In Food + Drink

Overnight At An Old Gin Distillery On This Off-The-Grid NZ Island

It’s made with a twist of honey, stocked in renowned bars across Melbourne and earmarked to fill shelves in establishments throughout San Francisco. But the aptly named Island Gin comes from humble origins far from the bright city lights of where it can be ordered from a menu and served in a cocktail or with tonic and a slice of lemon.

On a completely off-the-grid island one hundred kilometres off the coast of New Zealand’s Auckland, Australian-born distiller Andi Ross has taken the gin world by storm with her brilliant blend.

Consisting of one hundred percent certified organic Macedonian juniper berries, triple-filtered rain-harvested water, local Manuka and bush honey and with infusions of coriander and citrus, the craft gin brings a “really smooth feel to the mouth,” Ross describes.

“It’s been a challenging but fun journey,” she says of the process that began as a hobby inside the humble beach shack on Great Barrier Island she owns with her husband and where many happy family holidays were spent with their two daughters in tow.

Ross has since renovated the space to provide fully solar-powered boutique accommodation available through the Island Gin website. Guests will delight in discovering a complimentary bottle of Island Gin upon arrival and an architecturally designed garden folly perfect for alfresco dining. Not to mention the opportunity to experience where the gin made its unassuming debut.

“The bach [small holiday home] is a nice feature to offer as part of the Island Gin story as that’s where I started,” Ross says. “It contains a lot of history; it’s a very special place.”

Ross would tinker in her original kitchen, using a small alembic copper pot to produce the spirit, which she’d then serve with lemons from a tree said to have seeded from an old shipwreck and have friends taste-test the finished product.

Fast-forward three years later after taking her prototype to Melbourne for it to be up-scaled to suit a larger production run, and Ross is now operating Island Gin in a sophisticated distillery on the island complete with a bespoke copper distiller she put together herself and a solar-powered bottling machine. While it remains a boutique business, Ross is “keeping up with the demand” of a successful summer.

“Gin is growing in popularity, particularly overseas,” she says. The European gin resurgence made its way to Australian shores in around 2012 with boutique brands popping up everywhere and New Zealand has seen a similar explosion with more than 50 distillers currently operating.

Ross, a member of the Australian Women in Distilling Association and Distilled Spirits Aotearoa, says there’s a strong presence of female gin distillers in Australia, particularly in Tasmania.

Island Gin is available online and on the island. Ross made a conscious decision to limit its accessibility to align with her philosophy of being as environmentally friendly as possible.

Bottles are made from recycled glass by a Kiwi-based company and take the distinctive form of a kina – a sea urchin native to New Zealand – and a concept that Ross designed with the help of a friend back in Australia. Her neighbour on the island – a glassblower – breathes new life into empty bottles by transforming the necks into pourers and repurposing the vessels as beautiful cocktail decanters available for purchase.

“It was important for me to bring a brand into the world that had a strong sustainable footprint,” Ross says. “Living on an island, I don’t want to leave much behind. That ethos is central to me; that’s why I don’t hand the gin out willy-nilly. If I grow slowly, then I grow slowly.”

Island Gin

But Ross has a carefully calculated plan to introduce her gin to the world; Juliet Melbourne and its sister bar Punch Lane both stock it, in line with the establishment’s continual support of female distillers, and Ross is in conversations with hospitality groups in Auckland and San Francisco.

There are three varieties to the Island Gin name: the original blend with an alcohol content of a little over 43 percent and for those in need of something stronger, the Navy Strength at 57 percent alcohol will do the trick. Ross recommends serving the tipple with a sprig of rosemary: “It works really well with the honey.”

She’s working on a limited edition Black Label gin where she experiments with in-season botanicals available on the island; currently tangelo and grapefruit blossoms.

While the former creative director admits she comes from a long line of gin lovers (both her mother and grandmother drank the spirit), never in her wildest dreams did she think she’d be affectionately referred to as ‘Madame Distiller’ by locals on the island and have a gin label to her name.

“But I do come from a creative background and for me the whole process offers endless creativity – from distilling and bottling to making cocktails and even the seasonality of ingredients. This is by far the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” Ross says.

(All images: Island Gin / supplied)

Published 18 February, 2020