"What does Australian gin normally taste like?"
I fielded this question recently while stirring a dirty martini for a customer. When they asked for the gin of my choosing, I immediately reached for a bold Western Australian number that makes an incredible martini.
But on the question of what Australian gin tastes like, I hesitated.
Partly because I recently tried an Australian gin infused with truffles that tasted like sex, mushrooms, juniper and warm dirt. Partly because a month before that I tried an Aussie gin that had been macerated with shiraz grapes – it's unlike any gin being produced anywhere.
And partly because when I thought back over all the Aussie gins I've tried, around 70-odd over the past few years (yes, there are that many, and more coming) the sheer breadth of flavour and experimentation on offer is staggering.
But the question now being pondered both Down Under and abroad is: has Australian gin emerged as something different and unique and developed a style of its own?
"I don't think there's a uniform Australian gin style per se, because there's such a broad range of gins available, and so many different approaches. But we definitely produce gins that are unique to Australia," says Sebastian Costello, spirits judge and owner of Bad Frankie, a Melbourne bar solely dedicated to Australian spirits.
Some international critics are even talking about ascribing Australian gin with its own distinctive category. And Caroline Childerley, founder and editor of the The Gin Queen, Australia's most highly acclaimed gin website, argues that Australia's native botanicals are behind the rethink.
"A lot of Australian distillers are using botanicals that are native to their region, and this has definitely given Australian gin a particular terroir, because so many of these ingredients don't grow anywhere else in the world," Childerley says.
So what sort of flavours can you expect from these gins? Costello says there's a range of flavours to be found, depending on the native botanicals at play.
"Most Australian gins have a rich juniper canvas which they build on with native botanicals. So you might get citrus flavours from the use of native finger lime and lemon myrtle, spice from things like Dorrigo pepper and Tasmanian pepperberry, and herbal and floral characters from eucalyptus, strawberry gum and bush tomato."
The new wave
Many Australian gins fall into a category often termed 'Contemporary' or 'New Wave', which basically means they're not as juniper-heavy as their traditional London Dry ancestors (Gordons, Tanqueray, Beefeater, etc).
To wear the gin title, juniper should be the predominant flavour in the spirit. But how 'predominate' is measured is completely subjective, and many distillers have been emphasising other botanicals in their gins to make the spirit more appealing to a wider audience.
"One of the great things about the innovative use of Australian botanicals," says Childerley, "is that it's bringing a lot of different people to gin who didn't necessarily like those bold, punchy, juniper-forward styles that used to dominate the market."
"They're now trying softer, more contemporary styles as a gateway to the stronger juniper-led gins, and that gets them interested in exploring the category further."
Costello, in particular, is excited about the prospects for Australian gin moving forward.
"In 2011, there was about half a dozen Australian gins available, now there's closer to 80. So where in a boom time."
"People are even going out to see the distilleries where these gins are produced and gaining an understanding of our native flora. It becomes an experience for people, and that grows their knowledge and appreciation for how Australian gins are being made."
If you'd like to get a taste of some of these distinctive Australian gins, explore the gallery above.
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. His book, The Australian Spirits Guide, will be released in October.
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