A woman showed me a curious photo while I was working behind the bar last week. She overheard me explaining the distillation process to some interested imbibers using a tiny replica of a still. Later, she brought up a photo on her phone detailing a little accident her husband had caused.
In the photo, sunlight gleamed into a shed via an enormous hole in one of its walls. The hole, she told me, had been created by her husband's handmade still, which had unexpectedly exploded and hurtled itself up one of their paddocks.
Unlike the making of beer and wine, distilling spirits can be a dangerous activity when things don't go to plan. Just over a month ago, the Silver Trail Distillery in Kentucky was completely destroyed when its spirit still failed and caused an explosion that levelled the entire facility and tragically took the life of an assistant distiller.
Luckily, such incidents are rare. A more common misadventure is the consumption of spirit that has been incorrectly distilled at home, potentially causing serious health issues and sometimes even death. It's for these reasons that the distillation of alcohol in Australia is illegal if you don't obtain a license.
Nevertheless, I'm regularly asked questions about how spirits are made (and how to make them at home). Many want to know how our favourite gins, whiskies and brandies are brought to life. At the safer end of things, many Australian distilleries can now give you a tutorial.
Loch and load
I recently visited the Loch Brewery & Distillery, a beautiful (and very legal) operation occupying a former bank in the small village of Loch, south-east of Melbourne. Owners Melinda Davies and Craig Johnson told me that more and more people want to understand how spirits are produced.
"It's amazing how far removed we are from the process of making a whole range of products, especially spirits," Johnson told me. Three gleaming alembic copper stills greet you when you enter the cellar door at the distillery, and it's these stills that create Loch's small-batch gin and what will eventually become their single malt whisky. Melinda and Craig also brew on site, the results of which are used to create their gin, whisky and three English-style ales, which are available fresh out of the cask at the cellar door.
"With the cellar door and distillery, the whole idea was so people could come in, see and understand the process, and then try the results for themselves. It's certainly a unique experience and people love getting the opportunity to try our gin right beside the still in which it was made," says Davies.
But if you fancy getting in on the act yourself, some distilleries are now giving you the opportunity. At the newly opened Archie Rose Distillery located just north of Sydney Airport, you can book into workshops that guide you through the production of spirits. Nigel Weisbaum, the sales and marketing manager for Archie Rose, told me that the distillery is an ideal vehicle for educating the public.
"When you come along you'll be greeted with a drink on arrival, and then we take you through the history of gin, how it's produced, and the different botanicals we have available. Then you have a couple of base gins where you can add certain botanicals in the proportions you want to flavour the gin. And at the end, you can take two 200ml bottles of your personal blend home," Weisbaum says.
Soon Archie Rose will also launch a Tailored Spirits offering where you can custom-design your own personal blend of Archie Rose whisky, gin or vodka, order it online and have it delivered to your door.
Similar experiences are also available further south. The Bass & Flinders Distillery, located south of Melbourne, and the William McHenry Distillery in Tasmania's Port Arthur, provide gin master classes where you can book a session and create your own personalised gin with local and native botanicals.
A mature approach
An even easier way to experiment with your favourite spirits is to buy your own barrel and mature them yourself. The ageing of fortified wines at home has long been practiced by an enthusiastic few. You can purchase your own barrel of whisky from some of Australian's world-renowned distilleries, but if you'd like to get even more creative, or if you're in need of a gift idea, you can now purchase a barrel and mature any spirit you'd like at home.
The Baker Williams Distillery in central-west New South Wales offers a particularly neat solution. The distillery gives customers a Barrelmaster option: you can purchase an empty cask along with some unaged malt spirit, pour the spirit in and decant it after months, a couple years, or whenever you think it's ready. The Keg Factory and Barrel Barn offer similar barrel purchasing options online, minus the booze. All are great options – if you've got the patience, and you don't mind waiting for your drink.