Forget that adage about never mixing grain and grape. Every time gin meets the fruit of Australian vines, we can't seem to get enough.
When fans of the juniper-forward spirit toast World Gin Day today, their favourite distillate might well be infused with shiraz, pinot noir, grenache, riesling or the latest harvest from any Aussie wine region.
Grape gins, pouring into bars and bottle shops, are the next frontier in the popular flavoured gin category. But unlike the majority of pinked-up, fruit-flavoured imported spirits, grape gins are unmistakably Australian.
For Seb Costello, owner of Melbourne's Bad Frankie, a bar devoted to Australian spirits, grape gins are a logical outcome of the craft movement's obsession with regional flavours – and if you're somewhere like Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Eden Valley or Mornington Peninsula, that means grapes.
"With gin we're on a path of place, always seeking more flavours from the botanicals closest to us," he says.
Also, he adds, grape gins are about the people. "Distillers see these amazing grapes around them and exchange knowledge and passion with the winemakers who know them. Grape gins have emerged from this growing love affair between distillers and winemakers."
That's the magic behind the grape grandmother of them all: Bloody Shiraz, born at Healesville's Four Pillars distillery in 2015 when owner-distiller and former winemaker Cameron Mackenzie steeped 250 kilograms of Yarra Valley shiraz grapes in gin for eight weeks, curious to see what might happen.
The result was an amethyst-hued, naturally sweet but peppery marriage of gin and cool climate shiraz that immediately captivated drinkers.
Every year, Bloody Shiraz sells out. For the seventh vintage, launched on June 1, more than 120,000 bottles are expected to fly off shelves.
Meanwhile, Heartbreak Gin, a new Victorian pinot noir gin from Dromana-based distillery Bass & Flinders, combines the talents of head distiller Holly Klintworth and production manager Dan Calvert, who has a winemaking pedigree and passion for local grapes.
The gin captures the aromas and flavours of Mornington Peninsula's Tuerong Plains pinot noir, interwoven with local violet, strawberries and lavender.
"Pinot noir is what the Mornington Peninsula is known for," says Klintworth. "We wanted to create a gin that truly reflected our region.
"It's a gin for food just as much as cocktails, replacing the need to crack open a whole bottle of wine with dishes you'd traditionally match with pinot noir."
Just like wines, grape gins reflect their terroir. Each release can look and taste slightly different, according to its vintage.
"It's exciting that next year, our vintage will vary," says Klintworth. "The botanicals we choose to highlight different nuances might change too."
That same spirit of experimentation fuelled an alliance between North East Victorian distillery Reed & Co and neighbouring Alpine Valleys winery Billy Button, resulting in Gin & Juice, an exciting expression of King Valley gewurztraminer in a yuzu-infused gin that has sold out for the past three years.
"It's something uniquely North East," says Reed & Co head distiller Hamish Nugent. "The gewurztraminer brings its lovely stone fruit flavours and earthiness to the base of the spirit."
Last year, Gin & Juice redeemed otherwise unusable smoke-tainted North East grapes. And in Murrumbateman, NSW, the new Riesling Gin from Four Winds Vineyard, made with smoke-tainted Canberra District grapes, was the winery's silver lining in a devastating 2020 vintage where the entire crop was lost.
"It was tough when we discovered we couldn't pick a single berry," says owner Sarah Collingwood.
"And then we thought: what else can we do? In such a difficult year, it helped us to have something new and exciting to talk about." Riesling Gin proved so popular it is now a permanent product.
For Sean Baxter, co-owner-of McLaren Vale's Never Never Distilling Co, grenache was the easy choice for a grape gin. "As you come up our beautiful distillery driveway, you're surrounded by grenache vineyards," he says. "It felt essential that we worked with that."
The result was Ginache, made with grenache from those surrounding Chalk Hill vineyards, macerated in Never Never's Triple Juniper Gin.
Elsewhere in South Australia, shiraz features in gins from Barossa Distilling Co, Seppeltsfield Road Distillers and winery Klahn Estate.
The Adelaide Hills has 5Nines Distillery's Grapes of Eden, infused with Eden Valley traminer grapes, and McLaren Vale distillery Two Accents produces a barrel-aged shiraz gin. In Tasmania, Lark Distillery has just launched its debut Forty Spotted Pinot Noir Gin.
While grape gins unite people in vineyards and distilleries, the same is happening in bars, says Seb Costello.
"It's a bridging drink," he says. "Gin lovers are in it for the flavour, and wine lovers will say: although I don't drink gin, I'll give this grape gin a crack because it has my favourite wine variety.'"
Mikey Enright, owner of Sydney's award-winning gin specialist bar The Barber Shop, sees many customers enjoying their grape gins as they would a traditional sloe gin.
"In many ways, grape gins are the Australian iteration, with grapes instead of the native English sloe berries," he says.
"They're tasty and sweet, so people are drinking them simply with tonic water, or neat over ice, as a liqueur or aperitif."
For extra layers of flavour, Enright suggests a grape gin negroni, balanced by dialling down the sweet vermouth.
Five Australian grape gins to try
Reed & Co Spirit Lab Gin & Juice, 500ml, $70
Gewurztraminer delivers a hit of honey blossom, then astringent apricot, citrus and a spirituous long finish in a pale-gold hued gin. Drink it: on the rocks with a wedge of grapefruit.
Bass & Flinders Heartbreak Gin, 700ml, $80
With cherries, strawberries, raspberries and cranberries, plus mushroom and toast 'pinosity', Heartbreak Gin's natural sweetness is balanced with classic juniper. Drink it: with traditional pinot noir food pairings such as duck, lamb and root vegetables.
Never Never Distilling Co Ginache 2021, 500ml, $70
Grenache flavours of fresh-picked raspberry, plum and boysenberry compliment spice and citrus. Drink it: on ice with a splash of tonic or soda, which dilutes the luminous red to a bright hibiscus pink.
Four Winds Vineyard Riesling Gin, 700ml, $85
The light, fresh floral and citrus flavours of Canberra District riesling are balanced beautifully with juniper, citrus and apple in a pretty, light-gold gin. Drink it: with your favourite tonic.
Forty Spotted Pinot Noir Gin, 700ml, $90
This first-release Pinot Noir Gin from Hobart's Lark Distillery has dark berry tannins and plum from full-bodied Tasmanian pinot grapes, while the gin brings citrus, a hint of grapefruit pith, pepper and juniper. Drink it: in a gin sour.