In Tasmania, A Gin Boom Showcasing Native Plants (and Even Sheep Whey)
Just three decades ago, craft distilleries were illegal on Tasmania, the remote and strikingly gorgeous island state to the south of the Australian mainland.
But today, in trendy bars in the sleepy Tasmanian capital of Hobart, as well as in Melbourne and Sydney, there are entire pages on menus devoted to Tasmanian gins. On the shelf at Society Salamanca, a lively gin-focused cocktail bar near the harbor in Hobart, for example, there are now more than 40 Tasmanian gins from 26 distilleries, with more on the way.
Tasmanian gin is on the rise thanks to the overturning of an archaic law banning small-scale distilling in Australia, intended to discourage backyard moonshiners and make the industry easier to control. An aspiring Tasmanian distiller challenged the federal statute in 1989, paving the way for a boom first in craft Tasmanian whiskies, and more recently, gins. Most of the gins — distilled by young, small-batch entrepreneurs — have popped up in the last five years.
“Almost every month now, you hear of a new gin” in Tasmania, said Louise Radman, a self-taught gin distiller, who along with her husband, Nav Singh, started their own label, Sud Polaire, in Hobart two years ago. “It’s quite a young community here; it’s very collaborative,” she said. “All the other bars are really excited when you release something new or different.”
Lately, gin has become a trendy craft distilling enterprise worldwide from Finland and California to the craggy islands off the Scottish coast, and Australia has jumped on the bandwagon too. While vodka, whiskey and rum consumption is declining in Australia, consumption of locally made gin was up 33 percent in 2017 from the year before, according to the International Wine and Spirits Report 2018.
Though not as big as other Australian gin labels, Tasmanian gin makers are starting to carve out a name for themselves. That’s partly because of their innovative use of native plants and other locally sourced botanicals, such as Tasmanian mountain pepper berry (an ingredient in most gins here), tea tree blossoms, sloes, saffron, wakame seaweed and even sheep whey.
Tasmania’s unusual history has also influenced its gin makers. Distilling had virtually disappeared on the island for more than 150 years because of a succession of restrictive laws, the first a statute passed in the early 1800s during the penal colony days, outlawing all distilleries. It was replaced in 1901 by a federal prohibition on small-batch distilling anywhere in Australia below 2,700 liters (just over 700 gallons).
The ban lasted until 1989 when the whiskey maker Bill Lark successfully lobbied politicians to overturn the federal law, then launched the island’s first modern distillery three years later, named after himself. “When we were starting, we only had a tiny, little still and we didn’t really know what we were doing and we wanted to learn,” Mr. Lark said.
In recent years, a steady stream of enterprising Tasmanians has taken the leap into gin distilling, bringing a youthful, pioneering spirit to the industry.
Like many Tasmanians, the gin maker George Burgess takes pride in the bounty of produce grown on the island. The founder of Southern Wild Distillery on the north coast, Mr. Burgess wanted to produce a spirit that showcased Tasmanian ingredients and, as he put it, possessed a real sense of “terroir.” Among the local producers he works with is a diver who once a year harvests wakame seaweed for his slightly briny Dasher + Fisher ocean gin.
“These gins are built around the landscape,” Mr. Burgess said. “If a drink can conjure a positive memory of a place, if I’ve managed to achieve that, I’m happy.”
Tasmania is a big island, about the size of West Virginia, but visitors can get a taste of it at Society Salamanca. The best introduction is through a gin-tasting platter (30 to 35 Australian dollars, or $21.50 to $25) — four different shots, served neat, with tonic and ice on the side.
The Lark Distillery was early on the gin-making scene, starting in the 1990s. Its latest gin is called Forty Spotted, named after the forty-spotted pardalote (a critically endangered bird in Tasmania), which it now sells by the bottle (73 dollars) and glass (10 dollars) at its cellar door and bar in Hobart. The distillery is also releasing special seasonal bottlings such as its current pink-hued summer release, which is infused with rose and jasmine.
Ms. Radman and Mr. Singh also opened the bar Institut Polaire, a stark white space with ice cube-shaped light fixtures and cocktails like the Antarctic Negroni (made with gin, lillet and Suze; 18 dollars). The couple relocated from Sydney to Hobart, and embraced a cold-weather theme, playing off Tasmania’s links with Antarctica to the south with their Antarctic-inspired gin label and bar, launched in late 2017.
“We’re right here next to the water where the icebreaker berths and a lot of the Antarctic crew come in,” Ms. Radman said.
Outside Hobart, many distilleries open their doors for tastings and tours. Among them is Hartshorn Distillery, a small-batch operation run by Ryan Hartshorn at his family sheep farm that produces a sweet, earthy gin (55-110 dollars/bottle) with a type of native grass and, unusually, sheep whey, a byproduct of cheese making. Hartshorn also sells its gin and cheeses at a shop at Brooke Street Pier in Hobart and a stall at bustling Salamanca Market on Saturdays.
Tastings and tours are also available at Shene Distillery (85 dollars/bottle, 35-45 dollars/tour), a gin and whiskey operation founded five years ago by David and Anne Kernke and their 31-year-old daughter, Myfanwy. The Kernkes decided to go into gin-making after discovering shards of Old Dutch gin bottles and London tonic bottles when restoring their grand, 19th-century Gothic Revival estate in the sheep farms of central Tasmania a decade ago.
And they’re beginning to attract attention globally, too. Shene’s poltergeist unfiltered gin captured the top award, double-gold, in 2018 at the San Francisco World Spirit Competition for the second year running. The award is a first for a Tasmanian gin distillery.
“We weren’t expecting to become a distillery, and we just fell in love with the idea,” Myfanwy Kernke said.
Gin, she said, “was made by the Dutch, then refined by the English, and I always joke, perfected by Tasmanians today.”