An internationally lauded boutique gin maker says the “premiumisation” of Australian spirits is well advanced and providing diversification for the nation’s embattled wine sector.
Statistics show the long-held Aussie tradition of beer swilling has rapidly declined in recent years as drinkers opt for tastier, high-end tipples.
We’re generally consuming less alcohol in doing so, preferring to spend more money on a few top-quality drinks rather than buckets of booze.
That trend has proved a boon for those brave pioneers of Australian spirits, some of whom started out rough but have dramatically honed their skills over the years.
Now, their products are critically acclaimed worldwide, from the famous Lark malt whisky distillery in Tasmania to Never Never Distilling Company, which produces the nation’s most awarded gin from South Australia’s McLaren Vale.
The company started collecting global gongs in 2019, winning the world’s best classic gin at the World Gin Awards in London — the home of gin lovers.
“That was a sort of fall-out-of-bed moment at 7am when that got announced,” Never Never’s managing director George Georgiadis told NCA NewsWire.
“And that really allowed us to invest in our team and get things moving.”
Never Never Distilling Company was founded by mates Sean Baxter (middle), George Georgiadis (right) and Tim Boast.
Mr Georgiadis said the renaissance of Australian spirits began about five years ago, with the number of gin makers alone surging from about 10 to 15 nationally to more than 700.
“We had a very small spirits industry bubbling away for the 15 years prior to that, but really locally focused and small scale,” he said.
“It’s just wonderful to see.
“I think it’s really a reflection of the kind of flavour revolution that we’ve seen in lots of food and beverage markets where consumers are getting a lot more sophisticated in terms of their tastes, knowledge, desire to understand exactly what they’re consuming comes from and also the process involved and supply chain ingredients.
Australian drinkers have become far more sophisticated and are happy to fork out for quality.
“We’ve seen the development towards more flavour. If you look at the beer category, people just used to drink lagers and now everybody drinks big, tasty IPAs. If you look at coffee, everybody is getting into their aeropress and single origin, seeking more specific flavour.
“And I think that’s happened in gin as well, with people using more local ingredients — botanicals we call them in gin — and flavoured gins as well.”
Never Never, however, made its bedrock the distinctive flavour core of gin — juniper — which has a piney, earthy taste.
“We looked at that classic profile of London dry-style gin but really tried to take that to the next level. Bags of flavour but more complexity of flavour as well,” Mr Georgiadis said.
“We use three different types of distillation of juniper to give more complexity and depth … and then we use eight other botanicals. Most of them are fairly classic.
“Coriander and angelica root tend to be the other two main ingredients in gin … and we also use lemon peel, lime peel, cinnamon bark, orris root, which has a lovely violet-kind of flavour and really importantly, Australian pepperberry.
“It’s just an incredible ingredient that has this sort of deep purple colour. It looks like a black peppercorn but it’s more fruity. It’s also got this tingling spice, almost like a Sichuan spice that leaves this really great length on the back palate and complements the juniper profile beautifully.”
Locally made gin now comprises about 20 per cent of Australia’s overall gin market and is a popular spirit because it suits the climate, being refreshing and an easy to make cocktail.
Delicious and now well-known additions include grapefruit juice and rosemary, and lemon and thyme.
“People are playing around with the tonic and the garnishes. It’s great to see bars and consumers discovering their favourite combinations,” Mr Georgiadis said.
“I’ve seen everything from the basic citrus and herb through to mango, black pepper and chilli in some bars.
“And then you’ve got the really incredible tonic brands like CAPI, an Australian brand, and Fever-Tree.”
Noting Australia’s crowded wine industry had been hit by the double-whammies of bushfires and punitive tariffs in China, Mr Georgiadis said many skilled workers in the sector had turned their talents to spirits.
“We have a lot of qualified people out there who know what they’re doing with flavour, we have a lot of great suppliers of ingredients, of packaging, who are really well set up to support the spirits industry,” he said.
“We do have that experience and infrastructure from the wine industry.
“We were one of the earliest in the (McLaren Vale) region and now there are five or so gin brands in the region, most of which are attached to a wine label.
“It’s a very natural thing for producers of wine, with the cellar door, to add a spirit to their range.
Before long, it will be standard that when you go visit a wine region, you’ll have the option of visiting five stand-alone distilleries but you also might have 10 other wine cellar doors that have a gin product as well, for example.”
As for world domination, it can be a tough path, requiring a substantial investment, so only about 10 per cent of Australian spirit producers are exporting, Mr Georgiadis says.
Never Never is available in the UK, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Malaysia, but has deferred its expansion into China for obvious reasons.
On the political front, Mr Georgiadis is pushing for lower excise, an issue being looked at by a federal parliamentary committee.
“Excise on spirits is absolutely the number one thing holding us back. We pay about $87 per litre of pure alcohol so on a typical bottle of gin there might be $23-24 of excise and GST as well of course.
“That’s a huge chunk off the margin that comes off right away.”