A new educational institution has popped up in Margaret River – Giniversity. It’s at Margaret River Distilling Co, and you can spend an afternoon creating your own bespoke gin and graduate with a PhD in Distilling. Lizzy Pepper graduates ‘full bottle’.
I’ve always loved a gin and tonic and jumped at the chance to distil my very own bottle of gin.
Margaret River Distilling Co was born out of the success of Limeburners and Tigersnake Whisky produced by Great Southern Distilling Co in Albany and the Porongorups. Founder Cameron Syme took inspiration from his Scottish ancestors and has won plenty of awards both for his excellent whisky and business nous. He’s just picked up Best Australian Single Malt Whisky at the World Whiskies Awards last month and trophy for 2017’s best craft whisky in the world at the American Distilling Institute’s annual spirits awards.
Back to Margaret River on a sunny day; the distillery is a short walk from town, across the bridge and past the river, and surrounded by Karri trees. I met my fellow students on the veranda for a gin and tonic.
The classroom is an intimate space; the blackbutt table lined with over 40 glass jars containing dried herbs, fruit, spices and other botanicals. There’s between four and eight students per class, so it’s easy to ask questions.
Our education began with theory: Gin History 101. We ran through the 500-year history of the juniper-flavoured spirit. Dutch soldiers drank it to calm their nerves pre-battle – hence the term “Dutch courage”. During London’s “gin craze” in the 1700s gin was cheaper and more popular than water, and far cleaner, too. Citizens drank a giddying 52 litres of the spirit annually.
Traditionally the predominant flavour in gin is juniper berry, but what will the future hold? Head Distiller and Professor Bec Cameron predicts that juniper’s dominance may be challenged, and already we see boutique gins emerging made with native ingredients and different techniques. Right now there’s a Green Ant Gin made in South Australia from green ant bums. Yep, bums. Apparently they taste like kaffir lime and lemongrass.
At Giniversity you can choose which botanicals you’ll use to flavour your gin. We each started with seven grams of juniper berry in our mortar and pestle, and chose several botanicals from the glass jars. A flavour wheel with all the traditional and modern gin flavours helped us choose our flavours; we were aiming to balance spicy, earthy, green and herbaceous, woodland, fruity, citrussy, bramble and hedge and floral.
My gin? It sounds so romantic; red rose petals, earl grey, grains of paradise (a West African pepper), liquorice root, clove, meadowsweet (a herb) and a touch of star anise.
These dried botanicals were gently crushed in our mortar and pestle and steeped in white spirit while we enjoyed a pizza, salad and mezze lunch in the autumn sunshine.
Following lunch we carried our bottles of spirit (plus botanicals) through to the still room where individual miniature stills awaited us.
It took me straight back to high school chemistry; the glass beakers, safety glasses, heating contraptions and thermometers.
Bec took us through the science; the spirit boiling, the steam going through glass pipes and condensing, and what was dripping out was roughly 86% ABV gin.
As the highly alcoholic gin dripped into the beaker, we tried each others creation; each tasted significantly different. Star anise shone through in my gin, and my friend’s gin tasted like kaffir lime leaf.
With five people in our class there was a still per person; larger groups of six to eight would need to share.
The Tasting and Graduation
It was time to celebrate; we’d each created 300ml of highly concentrated gin, which was diluted with rainwater and poured into glass bottles. Labels were adorned with clever names like ‘Ginius’.
There was a little left from each person’s batch; we tasted each gin – neat and with Fever Tree tonic water. Bec gave us a handshake as we had officially graduated with a Giniversity PhD in Distilling.
What does the future of boutique gin hold?
Small batch distillers are experimenting with barrel aging; giving the completed gin up to six months in oak wine barrels to create new flavours.
Bec and her team sourced pinot noir oak barrels and age the London Dry gin for six months to create their Barrel Aged Gin. It’s lovely – there’s a faint pink colour and it smells like Christmas with coriander, cardamom, angelica and citrus flavours.
Wanting to create a true ‘Margaret River’ gin, Bec and her team used native ingredients from the local forest; sandalwood, boronia, lemon myrtle and eucalypt. Botanical Gin was born.
Get your Postgrad (Distillation) and create your own distilled gin in 3-4 hours. Includes light lunch and your bottle of gin to take home. $300.Book online
There’s also a shorter course, perfect for bigger groups and special occasions. Undergrad (Compound/Blending) allows you to blend flavours and oils in a glass. Contact 08 9757 9351 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to enquire.