Being asked to name an Australian spirit brand is an easy task for local bartenders: Four Pillars, Archie Rose and Mr Black are just a few of the brands that have catapulted to the top shelf in recent years.

Most major cities are home to at least a handful of urban distilleries — many of whom dispense more than one spirit, whether gin, vodka, whisk(e)y, rum or something else altogether — and regional centres are welcoming new makers, too. It would also be remiss to forget one of the nation’s most iconic exports — Bundaberg Rum.

Yet, when it comes to market share, Australian spirits make up a surprisingly small slice of the domestic spirit market. In terms of quality, though: “We massively over deliver,” says Sebastian Reaburn, bartender-turned-master-distiller for Grainshaker vodka.

In his role as a judge for the Royal Agricultural Society’s Australian Distilled Spirits Awards, Reaburn has noticed a trend. “We joke that if you get a silver at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards, you’re probably going to get a gold at the San Francisco Spirits Awards, which are considered one of the world’s leading spirit competitions,” he says. “I think we can compare ourselves to our sporting teams on a global stage; we’re small in number, but high in quality.”

Sebastian Reaburn and Andy Lee

Winning awards is something the Four Pillars team are no strangers to. The Yarra Valley-based gin distillery was the first Australian producer to take home the award for the International Gin Producer of the Year at the 2019 International Wine and Spirits Competition. In 2020, the brand did it again, claiming the title for a second time.

Creative Director of Gin Drinks James Irvine agrees with Reaburn’s assessment of the category, adding the under appreciation extends to the global market, despite more producers receiving international accolades. “When you travel abroad and bring people spirits from Australia, usually their first reaction is: ‘I didn’t know Australia made gin, whisk(e)y, rum, brandy and so on’,” he says. “It’s amazing to still get that reaction even though we do have great distilleries and producers in Australia.”

Bridging the gap between quality and market share is a challenge of the good kind — one that presents ample opportunity for Australian producers and bars. In fact, the latter is likely to be the conduit between product and consumer. “Like anything, all of this begins its life on premise and spreads from there to consumers,” says Irvine. “If the trend continues, we’re really at the start of a golden era for Australian-made spirits.”

James Irvine. Photography: Steven Woodburn

Consumers are already excited by the category. According to Reaburn, it comes down to two barriers: price and availability. “Within a bar environment, you’re selling one shot, so that’s a much lower threshold [compared to buying] a whole bottle,” he says. “In that case, there’s security in big multinational global brands. It takes work to show the consumer that it’s a quality product, but it is more expensive generally, just because of the scale.

Luckily bartenders can revel in the bounty of unique characteristics while helping producers reach consumers. It’s something Irvine appreciates about working with gin day in, day out. Across the brand’s venues, which include a cellar door at the main Healesville distillery and Eileen’s Bar at its Sydney outpost, bartenders are busy introducing consumers to the never-ending array of flavour profiles.

“We don’t think there are many gins that are the same,” says Irvine. “Especially if you look at [Four Pillars] … we only make gin. We use different botanicals and apply different distilling methods to create styles of gins [to suit] different drinks, cocktails and occasions.

“Further to that, Australia has over 6,500 native ingredients you can’t find anywhere else. We really do have a creative playground in our own backyard no one else has. It lends itself to gin so well; it almost writes its own narrative in that regard.”

So far, lemon myrtle has proven to be the darling of Australia’s gin distilling community. “Along with juniper, that’s probably the most universally used botanical in Australian gin,” says Irvine.

In this regard, Grainshaker faces a particular challenge. “Gin and whisk(e)y, certainly gin, is a way of showcasing a really compelling sense of place,” says Reaburn. “When you talk about an Australian gin that has something like pepperberry, there is no other spice I know of that’s comparable. So it’s immediately identifiable and distinct.”

It doesn’t mean Australian vodka can’t get a leg up against the global competition. For people like Reaburn, who’ve spent time getting deep into the flavour profiles of vodka, it’s certainly possible to pick up the nuances between a European and Australian rye. “Australia has incredible agricultural production; [our grains are] really high quality and have great flavour,” says Reaburn.

With a spirit as pared back as vodka, the raw materials a distiller starts with are make or break. “I caught a passion for the spirit because it’s purely an expression of the distillation; there’s no botanical recipes, there’s no barrel ageing,” says Reaburn. “It’s really about what you do with the character, texture and flavour of the spirit — there’s nowhere to hide.”

There’s no shortage of flavour profiles to work with when it comes to Australian spirits, whether gin, whisk(e)y, rum, vodka or other spirits, liqueurs or aperitifs. “There’s some great juice,” says Irvine. “If you’re going to try working with something new and it’s Four Pillars, we’re grateful, but we encourage [bartenders] to try something Australian in general.”

When it comes to mixing cocktails using Australian spirits, Irvine follows the same rules he would for any cocktail. Option one is to look for complementary flavours, while option two is to opt for a contrast. “First and foremost, drinks should be fun and delicious,” he says. “I tend to stand by ‘less is more’. If you really want to hero something, say the [Four Pillars] Olive Leaf gin in a martini, don’t confuse it by over-diluting with other flavours.”

It’s especially true when working with native ingredients, which tend to have strong flavour profiles. Irvine says working closely with a distiller has opened up his world, exposing him to new ingredients and ideas.

“I do think Australia’s food sources are underutilised, abroad and at home,” he says. “There are great producers and suppliers that support the right people. A lot of [liquor] brands provide education about how they use certain ingredients, such as the botanicals for example, how they’re foraged, and the essential flavour profiles. That [education] will always be brand focused. If you want a genuine education about ingredients, there are awesome farms that have providoral services. I’ve learned a lot by just having a yarn with different suppliers.”

Ultimately, Irvine thinks you can’t go wrong with quality Australian spirits and a pared-back approach to cocktail mixing. Reaburn agrees: “The key thing is that Australian spirits taste great. You have to find ways to let consumers discover that.

Bartenders, waiters and sommeliers are talking to customers every night. When
they have an opportunity to share a bit about what goes into a product, it’s really powerful for our industry. You’ve got to give people a reason to be interested.”

With more and more distilleries opening around the country, there’s no shortage of reasons to be discovered.