In Food + Drink

Byron Bay’s Boutique Gin Scene Is Shaking Things Up

Byron and surrounds have long been the destination of choice for sun, surf, relaxation and adventure. But there’s a new reason to visit this neck of the woods – gin.

Renowned as a laid-back beachside haven, New South Wales’ far north cost is now making a name for itself as a producer of top quality, small batch gin – with two distilleries at the forefront. For craft beer fans, Byron Bay is home to Stone and Wood brewery, but now spirits are getting a look in, too.

Husk Distillers and the eight-month-old Cape Byron Distillery have added a new freshness and complexity to the region, taking visitors beyond the beach and into the rainforest.

Husk Distillers

byron bay gin distillery cocktail holiday guide , producers of the colour-changing Ink Gin, is a small business making a big impact.

Opened in 2012, Husk’s vision was to create an Australian take on agricole rum, made using fresh sugar cane juice instead of the variety more commonly made from molasses.

Originating on the islands of the French Caribbean, agricole rum is said to have terroir – a term for taking on earthy characteristics of the soil in which the sugarcane is grown. Tweed and Byron shires are two of the most fertile areas of the country, and Husk Distillery believe the taste of the North Coast region is reflected within each bottle they make.

Harriet Messenger, daughter of founder and distiller Paul Messenger, says having had no previous experience in the hospitality or beverage industries allowed them to take risks.

“We have been experimenting with and making our paddock-to-bottle Australian Agricole rum since 2012,” she says. “Most of this rum is still ageing on oak, but we have released an unaged agricole Pure Cane, as well as our limited release 1866 Tumbulgum Rum”.

byron bay gin distillery cocktail holiday guide

Husk’s Distiller Paul Messenger.

As sugar cane is a seasonal crop, Husk can only produce rum during the harvest season, and it soon became clear they should make a different spirit during non-harvest months. With 12 hectares of remnant Big Scrub rainforest on the family farm, and the botanical diversity that it held, it was an easy decision for them to develop a uniquely Australian gin.

Distiller Paul Messenger embarked on a voyage of botanical discovery, which led him to the Clitoria ternatea, or the butterfly pea flower. He quickly knew he was onto something. Long used in herbal teas and food across Asia, the flower wasn’t yet widely known by the West.

The recipe for Ink Gin was built around the butterfly pea flower, which has a pH sensitive floral ‘ink’ that changes colour from a deep royal blue to a pale pink or purple when mixed with something acidic such as lemon juice, lime juice or tonic water.

byron bay gin distillery cocktail holiday guide

Butterfly pea flower and other botanicals.

After three years in development, the first batch of gin was finally released in 2015. Ink soon built up a loyal following, but when actress Margot Robbie was photographed drinking a pale pink gin and tonic, the whole world took note. And, as they say, the rest is history.

Husk Distillers plan to release a North Coast Bar Series of products, which includes spiced rum, and open a new distillery and tasting room on their farm around May next year.

Cape Byron Distillery

byron bay gin distillery cocktail holiday guide

To the south near Byron Bay, on a farm overlooking his family’s macadamia plantation, Eddie Brook is adding the finishing touches to the latest batch of Brookie’s Dry Gin.

A member of the Brook family, makers of Brookfarm macadamia and muesli products, Eddie developed an interest in creating and balancing flavours from a young age. This led him to a passion for cocktail bartending, and eventually to a role as Spirit Ambassador with SouthTrade International.

It was in this role that Brook formed a friendship with Scottish master distiller Jim McEwan, creator of The Botanist Gin. After learning of the Brook family’s passion for rainforest regeneration, which has seen them plant over 35,000 plants on their property, the idea for a boutique gin crafted using rainforest botanicals native to the Northern Rivers was born.

Cape Byron Distillery released their first batch of Brookie’s Dry Gin in December 2016, a feat made possible thanks to generous contributions via the crowd-funding platform Pozible.

“After seeing the success of other gin companies launching through Pozible, I knew there was an appetite for Australian consumers”, Brook says. “But with that said, we were still overwhelmed by the support and excitement from our crowd-funding contributors.”

byron bay gin distillery cocktail holiday guide

The Brook family’s rainforest, where many botanicals are sourced from.

Showcasing the unique flavours of the rainforest is one of Brook’s key motivators.

“Brookie’s Dry Gin is produced using 26 botanical ingredients, 18 of which are native to the local area and predominantly sourced from my family’s own rainforest,” he says. “We also have a new Slow Gin, a twist on traditional sloe gin made using Davidson plums instead of sloe berries.” Due to its small batch nature, Brookie’s Slow Gin is only available locally.

Though it’s early days, Brook sees the North Coast growing in popularity as a destination for distilleries and craft breweries, turning the region into a more rounded gourmet hotspot.

“I can definitely see the Northern Rivers become the next big thing for spirit production,” he says. “We already have some incredible local producers including Husk Distillers up the way, plus Tintenbar Distillery, who opened just a few weeks ago. It would be a dream to see more producers come to area, and work with them to help put our area on the map!”

Cape Byron Distillery offer tasting tours of their rainforest and distillery every Friday and Saturday. Visit the website to book.

Published 13 November, 2017