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Canberra's Local Spirit Tour

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I began 2017 by moving from easily the most distillery dense state in Australia, Tasmania, to easily the most public servant dense, the Australian Capital Territory. Canberra and the ACT in general is highly regarded for wine production with some of Australia’s best wineries are located nearby, but what about distilled spirits? I enlisted the help of local entrepreneur and founder of Local Spirit tours, Ben Osborne to take me and my friends on one of his Luxury Distillery Tours.

We met at Grease Monkey, not a distillery, but a great place to grab a tasty burger on the north side of Canberra. From there, bellies appropriately primed with food, we climbed into Ben’s van and travelled to Plonk, a highly regarded bottle shop at the Fyshwick Fresh Food Market.

Our tour took us here to meet Tim Reardon, owner/operator of The Canberra Distillery who just so happened to be conducting a tasting that day. On offer from The Canberra Distillery included their Classic and Winter Gins, Canberra Fog, Coffee Liquor, Blood Orange Gin, Negroni and Limoncello. The Classic Gin as the name suggests is a classic London Dry style vapour-infused gin with a commonly Australian citrus bias, whereas the Winter Gin is more of a robust local creation with a familiar juniper nose but with strong refreshing notes of basil and a spicy cinnamon finish – perfect for a cold Canberra winter.

Keeping with the cold Canberra theme was the Canberra Fog (notorious to anyone who has tried to catch an early morning flight into or out of Canberra in the winter) which is an aniseed-based liquor made from distilled Murrumbateman Shiraz. If you enjoy the flavour of the Greek classic, Ouzo, you will likely enjoy this creation which tastes like liquid black jellybeans. The Blood Orange Gin tastes as is suggested by the label, drawing on the local provenance of small growers and produces. The Negroni is a pre-mixed cocktail of gin, vermouth and bitters, barrel-aged in heavily charred ex-red wine casks from the local Canberra region. The Coffee Liqueur would be perfect for an Espresso Martini or a boozy coffee, but I found it to be very sweet for my tastes; nothing some extra vodka couldn’t fix. Finally, the Limoncello cleansed the palate with a refreshing, yet still very sweet, lemon infused spirit.

As you can see, the Canberra Distillery produce a large range of spirits and liquors that draw from or directly showcase local ingredients. I am very keen to sample some of the other products Tim has planned for the near future.

Underground Spirits Head Distiller, Ross McQuinn

Next stop was Underground Spirits in Kambah where we were greeted by Head Distiller, Ross McQuinn. Underground Spirits’ point of difference is the use of a patented sub-zero, sub-micron filtration system adapted from technology used to filter impurities from blood. When producing their products, Underground Spirits begin by filtering neutral spirit with common carbon micron filtration followed by their own patented method. When testing their sub-zero, sub-micron filtration system, they confused the Australian National University test equipment by producing a spirit of higher purity than the pure control sample! There is no doubting that Underground Spirits make their products using the purest neutral spirit available.

Underground Spirits produce a traditionally juniper-forward barrel-aged gin using a triple infusion method of maceration, vapour infusion and botanical tinctures. They also produce a range of flavoured vodka including a vanilla, caramel and hazelnut version. Now I’m not a flavoured vodka kind-of-guy, but I actually purchased a bottle of the hazelnut variety which smelt and tasted too good to pass up; I can see it making its way into a variety of boozy deserts. Underground Spirits are currently experimenting with options to produce whisky in the future and I will be following their progress closely.

Baldwin Whiskey Company's Premix Whiskey & Cola and Premium Whiskey

Last distillery visit of the day was to Baldwin Distilling Company in Mitchell, who produce a spirit with a bourbon-style 51% corn mash bill and age it in medium-toasted, heavily-charred virgin American oak barrels. Baldwin have positioned themselves to capitalise on premium whisky (or whiskey with an ‘e’ to reflect their bourbon-style) market, rather than the small batch single malt route that most Australian craft distilleries follow. This puts Baldwin in direct competition to some of the biggest names on the mass produced whisky market and as such they have produced their own premix premium whiskey & cola ustilising their own in-house cola which has approximately one-fifth the sugar as Coca-Cola.

Baldwin owner/operator Anthony Baldwin and I share the opinion that you should be free to drink your whisky however you damn please without suffering the criticism of whisky snobs. I personally do not drink whisky with sweet mixers, but I quite liked the taste of the Baldwin premixed whisky & cola and I strongly encourage you to give it a try if bourbon & cola premixes are your thing. In my opinion, it tastes infinitely better than Jim Beam & Coke premix and supports a local Australian business rather than a massive multi-national.

I had the opportunity to sample the Baldwin ‘Premium Whiskey’ on its own, which is also sold by the bottle and to be honest it was a little too rough to drink neat. It seemed to have gained little from its time in the cask and I suspect it would benefit from aging longer or even aging in a different location with more atmospheric and temperature variations to force the spirit in and out of the cask wood. To be fair, it is intended to be drunk with a mixer and I would definitely recommend this approach with the current entry-level Baldwin premium whiskey.

Next in the range is the unfortunately named ‘Caramel Whiskey’ which from the name you no doubt assumed is a flavoured whisky. This is not the case as it is made using ‘Caramalt’ malt, rather than having any flavouring added. Caramalt is a variety of malted barley with a slight toffee flavour and the resultant whisky, in Baldwin’s case, is an improvement over their base whiskey. Next in the range is a US 100 Proof (50% ABV) Rye whiskey. This was my favourite Baldwin whiskey and one that I am quite happy to drink neat. Go here, for my detailed thoughts. In addition to their whiskies, Baldwin also produce a variety of US-style Moonshine including, unflavoured, Apple Pie, Honey and Peach.

After leaving Baldwin Distilling Company, we finished the day at the White Rabbit bar in central Canberra where we eventually bid farewell to our host Ben and went on our merry ways with a new knowledge and appreciation of the local Canberra distilling scene. I really should have explored my new local distilling scene sooner, but it’s good to know that people like Ben exist who can guide you around not only the local distilleries but breweries and wineries as well.

If you live locally or are visiting the Canberra region, go to www.localspirit.com.au/ for details of what alcohol-centric tours are available.

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