Is the local gin boom set to bust? The future for Australia's spirits industry

Banks & Solander Distillery owners Martin and Ed Svehla.
Banks & Solander Distillery owners Martin and Ed Svehla. Photo: Wolter Peeters

The explosion of local craft spirits is one of Australia's great success stories of the past five years. 

In 2013 there were 10 domestic gins on the market and now best estimates count more than 700. Australian distilleries are winning prestigious awards around the globe, while spirits festivals draw big crowds in all capital cities.

According to peak body the Australian Distillers Association (ADA), the industry's economic value is worth more than $1 billion a year. However, all 280 domestic distilleries are now suffering from the financial and psychological challenges of the coronavirus crisis and many brands may not survive.

Gin on the pour at Banks & Solander in Botany.
Gin on the pour at Banks & Solander in Botany. Photo: Wolter Peeters

"Craft distilleries rely almost entirely on two of the biggest industries impacted by COVID-19, namely hospitality and tourism, with the latter especially affecting small regional distilleries," says Stuart Gregor, ADA president and co-founder of Four Pillars Gin.

While some distilleries turned to sanitiser production following the federal government's call to help alleviate a national shortage in April, Gregor says cheap sanitiser imports have now flooded the market and many distillers are financially worse off as a result of stepping up during the crisis.

The ADA has asked Canberra for reforms to support the craft spirits industry through coronavirus-led recession. These include a distillery door grant for spirits producers - similar to the cellar door grant currently available to winemakers - and a three-year freeze on spirits excise rate increases.

Simon Carr, director of Brogan's Way Distillery in Richmond, Melbourne.
Simon Carr, director of Brogan's Way Distillery in Richmond, Melbourne. Photo: Simon Schluter

"We don't want to be taxed out of existence," says Gregor. 

"The current annual increases are actually higher than annual inflation. This is the largest single barrier to Australian-made spirits achieving success at home and in the global marketplace." 

According to data from IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, the total volume of locally-produced Australian gin grew by 19.1 per cent last year compared to 2018, while local vodka and whisky increased by 7.4 per cent and 10.4 per cent respectively. 

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Even with more government support, experts predict the spirits industry's rapid growth may lead to the closure of smaller and less capitalised distilleries.

"I wouldn't say the future [of Australian spirits] is 'doom and gloom', but I understand a lot of distilleries are not really profitable because of intense market competition," says Tommy Keeling, IWSR's Asia-Pacific research director.

"Several contacts have told me the Australian market is due for a shake-out, and that was back in January."

Four Pillars co-founder Stuart Gregor (left) and the distillery's creative director of drinks, James Irvine at the new ...
Four Pillars co-founder Stuart Gregor (left) and the distillery's creative director of drinks, James Irvine at the new Four Pillars bar and gin lab in Surry Hills.  Photo: Supplied

Gregor expects people will buy spirits brands they're more familiar with post-COVID.

"If the economy heads south, people are less likely to spend $80 on an unknown gin. They're going to buy something they know they will like, which means small distilleries that have just launched may find the market challenging." 

In the craft spirits industry favour, however, is the fact Australian consumers seem very keen to buy from small, local businesses at the moment, says Gregor. "If people know of a small distillery in their area, it would be great if they could visit and show some support."

Martin Svehla works a gin still at Banks & Solander.
Martin Svehla works a gin still at Banks & Solander. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Local support has been vital for Martin and Ed Svehla's new Sydney distillery, Banks & Solander, surviving the pandemic. 

"It's been a challenge to get people to try our gin, as the events and markets we were planning to appear at and promote ourselves were cancelled due to COVID," said Martin Svehla.

The husband-and-wife team launched Banks & Solander late last year and direct distillery sales have been their main source of revenue 

"With pubs and bars closed, we haven't been able to sell through on-premise trade either, and until you get your name out there, a lot of the larger distributors and retailers don't want to know about you. It's very much a chicken-or-the-egg situation."

Keeling says he expects Australia's craft spirits market to continue to grow as it emerges from the pandemic, albeit with less distillers.

"If you look at previous financial crises, growing categories may encounter a temporary slow-down but often power straight on through."

