Shake hands with Luke Jacques and you may notice his hands carry a hint of yellow. Luke is the ‘gin chief’ and brand ambassador of Animus Distillery in Kyneton and the golden glow on his hands? It’s due to hours spent crafting Animus’ award-winning spirits. “We hand peel all the fruit and plants like ginger and galangal,” says Luke. “I’ve constantly got yellow hands from the turmeric.”
Not only do Luke and his three co-founders labour over the ingredients they add to their gin, but they also cultivate many of them. “We grow strawberry gum leaf, kaffir lime leaves and many of the herbs,” he says. “Even though that doesn’t sound like much, those ingredients pack a lot of flavour. If we harvest them on the day of production, the vitality and taste is unparalleled.”
In 2013 there were 10 Australian gins on the market and now there are over 700, but there’s little doubt that Animus (founded in 2015) came along at the right time. “The name Animus is Latin for the heart, soul and essence of something,” Luke says. “We try to capture the essence of everything we distil. We make spirits with soul.”
What makes the spirits sing at Big Tree Distillery in Newham is a combination of foraged botanicals, a passion for experimentation and a connection with local artists and artisans. Husband and wife owners Catherine Crothers and Gary Jago moved to the Macedon Ranges in 2010 from Melbourne and spent five years perfecting their technique, recipes and equipment. “It took lots of tinkering,” Catherine says. “We have lots of wine maker friends so we’d often take random bottles of our concoctions to dinner parties for them to try.”
The pair currently make six varieties of gin; from their take on a classic London dry gin to the heavy hitter of a navy strength, which uses foraged sassafras. The seasons are reflected in other gins – there’s a cumquat infused one; the fruit harvested from a laden tree at Gary’s mother’s house and a sloe gin created after Gary’s brother picked 80 kilograms of blackthorn during lockdown in Tasmania.
Dedicated to supporting local artists and artisans, the couple pair their gins with Kyneton-based StrangeLove Number 8 tonic and commissioned local artist Sarah Gabriel to create stunning designs for their bottles. And the greater Bendigo community can now meet Catherine and Gary at local farmers’ markets. “We have a 1972 VW beetle – it’s the gin bug.” says Catherine. “Farmers markets supply essential products and gin is definitely in that category!”
Towards the border with New South Wales, Fiona and David De Vries from Echuca Distillery have been hard at work doing what they do best – creating unique flavour combinations. After working in food flavouring and perfume manufacturing and development, the couple moved to the historic port town in 2012 to retire, but not for long.
“I quickly realised I needed something to do,” David says. “While distilling is relatively simple, making something that tastes good is another matter. I love putting well balanced flavours together to create something that people enjoy, so building a distillery was perfect.”
The most popular gin of their seven-gin range is the striking butterfly pea and passionfruit spirit. “We brought it out a few weeks before lockdown, but it’s our number one seller,” David says. “It’s a beautiful purple colour with the great perfume of Australian passionfruit. When you add the tonic, it changes from purple to pink.”
Just as David’s butterfly pea gin transforms in front of your eyes, so too has the couple had to transform their business in light of the pandemic. “We’re now offering a six-spirit flight online where you get six bottles matched with different tonics and garnishes,” he says. “If you can’t come to us, we’ll come to you.”
Surely we can all say ‘cheers’ to that.
Words by Lindy Alexander