It's a blind taste test and you have to identify coriander, mint, thyme and basil. Pretty confident, right? But what if the line up included pepperberry, akudjura, wattleseed and boobialla? Most of us wouldn't have even heard of these, let alone recognise their flavours. But it's these unique native botanicals that are helping to put Australian liquor on the top shelf of bottle shops and the cocktail lists of high-end restaurants and bars around the world.
Australia has come a long way from an image defined by the limp watery fizz of Fosters. Distilleries from across the great southern land have been filling up their trophy cabinets with prestigious international awards in recent years. The Yarra Valley's Four Pillars recently won double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition for their Rare Dry Gin. Tasmania's 666 Vodka won 4th best of the "50 Best Vodkas in the World" at a blind tasting in New York. Maidenii, a collaboration between a Sydney bartender and a French wine maker, won double gold at the San Francisco International Wine Competition for their Classic Vermouth.
Beyond a blessed production environment (clean water, clear air, rich soils, fiercely proud local distillers with a tenacity for quality booze), these spirits are enchanting local and international palates with their unique flavour profiles: the exotic aromas of the Australian bush.
Gin infusedwith the spiced warmth of Mountain Pepperberries. Vodka flavoured with the woody and soft menthol flavours of honey collected from eucalypt forests. Vermouth imbued with the nuttiness of wattleseed and herbal Hubba Bubba notes of the Strawberry Gum Tree. Absinthe perfumed with the sweet licorice notes of aniseed myrtle. Even the blends that stick to more traditional flavour profiles are opting to use native Australian varieties of the characteristic ingredients, which impart a subtle but distinct taste.
It's estimated there are up to 5,000 native food species (almost 20 percent of Australia's native flora and fauna) that were utilised by Indigenous communities for food and medicine. However, until recently, these flavours have been as novel to local palates as they are to foreign ones. But this is set to change, thanks to a fortuitous combination of factors: the craft beer revolution, which has primed the market for what Kangaroo Island Spirits' founder Jon Lark refers to as the "slow spirit" movement; a voracious "eat local" trend; and local distillers who are keen to showcase the flavours our their own backyard.
"This new genre of spirits incorporates almost any botanical, and often uses local botanicals to give them a locavore signature," says Jon, who was inspired to use native herbs after a lifetime of work in Australian indigenous communities, and was familiar with using the produce for food and medicinal purposes.
Cameron Mackenzie of Four Pillars wanted to produce a "modern Australian gin", which meant in addition to using Australian natives, using all sorts of botanicals to celebrate the diversity of cultures—European juniper, spices from South East Asia and The Middle East.
These small-batch distilleries use traditional brewing methods, distilling in copper pots, and produce as little as 45 bottles a run. They use a batch distill method rather than use a big continuous sill, which allows greater control over flavours, as well as being able to make more one-off small batches like seasonal brews.
However it's not all foraging and award-winning for these distilleries. They come up against a challenge that boutique distilleries in other countries don't face, and that craft breweries and wineries don't either: a hefty, almost crippling, excise tax. Australia has the highest excise on spirits in the OECD, meaning many distilleries pay more in excise than wages, and struggle to make returns enough to develop their business.
"It's difficult to wade through [the tax structure in Australia] and we are one of the highest taxed countries in the world for spirits," said Cameron of Four Pillars, which pays around $30 per bottle in tax. Kangaroo Island Spirits pays around $24 per bottle of excise, whereas the same bottle in US would attract a tax of only $2.40.
The good news is, you can show your respect for the hard yakka of these small-batch distillers, for the traditional Australian landowners, and for the unique Australian landscape—one Samphire and Bush Tomato Martini at a time.
Here's some tasting notes on the flavours you can expect.
Aniseed Myrtle: Licorice-flavoured leaves, lush green foliage, perfumed fluffy white flowers - this ornamental rainforest tree has it all going on. The aromatic leaves have a flavour similar to that of more commonly known European and Asian anise, but with a little hint of that characteristic "Australian bush" earthiness and have been used to flavour vermouth, absinthe and to produce a sambuca-like liqueur.
Boobialla: Also called "native juniper," this coastal shrub is dotted with purple berries during summer months, which are harvested for their citrusy, resinous, sharp and piney notes. These are a favourite in the classic juniper-based spirit, gin.
Bush tomatoes (Akudjura): Looks deceive these tasty little desert-growing numbers, with fruit that is small and shriveled and looks more like raisins than plump, rosy cherry tomatoes. But what they lack in appearance they make up for in flavour. Sweet and fruity, a mixture of sun-dried tomato, but a little more sour than acidic, and with rounding caramel undertones.
Finger limes: Also known as citrus caviar. This tubular lime comes in a variety of skin and flesh colours, a spectral array of plum, magenta, green and yellow. Their citrus nectar is contained within signature pearl-shaped vesicles that pop in your mouth, much like their fish roe doppelganger. Finger limes are used for their sharp, citrusy and tart notes to flavour spirits, and are also a popular adornment for cocktails.
Lemon myrtle: A fragrant blend of lemongrass, lemon and lime flavours, with slightly creamy undertones and sneaky eucalypt dimension. These leaves have a strong flavour, but less acidic than its zesty substitutes. Used to bring its herbal citrussiness to vodka and gin, and to produce liqueurs akin to Italy's Limencello.
Pepperberries: Picked when they turn from scarlet to deep plum or charcoal-brown, these berries grow in bunches that adorn five-metre trees. An elegant flavour matches this decorative botanical—citrus, lavender and aniseed, with a peppery bite. Pepperberries are used to add a subtle and herbal warmth into liquors like gin and vodka, and as the basis for a complex and spicy liqueur.
River mint: A leafy ground cover found sprawling along the banks of waterways, forest floors, and other damp places. Its small soft green leaves have a similar flavour and aroma to spearmint, but with a sharp menthol bite. Used by Aborigines also for medicinal purposes, and by early settlers for their roast lamb dishes. It's used in liquor to add a minty freshness to the brew and to lift the earthy tones of other botanicals.
Samphire: This knobbly native succulent can be found growing in salty mudflats and saline estuaries. Samphire is eaten raw and cooked, with a taste akin to asparagus (it's also known as "sea asparagus") and spinach, and a distinctive underlying flavour of the seaside. In liquor, it imparts dry and salty dimensions, and is also used as a decorative addition to cocktails.
Sea parsley: Of close relation, appearance and flavour to European parsley, but imbued with characteristics of unique growing conditions. This herb is found growing along coastlines sprouting out of composting seaweed and sand, often immersed in salty tides. This makes for a grassy parsley flavour, but some celery leaf-like bitterness, a little saltiness, and distinctive sea-fresh flavour. Used to bring a little savouriness into the flavour profile of beverages.
Strawberry gum: Also known as the Forestberry, the intensely aromatic leaves of this towering gum have a feminine and spirited flavour - a pleasant mixture of strawberry-passionfruit with gentle menthol notes. Used to bring out the berry qualities of a brew.
Wattleseed: Toasty coffee and chocolate flavours are present in this earthy spice. Wattleseeds was crushed into flour between flat grinding stones and then used in a damper cooked in ovens made in a hole in the ground using hot coals and hot rocks. In liquor, it's used to balance out the citrus notes and a nutty depth and creaminess.
This article was originally published on MUNCHIES in September 2014.