“Fortunately there is gin, the sole glimmer in this darkness. Do you feel the golden, copper-coloured light it kindles in you?” Albert Camus
I came to love gin in my late 20s because of a trip to Malawi in Africa. It was a last minute assignment and I didn’t have time to take malaria medication, nor get any of the shots I needed before I left (not recommended!) However, someone told me that the quinine in tonic water gave you some protection from it. As you do, when you have no other choice, I put aside my sceptism and chose to believe them, crossing my fingers and dosing myself with gin. I quickly developed a taste for it and these days it’s my drink of choice in summer.
Based on juniper berries, gin was invented by a Dutch physician as a medicine in the 16th century. It came to the attention of the English while they were there fighting against the Spanish in the Thirty Years’ War. They used it to calm their nerves before a battle and warm them up (hence “Dutch Courage”) and brought it back to England with them.
The spirit took off under the enthusiastic patronage of William of Orange and became incredibly popular. It's believed that by 1730, there were more than 7000 gin shops in London and the average person was drinking around 1.3 litres of gin per week. At approximately 160 proof, this gin was strong. London fell into the grip of an obsession, the spirit blamed for a rising crime and death rate and madness.
For the first time, women were allowed to drink along with men in the city's gin joints and it is thought this led many women to neglect their children and turn to prostitution, to pay for their habit, hence gin becoming known as ‘mothers' ruin’.
Today, it seems we are in the midst of second (albeit far more sedate) love affair with gin, but while there’s still the good old “London Dry,” today’s gins look very different from the days of yore. And not just in their far lower alcohol content - today's gins are sophisticated, with complex and sometimes surprising botanicals, served with all manner of garnishes; from cucumber to rosemary, grapefruit slices, rose petals or celery sticks.
My first gin, at Gin School at the Brisbane Distillery in Brisbane's West End, is a case in point. Infused with strawberry eucalyptus gum, it is garnished with a strawberry. The second, a delicious herbal concoction of dry gin infused with pea and celery comes with a nasturtium leaf plucked from the Jane Street Community Garden across the road, while number three is flavoured with coffee and citrus.
Brisbane Distillery opened in November 2019, going into a hiatus and turning from gin to hand sanitiser at the peak of the Covid crisis. Recently, it’s expanded its operations, with a new space for their Gin School and a fabulous 23m long cocktail bar.
Their Gin School is a slick operation. This was my second time here - previously it was a far more rustic affair, held on a mezzanine above the distillery floor. Now, there’s a charming purpose built-space adjoining the bar, with walls adorned by illustrations of botanicals and traditional apothecary-style shelving with 150 tins of botanical ingredients; from lavender to lemon myrtle, black cardamom, sage and Kakadu plum.
Guests perch on stools at a high-topped table in front of one of 30 small copper stills, each with their own temperature-controlled hotplate.
Classes run for two hours, guided by the highly engaging Jen, who gives us a comprehensive run down of the history of gin and the process pf making it. She's also on hand to assist with the hard decision of what to choose for your four recommended botanicals to ensure a good balance.
Jen also takes us on a tour of the distillery - a highly impressive, sustainable production process that's a true grain to glass concept. They have 30 kilos of solar panels on the roof (Jen tells us their June power bill was $30!) and a Tesla battery. Jane Street community garden across the road, get the compostible bits of the botanics, while the barley used is local; milled, mashed, fermented and distilled into pure grain spirit in the top-of-the-range 2000 litre still with discarded ethnanol used for cleaning. The entire pure grain spirit production process takes up to two weeks.
Inside the still are juniper berries in ethanol. We pop our botanicals into a tea bag, put them in the still and turn it on. From a process of condensation, the liquid is infused with the botanicals and distilled, the vapour dripping out into a beaker. Alcohol readings of each – different botanicals results in different readings and a table shows us how much water to add per the volume to make the required 45% alcohol level.
As well as the botanicals, we are offered natural colours, made from botanicals such as butterfly pea flower, which tints it a fetching purple to a deep red drawns from hibiscus flower. This extra liquid is factored in to the required amount of water to reach the 45%alchohol then a funnel is used to transfer it to our bottle. And that's it - apart from the hardest bit: coming up with name for your unique creation.
PS: Look out in the next few weeks for Brisbane Distillery's Gin Bus; a London double decker bus with bar that will serve at events and festivals.
Verdict: High recommended. Everything about the experience is so very well-thought out and it’s great value for money given you get your own bottle of hand-crafted gin to take home, plus cocktails, a tour of the distillery and a cheese and charcuterie platter. Loads of fun.
A caveat – I was here on a media experience and didn’t pay for it, however on the previous occasion, I went under my own steam and on my own dime.
BRISBANE DISTILLERY & GIN SCHOOL DETAILS
Cocktail Bar, Tastings, Bottle Sales & Gin School
Corner Jane St & Montague Road,
QLD 4101, Australia
Master Distiller Experience
$189 per person
Classes available Wednesday-Saturday 2pm and 6pm
Bookings essential via www.bstill.com.au/gin-school