For centuries, gin has remained largely unchanged with big brands like Tanqueray, Beefeater, Seagrams and Bombay Sapphire touting a juniper-forward flavor profile falling under the moniker of “London Dry.” And while gin producers in Scotland and the United States have started to challenge that traditional style, experimenting with barrel aging and nontraditional botanicals, these variations are still, for the most part, juniper-centric. It’s a flavor consumers have come to expect. So what happens to the gin industry when a country known for its offbeat flora gets involved? We’re about to find out. Because the Australian gin-vasion is officially underway.
Using native Australian botanicals like lemon myrtle, cinnamon myrtle, anise myrtle, pepperberry leaf, and bush tomatoes, these gins are challenging the juniper-driven gin narrative and slowly but surely carving out a niche in a highly saturated market.
Currently, there are only two Australian gin brands available in the U.S.—Four Pillars and West Winds—partly because of the challenges associated with entering the American spirits market. “The U.S. is not the easiest system to get through from a paperwork or admin point of view,” says Cameron Mackenzie, distiller and founder of Four Pillars Gin. “But once you’re in, you’re in.”
The largest craft gin distillery in Australia, Four Pillars launched in 2013 and became available in the United States in summer 2016. It gained traction in Australia before the first batch was even released, and then proved successful in a slew of international spirits competitions. The brand makes eight different gins, including its core expressions, a Rare Dry and Navy Strength Gin, as well as a barrel aged offering and a gin crafted specifically for Negronis.
Right now, the Rare Dry Gin and Navy Strength are primarily available in large U.S. markets like California and New York, but the brand has set its sights on the rest of the country. It’s already proven popular with consumers as well as bartenders—in large part thanks to the gin’s unusual character.
“We have such unique botanicals and we’re young enough to not be bound by any rules on gin,” says Mackenzie. Aside from Australian botanicals, Four Pillars and its comrades craft these modern gins with the help of Asian spices. “We sit on the doorstep to the Spice Trail in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Indonesia. There’s some really amazing spices and peppers out of Southeast Asia that we’re very fortunate to have access to, like green sichuan, red sichuan, japanese long pepper,” Mackenzie says.
But raising awareness of Australia’s growing spirits market is a slow process. “We go into the most incredible bars in the world with 600 spirits on the back bar and there’s not a single Australian spirit on the shelf,” he says. “But I think we’re performing at a level where we’re a really relevant style of gin now.”
Another challenge that’s followed Mackenzie are preconceptions about Australia that lead people to think the gin is just going to be, as he calls it, “Crocodile Dundee in a bottle,” even though Australian wine is relatively common and respected. Overall, though, response has been positive—once people actually try the gin. “What we’ve found is that there’s significant interest in these more modern, contemporary styles where juniper is used more as a canvas than as a big overarching botanical,” he says.
Australia is home to about 45 to 50 gin brands right now, and while Four Pillars and West Winds have the category cornered, that’s not the way they’d like it to stay. Mackenzie says the sense of camaraderie among Australian distillers has proven useful, adding that he and other gin makers often meet up for tastings and to offer encouragement.
“Life’s too short and the industry’s too small for us to not encourage each other along,” he says. “I actually would like to see us all traveling together and promoting the category and doing more work together.”
In the past five or six years, this conviviality has helped spur a growing interest in craft spirits and cocktails in Australia, mirroring what happened in the U.S. and U.K. a little over a decade ago. Between the growing roster of contemporary spirits and a fast evolving bar scene, it won’t be long before Australia catches up with the West, especially considering the creative ways in which bartenders are approaching not only original creations but also classic cocktails.
A great example of this, Mackenzie says, is the Gin and Tonic.
“We’re mixing up our garnishes a little bit,” he says, adding that the traditional lime wedge isn’t sufficient for his gins, and that more obscure garnishes are far more useful in bringing out some of the unusual flavors from the Asian and Australian botanicals and spices. He pairs his Rare Dry Gin with a sprig of rosemary or finger lime caviar—which has an herbaceous and very tart flavor—while the exceptionally easy drinking Navy Strength goes wonderfully with freshly shaved ginger and a kaffir lime leaf.
While a trip to Australia may not be in the cards for most American drinkers, it’s worth looking out for these modern gins in cocktail bars and in liquor stores. If you find a bottle, don’t hesitate to snatch it up—or else you might lose it to a visiting Aussie looking for a bargain. Because of Australia’s extreme tax laws, a bottle of Four Pillars Rare Dry or Navy Strength is actually $30 cheaper in the U.S. than it is in the motherland.
The coming years should prove successful for the Australian spirit industry as more and more brands find their way into the American market. Mackenzie recommends keeping an eye out for gins from McHenry Gin out of Tasmania, Melbourne Gin Company and Archi Rose out of Sydney.
“I would think that in the next two years you’ll see half a dozen Australian gins on the market—possibly more,” he says. “It’s gonna be fun.”