Australia's appetite for gin is nothing short of insatiable right now. We've got bars, festivals and sold-out master classes all dedicated to mother's ruin, not to mention an explosion of local craft gin producers over the last few years. We're a long way from Tanqueray and tonic these days, but with all this excitement, it's worth taking a step back and asking the fundamental question: What is gin?
At its most basic, gin is an un-aged spirit flavoured with juniper berries. Most gins are also infused with other plant materials such as flowers, fruits, herbs and spices collectively known as "botanicals". And while spirits have been flavoured with all sorts of stuff since the day they were invented, the popularity of gin in particular is the result of some fantastic and random twists of history.
How to make an Australian gin and tonic
With native finger lime, gin distilled from Australian botanicals and tonic water made in Sydney, this G&T is truly local.
Juniper seeds are better known as berries. Photo: Never Never Distilling Co.
Adventures in juniper
Juniper is a coniferous (needles instead of leaves) shrub from the cypress family that grows in many areas of the northern hemisphere. Its seeds, often called berries, have a bright, piney and resinous smell and taste. They have been used as medicine and flavouring for food and drink for millennia.
Spirits infused with juniper were popular in north-west Europe throughout the Middle Ages due to the plant's supposed medicinal properties. In the 1600s, when the English and Dutch fought side-by-side in the Thirty Years War, the English troops would see the Dutch have a shot of their juniper spirit (called genever) before going into battle, hence the term "Dutch courage". When the Dutch prince William became king of England to cement the alliance, juniper-flavoured spirits became all the rage in London.
Deregulated spirits production meant that gin became the drink of choice for the urban poor in England during the industrial revolution, causing huge public health problems and leading to the moniker "mother's ruin". Eventually, regulatory and technological reforms vastly improved quality and producers no longer needed to add sugar to mask the poor taste, resulting in what we now know as London dry-style gin.
Gin then spread around the British Empire with the Royal Navy. Often served with tonic water to stave off malaria (the bitter quinine in tonic has anti-malarial properties) and a squeeze of lime to help avoid scurvy, the global popularity of the gin and tonic was sealed.
The global popularity of gin was sealed by sea voyages. Photo: Supplied
Mix it up
While the classic gin and tonic is still by far the most popular way to drink gin, consider switching it up with these other gin mixers.
Dry tonic – Many Aussie gins don't have quite the juniper hit of old-world styles, meaning they often can't hold up to the sugar of traditional tonic water. Try lower sugar tonics like the ones made by Fever Tree or Capi to get the most out of your Aussie gin.
Grapefruit juice – Grapefruit and gin, known as a Greyhound, is one of the great forgotten mixed drinks. Less cloying than orange juice, bittersweet grapefruit is perfect with good gin.
Dirty Tonic – An unfiltered tonic from Aussie craft soft drink maker StrangeLove has hints of rosemary and salt that work perfectly with the bolder local gins on the market.
Australian vermouth – Experiment with the new generation of Aussie vermouths like Maidenii, Causes and Cures, and Regal Rogue for your next classic gin cocktail. Negronis and martinis are easy to make at home - just remember to keep your vermouth in the fridge once it's opened.
A martini with Hobart No.4 Gin by Sullivans Cove Distillery. Photo: Supplied
Ever since Hendricks threw a cucumber in their G&T, folks have gone a little crazy on the garnish game. A squeeze of lime might still be your best bet, but there's no reason not to play around.
Other citrus: Some gins will go great with orange, lemon, grapefruit or the amazing little cumquat.
Fresh herbs: Rosemary, thyme, mint and even parsley can all work as gin garnishes.
Beyond olives: Try pickled onions, carrots, or cornichons in your next martini. Most things pickled in brine (not oil) will do nicely.
Fruits and berries: A slice of apple or a handful of blueberries can be a wonderful garnish - plus you can eat them once they're soaked in booze.
Nothing at all: Sipping your gin on the rocks with no garnish is the best way to appreciate its subtleties.
10 Aussie craft gins to try
These gins from around the country are all doing something a little different and show the amazing versatility and creativity coming out of Australian craft distilleries right now.
Hugely aromatic - Never Never Distilling Co. Triple Juniper Gin. Photo: Supplied
Never Never Distilling Co. Triple Juniper Gin
Never Never is one of the newest brands on the market, and its gins are awesome. Unlike most Aussie gins, which tend to focus on native and esoteric botanicals to stand out from the crowd, Never Never's triple juniper number is all about those piny little seeds that define the spirit. It's big, resinous, hugely aromatic, and makes a brilliant gin and tonic.
Kangaroo Island Spirits O'Gin
Flavoured with Kangaroo Island coastal daisy, coriander seed, angelica root and juniper, O'Gin is a cracking Aussie interpretation of a London dry. With a big hit of flavour and outstanding texture, it goes brilliantly with the salt and rosemary of StrangeLove's Dirty Tonic.
Big and rustic - Hobart No. 4 Single Malt Gin. Photo: Natalie Mendham
Hobart No. 4 by Sullivans Cove Distillery
While most gins use a neutral base to create a light and clean spirit, Hobart No. 4 is made with the same 100 per cent malted barley spirit that Sullivans Cove use to make its award-winning whiskies. The result is a big, rustic and hugely textural gin that works better on the rocks or in an old fashioned than it does in a G&T. Think of it as gin for whisky drinkers.
Archie Rose x Horisumi - Spring is the third release in a series of rare gins in collaboration with Japanese tattoo artist Kian Forreal. Photo: Archie Rose Distilling Co.
Archie Rose x Horisumi Spring Gin
The third in a series of collaborations with Japanese tattoo artist Horisumi Kian Forreal, the gorgeous label would be reason enough to buy this gin from Archie Rose Distillery in Sydney. This release is inspired by spring, with soft floral notes from chrysanthemum, yuzu and shiso leaf. A great gin for lovers of the lighter style, it goes well with soda and a squeeze of citrus.
Bass & Flinders Winter Gin
This gin really pushes the definition, proving that Aussie distillers can basically do what they like. Bass & Flinders use a grape spirit base for their gins, giving them a distinct grappa character. This version is also blended with aged apple spirit and infused with cinnamon and orange for a rich and warming tipple best sipped by the fire, or with a splash of ginger ale.
Flavoured with samphire and sea parsley, this gin is savoury and saline. It makes the best white negroni ever.
One of the original Aussie craft gins, Westwinds was in the game way before it was cool. Inexpensive and hugely versatile, it should be your go-to dry gin.
Rich and complex - Four Pillars Navy Strength Gin. Photo: Supplied
Four Pillars Navy Strength
At more thant 58 per cent ABV, this gin will fill your sails in no time. Infused with finger lime and turmeric, it's richer and more complex than the standard Pillars release.
Created by a bartender and chemist husband and wife team, Artemis is the definition of micro-batch. Made in a tiny still in Melbourne's Collingwood, each bottle is hand-labelled and numbered.
The best places to drink Australian gin around Australia
Melbourne: Bad Frankie's, 141 Greeves Street Fitzroy, 03 9078 3866
Brisbane: Savile Row, 667 Ann Street Fortitude Valley
Hobart: Society Salamanca, 22 Montpelier Retreat, Battery Point, 03 6223 1497
Adelaide: Maybe Mae, 15 Peel Street Adelaide
Perth: Frisk Small Bar, 103 Francis Street Northbridge