How Victoria’s boutique gin scene took flight

Travelling Well | Richard Cornish | Photos: Shannon Morris | Posted on 31 May 2019

With more than 28 distilleries, Victoria is the self-proclaimed gin capital of Australia.

The hamlet of Loch snuggles into a valley in the rolling hills of Gippsland’s south. Among its historic timber houses is the old Union Bank, built to a grand scale in 1900. And in the corner where customers once waited to see the bank manager sits a gleaming beaten-copper still. 

The Loch Brewery and Distillery is a destination for a new breed of tourist keen to sample the unique liquor emerging drop by drop from the still’s thin pipe. It is one of dozens of distilleries dotted around the state, many of them in wine regions with an  established flow of visitors intent on tasting their way around the countryside. 

Gin maker tends to a pot still in gin distillery

Behind the scenes at Four Pillars' state-of-the-art Healesville distillery door.



Talking bout my gin-eration

Gin tourism wasn’t possible in Victoria 10 years ago – there were no gin stills. Today, according to the Australian Distillers Association, there are 28 or so. All small in scale, they are mostly collaborations or family run, and production is focused on quality over quantity. 

This is a departure from the state’s industrial-scale gin-making past, when 28 million litres of Burnett’s Dry Gin were produced annually as early as 1938 at Geelong’s Corio Distillery. 

Burnett’s was a classic London dry gin and, like all gins, was made with juniper berries infused in alcohol spirit alongside other botanicals such as coriander, cassia bark, angelica and orris root. The alcohol is heated to release the aromatic compounds of the botanicals, the vapour distilled and condensed, and the ensuing liquid – which is almost pure alcohol – diluted with water and bottled. 

Victoria’s 21st-century gin makers followed the success of Australia’s artisan whisky movement. Many emerged from the wine industry, including Andrew Marks of Gembrook Hill Vineyard, who branched out into distilling in 2009 and launched Melbourne Gin Company a few years later. 

Likewise, Yarra Valley winemaker Cameron MacKenzie teamed up with wine PR man Stuart Gregor to create Four Pillars Gin in 2013. They followed the lead of gin makers overseas, infusing native plants such as wattleseed, lemon myrtle and mountain pepper berry into their gins to create a truly local flavour.

Glass jar filled with batch gin surrounded by juniper berries and botanicals
Close up of hands holding a mix of juniper berries and dried botanicals.


The botanicals


 

Juniper is gin’s essential ingredient, imparting a distinctive piney, resinous note. Most juniper is imported but some distillers are planting their own trees.

What makes a lot of Victorian gins distinctive is their use of native Australian botanicals such as strawberry gum leaves that add a sweet, heady aroma not unlike summer berries. 

Wattleseed is often roasted to give gin a broad, sometimes smoky note and smooth mouthfeel. 

Finger limes add a very fine, delicate yet lingering citrus note. 

Lemon myrtle is indigenous to rainforests from Mackay to Brisbane and its leaves add a clean citrus note, while aniseed myrtle gives gin a touch of anise.

With waxy leaves and purple fruit, mountain pepper berry is a shrub found in cool-climate forests in south-east Australia, its berries adding gentle lingering heat to a gin. 

Glass bottle of gin surrounded by botanicals of orange peel, cardamom, clove and star anise.


Of all the gin joints in the world... these are some of Victoria’s best


 

THE GIN PALACE
10 Russell Place, Melbourne 
Plush and lush, this gin-focused establishment was one of Melbourne’s first laneway bars. It’s still as fresh and fun as when it opened in 1997.   
ginpalace.com.au

THE DISPENSARY
9 Chancery Lane, Bendigo 
All-day dining down this narrow alley turns to spirit appreciation at night with more than 70 gins to choose from. Locals now call this place ‘The Gin Bar’.

THE 18TH AMENDMENT BAR
82a Little Malop Street, Geelong 
Up a flight of stairs in Geelong’s bar quarter is the perfect late-night bar to sit back with Prohibition era-inspired cocktails made from one of 80 or so gins. Try a Jitterbug or Hats Off to Woodrow. 

GLENLYON GENERAL STORE
63 Barkly Street, Glenlyon
A goldrush-era store selling bread and papers, and serving light meals and more than 40 different gins under the shade of 120-year-old oak trees. 

BOURKE STREET GREEN 
483-501 Bourke Street, Melbourne 
Melbourne’s latest courtyard bar, due to open mid year, promises a suite of signature cocktails made with Four Pillars Gin. Try the Evergreen. 

UNION ELECTRIC BAR & ROOFTOP GIN PALACE 
13 Heffernan Lane, Melbourne
What's better than a rooftop bar? A rooftop bar that specialises in gin cocktails. Look for the lightning bolt on Heffernan lane.  Try the Champagne Charlie – a bubbly blend of lime, sloe gin, apricot brandy and sparkling wine. 

Bartender pours spirit for cocktail into a shot measure
Bartender pours shot of gin into a beaker with ice cubes in it.
Bartender pours gin cocktail into whisky balloon glass out of a beaker


Four Pillars’ Gin Martinez (the only gin cocktail recipe you’ll ever need)


 
  • 60ml Four Pillars Chardonnay Barrel Gin
  • 15ml sweet vermouth
  • 1 tsp maraschino liqueur
  • Orange peel

The Martinez, first made in the late 1860s, is a sweeter-style cocktail said to be the forefather of the modern martini. Combine ingredients in a mixing glass over ice. Stir, then strain into a chilled martini glass. Finish by twisting the orange peel into the drink. 

For every batch of gin Four Pillars makes, they are left with around three kilograms of fresh oranges, which have essentially been steamed in gin. To put these to proper use they've created their own range of marmalade, made from the oranges that helped infuse their award-winning tipples. RACV members can show their card at Four Pillars to collect a free jar of almost-gin orange jam.