money into development.”
Gin will always be part of the core range, but dark spirits hold a special allure for all three distilleries. One of the vital requirements of white spirits is consistency between batches but as soon as the maturation process starts, that changes completely.
Distillers Hugh Holds and Ronnie Kreher taste brandy from a 23rd Street barrel (photo: supplied)
As they age, each barrel develops unique flavours and one barrel of whisky can taste wildly different to the next. The scope for experimentation and blending is almost unlimited, and each of these distillers has big plans for the future.
Next time you’re enjoying the unique flavour of a gin from one of our blossoming local distillers, take some time to savour it. And remember that you’re supporting the development of a whole range of whisky, rum and brandy to enjoy for years to come.
Header image: Applewood Distillery’s Brendan Carter (photo: supplied)