Gin and tonic could well be the drink of this year's summer. Influenced in part by the resurgence of microdistilling in Britain and the United States, there has been a boom in the popularity and production of small-batch gins in Australia.
Four Pillars Gin has just been launched by a group in the Yarra Valley, joining The West Winds Gin, commenced in Margaret River, and Melbourne Gin Company, also in the Yarra Valley.
Distilled gin is a neutral base spirit typically distilled from grain mash, which is then distilled again in the presence of juniper berries and other botanicals (plant-derived ingredients) to give a gin its flavour profile. Distillers use a combination of botanicals to give their gins depth and complexity.
While juniper dominates the flavour of traditional London Dry style gins, new-wave distillers are experimenting to produce gins in which juniper is just one of many flavours.
In Australia, explains Gin Palace bartender Shaun Byrne, distillers are turning to native botanicals to give their gins a point of difference.
This is no cynical marketing gimmick. Native botanicals provide flavours and textures that cannot be obtained with traditional botanicals. Native lime, used by Phillip Moore at Distillery Botanica in NSW, lends a refined citrus character similar to Tahitian lime and grapefruit. Lemon myrtle offers a softer, lemonade icypole-like alternative to lemon peel.
The ways botanicals are distilled into gin affect the finished product. Gins produced according to the London Dry method add all the botanicals in a single distillation, but some distillers prefer to distil with individual botanicals, blending the results to create the desired characteristics.
Andrew Marks, of Melbourne Gin Company, employs a winemaker's approach, distilling each botanical individually. ''This allows me to understand the property of each botanical before I blend them together.''
Cameron Mackenzie, distiller at Four Pillars Gin, prefers the single distillation method. ''I realised that for the style of gin we wanted to produce, it was essential for the botanicals to work together and interact during the distillation process.''
Australian producers are also innovating in terms of distribution and niche offerings. To distribute its initial batch, Four Pillars turned to the online crowd-funding site Pozible, wanting to connect with the Australian gin community (and hopefully presell a couple of hundred bottles) during its month-long campaign. All 420 bottles of batch No. 1 were snapped up by 229 people in less than four days. Co-founder Stuart Gregor says the campaign ''shows how much of a desire there is to be part of an artisanal gin and cocktail-loving community''.
Stone Pine Dry Gin, from Bathurst, won a silver medal at the 2013 International Wine & Spirit Competition, and The West Winds Gin took a silver and a double gold medal at the 2013 San Francisco International Spirits Competition.
Distillers like Mackenzie are excited by the growing Australian interest in local gins.
''Australians are becoming a lot more conscious about where all their produce comes from. People want to know where it's from, they want to meet the people behind it, they want to feel a part of it. It's an exciting time for Australian gin.''
Australian gins and their native botanicals
Copperwave Gin (Pokolbin, NSW) hunterdistillery.com.au
● Lemon myrtle, aniseed myrtle
Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin (Yarra Valley, VIC) fourpillarsgin.com.au
● Tasmanian pepperberry leaf, lemon myrtle
Godfather Pepperberry Gin (Hobart, TAS) larkdistillery.com.au
● Tasmanian pepperberry berry
Great Southern Dry Gin (Albany, WA) distillery.com.au
● Bloodroot (meen)
KIS Wild Gin (Kangaroo Island, SA) kispirits.com.au
● Native juniper
Melbourne Gin Company Dry Gin (Yarra Valley, VIC) melbournegincompany.com
● Macadamia, Australian sandalwood, lemon honey myrtle
Moore's Gin (Erina, NSW) distillerybotanica.com
● Illawarra plum, cinnamon myrtle, macadamia, wild lime
Stone Pine Dry Gin (Bathurst, NSW) stonepinedistillery.com.au
● Finger lime, lemon myrtle
The West Winds Gin: The Sabre & The Cutlass (Margaret River, WA) thewestwindsgin.com
● Wattle seed, lemon myrtle, cinnamon myrtle, native bush tomato