Since I launched The Gin Queen a little over two years ago, I’ve been very fortunate to meet many of the local Australian distilling talent. One of the very first distillers I met was Mark Watkins, Master Distiller of Botanic Australis. Mark has been a fantastic supporter of my events and when Tourism Queensland helped me with a visit to Far North Queensland to visit the distillery, it was the perfect opportunity to sit down and chat properly with Mark and find out more about his path to creating one of the most awarded Australian Gins.
How long have you been distilling?
Since I was 16 when I made vodka in my cubby house. I naively thought vodka was made from potatoes and as my mate was a potato farmer we thought we’d give it a go. We ended up making something that can only be described as repugnant.
I went off to Uni to study environmental science because I wanted to save the dolphins and turtles but by the time I got to the end of my degree, I knew I didn’t want to pursue a career in that field. I got into wine science but I couldn’t handle the cold climate down south. I dry out like a lizard!
I came back to Queensland and built a 50litre stainless steel still then a 100 litre, before choosing a Holstein copper still, called Helga. Copper makes a massive difference in the flavour profile of spirits, it adds a smoothness that isn’t there when using stainless steel.
So what did you begin making?
I started out making fruit liqueurs while the rum was ageing, before finding this old recipe for London Dry gin and thought I’d have a go.
Why did you decide to take the recipe and replace all the ingredients with Aussie natives?
Obviously, I could I wanted to make a quintessentially Australian gin. I imagined a settler arriving on the first fleet, wanting gin but not being able to find the traditional ingredients and having to use bush foods instead of traditional gin botanicals.
How long did it take to decide which native botanicals would work?
It was no easy task. Aussie natives are so strong – so “bush-ey” that it took about 2 years to refine the recipe, using lab wear before approaching a still. I did a bit of botany at Uni and was keen to use as much local produce as possible. River mint and ginger grow like weeds around here and lemon scented gum and anise myrtle are readily available.
Once I had a feel for the potency for each of the botanicals I opted for cold maceration technique where the botanicals are agitated in alcohol for 48 hours before being removed. The remaining liquid is then run through the still. There is a lot of finesse involved in the process to make sure we get the flavours without the roughness of the bush. Olida (strawberry gum leaf) is really strong, in 1200 litres of alcohol we only use 400g!
London Dry usually has between 5 and 12 ingredients, Botanic Australis has 14 how did that happen?
The recipe I worked from has around 11 or 12 ingredients. While some natives could be swapped fairly easily, – bunya nut replaced bitter almond for instance, some botanicals needed two natives. For the lemon component, I’ve used lemon scented gum and lemon myrte. Lemon myrtle can be very overpowering so I balanced it with the lemon scented gum. For the mint we used River mint and Peppermint gum, both of which have a bad back taste, but together give a freshness, which is also achieved by cutting at the right time. I love working with wild ingredients but it is tricky. There was no Maggie Beer book to help!
So what’s next for Mount Uncle Distillery, are there any new gins in the pipeline?
We’re planning a Botanic Australis Navy Strength and I have another idea but that’s top secret for now!