Ben Thomas takes us through the ins and outs of gin ahead of World Gin Day on June 13.

 

To my mind, there’s no more refreshing drink than a gin and tonic. The moment the weather warms up a place in our fridge is permanently reserved for tonic water, and ‘lime’ becomes one of the first words written on the shopping list.

Until recently, the gin was English: Tanqueray, Gordons (perfect for a lime-heavy G&T, which I like) and Hendricks. These days gin is generally Australian. It’s not a parochial decision, either. Local gins, such as award-winning The West Winds, Four Pillars and Melbourne Gin Company are as good as any import.

Melbourne gin

The Melbourne Gin Company, made by winemaker Andrew Marks at Gembrook in the Yarra Valley, got its start after Marks experimented with a small, off-the-shelf still at his Collingwood home.

“On the back of the trials I got to within 20 per cent of where I wanted to be, went the whole hog and got myself licensed – going through the right channels was a four or five month process – and once I’d done that I bought a still,” says Marks, who makes wine at his family’s winery in the Yarra Valley, Gembrook Hill, and wines under his own wine label, The Wanderer.

“It’s a 130-litre alembic (bain marie-type) copper pot from Portugal, which they used to use for perfume making. It’s perfect for small batches and working with botanicals as it doesn’t over-heat them.

“There’s no book on how to make gin, so I’ve been experimenting.

“I always had it in the back of my mind I’d be making a London dry style so it was always going to be juniper and coriander based. On the back of that I trialled a heap of flavours I thought would work with them, including rosemary from our garden and grapefruit from the winery at Gembrook.”

A recipe for success

To finalise the recipe for his Melbourne Gin Company gin, or MGC for short, Marks turned to his winemaking background and the skill of blending grapes together to achieve a wine of perfect balance.

“My wines these days are single vineyard wines, but when I was at Penfolds it was all about finding the magic sweet spot where blends all came into harmony and balance,” Marks says.

“I distill the botanicals separately, which is what made sense to me. How would you know what coriander tastes like if you whack it in with juniper, orris and the like? What I wanted to do was to find out what the characteristics were for each of the botanicals in the still, then I looked at them individually and blended them back together to develop my recipe.”

Once the gin is blended Marks breaks it down with Gembrook rain water, bottles it and sends it out to Melbourne’s better bars and bottleshops.

 

Five gins to try

1. Melbourne Gin Company (Yarra Valley)

$70; 42% Rainwater and two of MGC’s botanicals – rosemary and grapefruit peel – come from maker Andrew Marks’ family winery, Gembrook Hill. To preserve the oils that give this its heady aromas and flavours this does not undergo chill filtration. This gives it a creamy mouthfeel, too, and when served icy cold the gin takes on a cloudy appearance.  

Melbournegincompany.com

2. Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin (Yarra Valley)

$75; 41.8%   It seems only yesterday that Four Pillars released its first gin. It has quickly established itself as a leading producer and has three gins in its range. Four Pillars’ Barrel-aged spends time in French oak wine barrels that previously housed chardonnay and another that’s Navy Strength. The Rare Dry gets the balance between its spices, including Tasmanian pepperberry, star anise and cinnamon and aromatic citrus just right. It’s perfect in a Tom Collins on a hot day.

www.fourpillarsgin.com.au

3. The West Winds Gin The Sabre (Margaret River)

$55; 40%   The west winds are responsible for the pure rainwater that is dumped on Margaret River, water that’s used in the production of this gin. Twelve spices and botanicals, including lemon myrtle and wattle seed, are used in its production and it’s the citrus botanicals used that come to the fore. Lemon and grapefruit characters lead to the scent of an asian market in this smooth, clean spirit.   www.thewestwindsgin.com  

4. Tanqueray Export Strength London Dry Gin (Great Britain)

$80 (1 litre bottle); 47.3%   It’s distilled four times and bears the Royal Warrant, this has a complex, layered bouquet – you feel you can smell all the botanicals used. It’s equally spicy and fruity, while the fumes of the extra alcohol poke out significantly on the aromas and in the oily texture in the mouth. That said, you’re unlikely to be drinking this neat. And so help me God if you do.  

www.tanqueray.com

5. Le Gin One & Nine London Dry Gin (France)

$80; 40% The great thing about gin is that it can come from anywhere. This has distinct spice aromas, with liquorice and star anise dominating. Given it’s from France, this comes as no surprise –  it’s a gin for the anise-laced French Pastis drinker. It makes a nice savoury G&T, just substitute lime for a frond of leaves from a peppercorn tree.   

Gin history

Gin has a fascinating history that dates back a thousand years to northern Italy where white spirit was flavoured with juniper. It’s no coincidence that the Italian word for juniper is ginepro.

Bartender Fred Siggins, who mixes drinks at Fitzroy’s Black Pearl and regularly competes in national and global cocktail competitions, takes up the story.

“London Dry is the classic style of gin, which is citrus and juniper heavy, usually contains coriander in the botanicals and is by far the most popular style,” says Siggins.

Plymouth gin, which has its own appellation due to its long association with the British navy, is similar in style.

“Then you have precursors to the London dry style – immediately there’s old Tom gin, which is sweeter and not as dry as london dry. Its origin dates back to London’s industrial revolution when there was no regulation and people were making a huge amount of poor-quality gin. Sugar was added to mask its impurities.

“The story goes that in the unlicensed gin joints they would have a cat’s head plaque sticking out of the wall, where you would put a penny in a slot and hold your cup up to the cat’s mouth and you would get a nip of gin.”