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Best Australian gins

The local gin craze is in full swing. Max Allen taste-tests the nation’s offerings, from traditional dry to radical botanical.

What a delicious surprise. I've followed the emergence of Australian gins for a few years now as new brands have popped up behind bars and on bottle shop shelves across the country: from high-profile, media-savvy labels such as West Winds Gin in Western Australia to boutique operations such as the Melbourne Gin Company in Victoria's Yarra Valley. So I knew Aussie gin was becoming "a thing". But when I decided to track down and taste as many of these new spirits as I could for this issue, I had no idea I'd unearth more than 20 distillers and over 30 gins. And I really didn't expect so many of them to be so good.

Why the recent proliferation of local gins? Well, for a start gin is a very attractive financial proposition for the wannabe spirit baron. Sure, there's some hefty capital investment required in the form of fancy distilling equipment. But as distinct from whisky or rum or brandy, for gin the producer doesn't have to also buy barrels and wait for years before the first drop can be sold. Gin is pretty much ready for market as soon as it drips out of the still - and fast production turnaround equals healthy cash flow.

More importantly for us drinkers, gin offers enormous creative scope for inventive distillers to express themselves through flavour. There is no set recipe for gin: it's a neutral white spirit that is re-distilled in the presence of various botanicals - fruits such as juniper berries, seeds such as coriander, roots such as liquorice - and then diluted to an alcoholic strength of around 40 per cent that best expresses the aromatic quality of the botanicals extracted by the distillation.

It's entirely up to the gin-maker which botanicals are included and in what proportion, so no two gins taste alike, and some can taste fantastically unusual.

Once I'd foraged as many bottles as I could (see note below), I asked Luke Ashton, Australian winner of the Diageo Bartender of the Year gong in 2013 and manager of Vasco Bar in Sydney's Surry Hills, to help me explore the new Australian gin landscape. We tasted each gin twice: first neat, then cut with water. Because different aromatic compounds are released at different alcoholic strengths, this is a good way of "seeing" qualities in the spirit that might be hidden at its full strength.

Then, when we'd agreed on the 18 bottles we were happy to recommend, we put most of them (excluding the barrel-aged and fruit-flavoured styles) through their paces by using them to make a G&T and a dry Martini. Staying true to the Australian theme, Luke used a lovely local tonic water, Capi, made in Melbourne, for all the G&Ts, and a perfumed, dry vermouth from Maidenii, made near Bendigo, for all the Martinis (see the rise and rise of Australian-made vermouths). It was fascinating to see how the flavour profile of each gin changed when blended: some were enhanced while others were diminished.

To help you navigate through our taste test of Australian gins, I've grouped the recommended bottles by style. While many of the classic dry gins include Australian native botanicals such as lemon myrtle as secondary ingredients, they are mostly closer to the familiar "London dry gin" flavour profile; the Australian Botanical gins, by contrast, rely primarily on one or two (or more) less familiar indigenous ingredients for their main flavour cues; and the flavoured and aged gins are spirits that have been matured in oak barrels and/or infused with other flavours such as sloe berries. 

Prices are for 700ml bottles unless otherwise indicated.

Max Allen's top Australian gins
Classic Dry Gin: McHenry Classic Dry Gin
Best Australian Botanical Gin: Kis 'O' Gin
Flavoured and aged Gin: Bass and Flinders Monsoon Gin
Best Gin for a Martini: West Winds The Sabre
Best Gin for a Gin & Tonic: Dobson's Gin

Luke Ashton's top Australian gins
Classic Dry Gin: McHenry Classic Dry Gin
Best Australian Botanical Gin: Kis 'O' Gin
Flavoured and aged Gin: McHenry Old English Sloe Gin
Best Gin for a Martini: West Winds The Sabre
Best Gin for a Gin & Tonic: Dobson's Gin

NOTE I tried to make this the most definitive tasting of Australian gins and, while we did manage to get 23 bottles to taste, for various reasons (low stock; recipes being fine-tuned; hiccups in delivery) we weren't able to include gins from Lark Distillery or Wilmot Hills in Tasmania; Opal Blue and Wild Swan in WA; Young Henrys brewery or Distillery Botanica in NSW.

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