In the Summer 2016 issue of Distiller, the concept of Australian Gin, or Bush Gin, as a style in its own right was discussed. Since then, the research has been ongoing and has included a tasting of a wide range of gins. In the meantime, gin in Australia has gone from strength to strength, as has the use of botanicals endemic to Australia.
When the concept was originally discussed, the endemic nature of 80 percent of the flora and fauna of Australia was noted (i.e., they are not only native to Australia, but do not naturally grow anywhere else on earth). The article also outlined a hypothesis on the style and how the research into it could continue.
The term “Bush Gin” comes from the bush food / bush tucker movement, which started in the 1970s and focuses on eating native flora. However, the term is a bit antiquated and felt by some Australian distillers to be mildly condescending. As such, it is not popular with all Australian distillers; other terms that have been suggested include: “Native Botanical Gin,” “Aussie Gin” or “Aussie Botanical Gin” and “Australian-style Gin.”
Independent gin expert Caroline Childerley, editor of the The Gin Queen, based in Victoria, Australia, was able to shed some light on the current gin situation in the country:
With over 20,000 native plants that are indigenous to Australia, distillers are able to create gins with a true sense of place. Many of them use the native botanicals particular to their state to create gins with a ‘terroir.’ Typically, Australian gins made using native ingredients tend to be full-flavored with strong citrus notes, particularly when using lemon myrtle, which is the highest natural source of citral. The bold flavors of native botanicals leads distillers to use vapor infusion and maceration to impart flavor without overpowering the juniper. Fractional distillation also allows greater control for distillers when tackling these ingredients.
However, it’s worth pointing out that some Australian gins use few, if any native botanicals, instead preferring to utilize classic gin botanicals to achieve a flavor profile closer to that of a traditional London Dry gin.
A collection of over 20 gins from Australia was gathered together. The focus was on dry gin; the tasting excluded gins that were: wood-aged, Old Toms, bottled at navy strength or infused or sweetened with fruit. In doing so, any additional variables that these gins bring were avoided, enabling tasters to focus on the flavors introduced to the spirit by its botanicals. In addition, one gin was tasted from each distillery; this was to stop a “house style” from being mistaken as part of the trend.
The gins were each tasted four times, with four different groups of tasters. This was to stop any one individual from overly influencing the others and to ensure the gins were tried by different people, at different times and in different locations. While participating in the tastings, the author was present mostly in an observational capacity.
The groups consisted of a range of individuals: writers, bartenders and club owners, as well as some consumers. While tasting a selection of the gins, each group was asked to make broad notes on the flavor profiles of the gins. At the halfway mark, the groups were given a break and a discussion was conducted to see if the tasters had noticed any broad trends among the samples.
Any selection of gins will exhibit some variation, so a threshold was defined for the proportion of gins that would have to share these broad similarities in flavor profile in order for an “Australian style” gin to be evident. This threshold was 40 percent; it was felt that if eight different distilleries’ gins all demonstrated a similar set of characteristics, it may be enough to identify a style.
Over the four tasting sessions, a series of key characteristics were identified that applied to over 40 percent of the gins. The tasters actually found that 55–60 percent of the gins had at least two of these characteristics; although many had all three.
1) Leafy green citrus
This was often led by lemon myrtle, which was present in many of the gins, while others used some variation of myrtle. One of the chemical compounds that comes through from distillation of various types of myrtle is myrcene, which is also found in cannabis, hops and lemongrass—it gives the gins a dewy, leafy note.
2) Botanical intensity
Ninety percent of the Australian gins tasted were full of character: having bold and powerful aromas and flavors and a rich mouthfeel. This not only makes the gins more interesting to taste neat, but also gives them great mixing potential.
3) Floral and fruity
These characteristics can come from the botanicals used, but also from the gin’s base spirit. Australia’s well-established wine industry results in a good availability of grapes; these are therefore often used to produce the base spirit for gins, which provides a plump mouthfeel and a fruity, slightly floral character.
In addition to tasting the gins themselves, it is also important to seek the views and insights of Australian distillers.
James Young of Old Young’s Distillery in Perth:
Bush Gin or Native Botanical Gins can be unique, exciting and delicious products—but only if they are treated like any other spirit you make. Using a novel/rare/unique botanical in and of itself doesn’t make a great gin. The philosophy for the gin, creating a balanced recipe and knowing the style of drinks it may eventually suit will ensure your gin doesn’t end up a flash in the pan. OK, sure, use ants in your gin, but know why and still develop a well thought-out product.
In terms of style, to me, Bush Gins reflect the movement toward locally sourced foods and flavors—and in the case of Bush Gins, Australia has some natural advantages as an island, having completely unique botanicals available nowhere else in the world. An exact style is a little hard to pin down, because there ar e so many potential botanicals, but to me the style tends to be a mix of both herbal and earthy notes, but still leaving room for citrus (e.g., lemon myrtle or our native finger limes or dessert limes) to be a part of the story as well.
Holly Klintworth of Bass & Flinders Distillery in Victoria:
I’ve been observing that using at least one native botanical is extremely common amongst Australian gins. We are using this as an accent to an otherwise traditional blend of gin botanicals and I would say that no new gins being released are sticking solely with traditional botanicals. Native botanicals have been used by prominent chefs in Australia for some time due to this emergence of “foraging” and working with what’s in our “own backyard.”
By far the most common native botanical currently being used would be lemon myrtle due to its fragrance and citrus notes that lend itself well to a dry gin profile. Unfortunately native juniper is not prolific enough nor does it contain as much oil as traditional juniper and few distilleries, Kangaroo Island Distillery being an exception, are able to source enough for their production.
Currently distillers are experimenting with native botanicals from all across Australia. I suspect the next movement will be that we begin to focus on native botanicals that are literally from our own backyard (i.e., from the region our gins are being produced in). This may move the future of the Australian gin production in the direction of developing a real sense of place—something I don’t believe is necessarily a factor of English gin production.
At Bass & Flinders Distillery, we use traditional gin botanicals and accent them with native botanicals such as native pepperberry (Wild & Spicy Gin 10) and lemon myrtle (Soft & Smooth Gin). The exception is our Angry Ant Gin where all botanicals apart from our juniper are native to Australia and its dominant botanicals are all sourced from the one place—Wooleen Station property in Western Australia. Hence rare and unique botanicals such as mulla, currant bush, native lemongrass and native ant pheromones are all used in this blend.
Whether the terms “Australian-style” or “Aussie Gin” will ever become internationally, or even nationally, recognized terms remains uncertain; in the opinion of the author, there is a strong case for it. Even if it doesn’t become a widely-accepted category, just the discussion of it helps to bring attention to the gin renaissance in Australia and some of the very fine spirits which are being produced.
Special thanks to the following, without whom the article would not have been possible: The IWSC, Caroline Childerley (theginqueen.com), James Young (Old Young’s Distillery), Holly Klintworth (Bass & Flinders Distillery), Cherry, Ben, Tom, Chris, Sam, Sara x2, Siobhan, Keli, Bernie, Joe, Ali, Hartley and The Gin Foundry.