Rosebery distillery Archie Rose is banking on this growth, with the company building a massive new distillery in Botany over the past two years.

Exact details on the facility's size, cost and capabilities are under wraps, however Archie Rose head of marketing, Victoria Tulloch, says the investment speaks to the success of the Sydney brand and Australian distilling in general.

"The new distillery is something we'll be making a big deal of in the coming weeks. It means Archie Rose can evolve its core range of gin, vodka, and whisky, while allowing for a significant increase in rum production." 

Industry experts also predict a rise in contract distilling, whereby new spirit-makers lease the equipment, and sometimes the skills, of an established distiller. Contract distilling allows new producers to perfect their recipe and branding before heavily investing in their own facility. 

Director of Brogan's Way Distillery in Richmond, Simon Carr, says contract distilling bolstered his revenue through the pandemic when his bar was closed and sales were down.

"Of course, a lot of our contract clients eventually faced the same drop in demand for their product  as we did," he says. "What's really interesting however, is that we've had more enquiries about contract distilling in the past month than all of 2019. 

"At least one person a day is contacting us about new product development. It's a mix of amateur distillers looking to take their production to the next level, start-ups with no distilling experience at all, and investors with good plans and money, but need a product on the market."

Co-founder of online store The Gin Boutique, Glenn McPhee, says contract distilling is "definitely a trend".

"I'm lucky enough to judge at the Australian Gin Awards and last year a lot of spirits made through the contract distilling route received gold medals. It's a clever way to launch a brand."

Anther Spirits has been making gin at Brogan's Way and Collingwood's Craft & Co. for the past four years. The business is now set to open its own distillery and bar in Geelong at the end of July.

"We've already had people get in touch about contract distilling even though we haven't put our hand up for it," says Anther co-owner Dervilla McGowan. "It will definitely increase our revenue moving forward and we look forward to helping other distillers. 

"We've built our brand from nothing, made all the mistakes and know what to avoid. People can feel confident distilling with a smaller brand like us - if they have questions about making gin, they know they can ask them."

Six new Australian gins and a tonic to try

"I think local gin's popularity has a lot to do with people's fondness for Australian products and ingredients," says McPhee.

"Also helping drive gin volume is the length of time it takes to make aged whisky and rum. Distillers keen to make brown spirits won't see cash return for up to five years while their product sits in a barrel, so they release a white spirit in the meantime." 

Archie Rose Distilling Co., Sydney

Harvest 2019 Poorman's Orange Gin, $89, 700ml

A bold gin distilled with finger lime, lemon-scented gum and poorman's orange - a rare citrus harvested in the Hunter Valley. 

Black Cat Distillery, Barossa Valley

Archimedes Martini Gin, $36, 350ml

A savoury blend infused with green olives and designed especially for martinis, but also does "quite well" in a gin-and-tonic, says McPhee.

Brogan's Way, Melbourne

Passionfruit Husk Gin, $55, 500ml

Released to celebrate World Gin Day on June 13, this limited edition spirit is juniper-forward and brimming with the floral aroma of passionfruit husk.

Cavu Distilling, Sunshine Coast

Sunshine & Sons Original Dry Gin, $80, 700ml

Cavu has Queensland rum on the horizon, but in the meantime McPhee rates its dry gin, pot-distilled with botanicals including pepperberry, pomegranate seed and lavender.

Four Pillars Gin, Healesville

Bloody Shiraz Gin, $85, 700ml

The Yarra Valley-based distillery is set to release the 2020 vintage of its popular grape-steeped gin on July 4, using shiraz fruit sourced from wineries including Punt Road and Yering Station.

Long-Rays, Brisbane

Australian Native Tonic, $2.99, 275ml

Long-Rays tonic has been available in Queensland for the past 12 months and is now set to launch nationally. "For my money, it's one of the best tonics out there," says McPhee. "It's low-sugar and relatively neutral to work with a broad range of gins."   

Wolf Lane Distillery, Cairns

Tropical Gin, $69, 500ml

"These guys only launched last year and make one of the best gins I've come across in the past 12 months," says McPhee. An aromatic gin infused with local ruby grapefruit, mango and mint.