I never thought the day would come, but I've started gardening.
Now wait a minute, before you go thinking stylish men can't be gardening men, think again my friend. Because if you want to understand how all of those glitzy bottles behind the bar taste so damn delicious, then the garden is one of the best places to start.
Botany and booze share one of history's great collaborations, and nowhere is this better exemplified than in the king of white spirits, gin.
I'm sure by now you're aware that gin, a spirit that was once more commonly found in bathtubs, Dickens sketches and grandma's golf bag, is having a frenzied moment. Hundreds of new gins have hit the market in the last half-decade as distillers, particularly of the crafty persuasion, capitalise on the explosion in the category's popularity.
In Australia, both distillers and consumers have caught the bug, with over 50 Australian gins expected to be available by early 2016.
A number of these gins have already received high praise from drinks authors and won numerous medals in the world's top spirit competitions.
Much of the praise centres on the quality of the spirit, but more particularly, on the distinctiveness of the flavours. That distinctiveness can be attributed to the many Australian native plants that are helping to create gins and flavours the world has never tasted before.
One of the best places to see how native plants create these unique flavours is at Distillery Botanica on the NSW central coast, an hour north of Sydney.
When you visit the distillery and walk through its adjoining garden, as I recently did (for gardening tips, of course), the aromas of gin come to life. Angelica, orris root, coriander, citrus, aniseed, cardamom, chamomile – the traditional ingredients that are often bandied about in gin land imprint themselves in your memory when picked fresh.
"Often visitors are stunned," says Philip Moore, the owner and distiller, who eight years ago left two decades in the nursery business behind him to create the now award-winning distillery. "Sometimes they don't believe me when I tell them they're standing in the place where the spirits they've tasted are made, where they're grown."
Moore draws on his extensive knowledge of native plants to create some intoxicating spirits and liqueurs. His Moore's Vintage Dry Gin is a great example. It builds on a backbone of juniper and angelica root sourced from overseas, while Australian natives such as wild lime, macadamia nuts, Illawarra plum, and cinnamon myrtle add a fresh, zesty, savoury character.
Adding to the Australian theme, next week the distillery is set to launch a new 'garden grown gin', with the majority of its botanicals sourced from the distillery garden. The new gin will also utilise murraya, a shrub that's native to northern Australia, in what Moore believes is a first.
"The flowers of the murraya smell like a cross between orange blossom and jasmine, and the leaves have a bit of a citrus leaf character to them. So it's going to be a floral spirit, and it will be the first time I know of that murraya has been used as a botanical in a gin."
Native and exotic
Multiple Australian producers are also employing native plants to flavour their gins. More urban outfits are even getting in on the act. Sydney's Poor Toms gin uses strawberry gum leaf, lemon myrtle and chamomile, while the Archie Rose Distillery's Signature Dry Gin includes Dorrigo pepper leaf, blood lime and river mint.
But it doesn't stop there. The Stone Pine Gin from Bathurst allows native finger lime to shine, while Four Pillars, which just opened its impressive new distillery in Healesville outside Melbourne, favours Tasmanian pepperberry – the aromatic berry Lyn Lark adapted to the Lark Distillery's gins at the infancy of the Australian distilling renaissance.
The well-established West Winds from Western Australia has long avowed its use of bush tomato and wattle seed, the latter also prominent in the Ironbark Distillery gins from North Richmond, NSW. And then there's the Botanic Australis Gin from the Mt Uncle Distillery in far north Queensland, which takes the local mantra to extremes by only using native botanicals, 14 in all, with a pinch of juniper to retain its status as a gin.
Tyranny of distance
There is, however, one element that distillers have to source from overseas: juniper. Gin's essential botanical, both figuratively and by law, isn't commercially grown in Australia. Many distillers have told me that Australian conditions aren't favourable for growing the juniper berries most suited to gin production.
But that hasn't stopped Jon and Sarah Lark of Kangaroo Island Spirits from trialling boobialla berries or 'native juniper' instead. Their KIS 'O' Gin, one of Australia's most accomplished spirits, makes use of the native island berries along with an array of traditional and exotic elements to create one of Australia's most sophisticated gins.
Thankfully, there are bars across Australia putting these gins into tasty cocktails as well. Bad Frankie in Melbourne's inner north, a bastion of Australian spirits, can mix you a Salty Dog Martini, which stirs West Winds The Cutlass with a local vermouth and a salt bush saline solution. They also do a crisp gimlet with the previously mentioned KIS 'O' Gin and some rosemary thrown in for extra intrigue.
In Sydney, newly opened The Cotton Thief do a refreshing number with Botanic Australis Gin, where cucumber, thyme, rainforest lime shrub, elderflower syrup and lime are shaken up to give you the perfect antidote to the upcoming summer heat.
Or you could just grab your favourite tonic water and see which expression of our native flora best suits your tastes. It'd be the perfect knock-off after a tough day in the garden.
A professional barman in one of Australia's most revered whisky establishments, Luke McCarthy has also travelled the world to learn more about the spirits he serves. The result is two parts drinks culture and one part global trends, served with a dash of critical assessment.