“Both put together flavour profiles by adding lots of ingredients so they taste unique,” said the celebrity cook. “But in both cases, you have to be very careful not to overdo any of them.”
“That’s the fun part for us,” said Jon Lark, who founded Kangaroo Island on a rock of the same name, a three-hour drive and boat ride from Adelaide in South Australia.
“Probably 80 percent of gin in Australia today is made through blending. We do single distilling, which is a very simple way of making gin, but it is boring as hell and not much interest for the person who is doing it.
“I also think that by doing it in a single run and not blending it, you do get a depth of complexity that you can’t get the other way. The competitions we have won would bear testimony to that,” Lark added, referring to some 85 local and international awards Kangaroo Island has picked up.
'Eight months ago a koala walked through the back door of the distillery...'
In April Kangaroo Island Spirits launched a gin boasting 48 botanicals grown in its distillery garden including juniper berries, which it says is an Australian first.
Lark, along with his wife Sarah, planted their first common juniper trees about five years ago and now have about 150 trees of four different varieties.
The majority of juniper used in traditional gin distilling in Australia is sourced from Europe, and very little is grown locally because the climate isn’t suitable. But because of Kangaroo Island’s cool coastal climate, he says the varieties he grows, juniper communis pendula from America and juniper communis hibernicus from Ireland, as well as two Australian cultivars, are thriving.
The berries are among the four-dozen home-grown botanicals featured in their Koala 48, which was released as a 900-bottle special edition as an homage to the legendary German Monkey 47 gin, which also had a corresponding number of botanicals to its name.
Launched in 2011, Monkey 47 has an ABVof 47% and contains 47 botanicals found in Germany’s Black Forest. It has gained a global following and is sold in more than 50 countries, including Australia. French drinks giant Pernod Ricard took a majority stake in Monkey 47 in 2016.
The Koala 48 project was inspired by a chance encounter with one of the furry marsupials at Koala Island’s cellar door last year.
“Kangaroo Island is known for its kangaroos but the island has also got a significant koala population. And about eight months ago an adolescent male koala walked through the back door of our distillery, which has never happened before,” Lark said.
“We were standing around wondering how to tell this story in a bottle of gin and we had been thinking about Monkey 47 for a while. So, being Australian, we thought ‘bugger this we’ll do 48’.”
There are still about 200 bottles left from that release. Like its German cousin it is being sold in 500 ml bottles, which cost $A95 (US$66) each.
“We may do a second run but it will have to be slightly different because we used 48 botanicals from our garden and we would have to get them all in the same state of ripeness. That’s not going to happen again very easily.”
Craft beer, craft spirits
It isn’t known for certain how many gin distilleries in Australia, though estimates range from 120 to 200 across a spectrum of capacities. The country has been going through a craft boom in beer and spirits to go alongside its world-class wine production, and South Australia has been at the centre of much of it.
Lark has been watching this movement grow from his distillery just off the tip of the Fleurieu Peninsula.
“It’s been exciting. The way I describe it is, we have wineries in the Barossa and the McLaren Vale in South Australia, and these would be terrible places if they only had one winery,” he said.
“It’s quite good to have an industry developing for which tourism can be a part. Over more than a decade, we have stayed small because we want to maintain the quality of the product.
"We’re adamantly craft in what we do here—I put that in inverted commas because there are some corporate entities out there that realise the marketing value of the word craft, but we are true craft over here and we maintain our size.”
Next up are plans to capitalise on the growing craft movement in the wider world. Lark has been investigating the Japanese and Singaporean markets and has started having meetings in China. Whereas the former two countries are not new to craft spirits, China reminds Lark of his home market like back when he opened Kangaroo Island Spirits.
“We visited Shenzhen recently and it reminded us of Adelaide 13 years ago. When we started our distillery we had to explain to people what craft gin was. We set it up three years before Sipsmith opened up the first craft distillery in London,” he said, referring to the British brand that provides a benchmark for the evolution of artisanal gin. “Now China is a bit like how it used to be here.”
As a small producer export volumes will not be big—“We’re talking just pallets at he moment,” Lark said. In Japan, this smallholder approach will add strength to the brand because family-owned craft spirits speak to a level of authenticity the Japanese market appreciates.
But with potentially other big consumer markets on the horizon, Kangaroo Island has triple the current capacity available if it is needed.