The heritage-listed brick building of Little Lon Distilling Co is a small, three-room cottage with bluestone flooring, a slate roof and an outdoor toilet, and it’s the last of its type to survive in Melbourne.
At the turn of last century, the cottage housed illegal sex workers and bootleg grog in the area then known as the Little Lon district – a neighbourhood that Australian author and poet CJ Dennis described in 1915 as favoured by “low, degraded broots (brutes)”.
“I’ve always known this place existed because I love the history of Melbourne,” says distillery co-founder Brad Wilson. “I’ve studied architecture and I’ve always loved the classic red bricks. There’s not too many of them left anymore.”
Wilson tracked down the building’s owners, a property investment company, but it was six months before he could secure a lease. Even then, he was only able to lock in a home for his new distillery for one year.
“It’s quite short term,” Wilson says. “It’s a test to see how it develops for me, and how it works for them.”
Given its central location (the cottage is surrounded by city skyscrapers), the City of Melbourne was reluctant to approve the space for industrial use. Fortunately for Wilson, the unique history of the building meant he found an ally in Heritage Victoria. Without its support, he says, the distillery would not have gone ahead.
The cottage is now licensed for 20 people, with a small bar, a gin still in one room, and fermentation tanks in another.
Together with his brother, Jared, Wilson is producing a range of gins that take inspiration from the stories of the Little Lon era.
The first is a gingery jenever-style gin named after the CJ Dennis book character Ginger Mick. Jenever is a Dutch malt-based spirit flavoured with juniper, sometimes seen as a historic precursor to gin. A lychee-infused gin is named Little Miss Yoko after Chinese sex worker Yokohama (real name Tiecome Ah Chung), who lived and worked in the cottage up until the late 1920s. A dry London-style gin, is also in the works.
Bottled gins are available to takeaway, but when you pick up a bottle you may as well order a gin and tonic at the compact bar. There’s a tight cocktail list, too. The Dutch Apple comprises mulled jenever and apple cider. It’s served hot with “a bunch of extra spices”. There’s also a Negroni, gin Old Fashioned, and Little Lon’s version of a Tom Collins, which is given a kick with lemongrass and chilli syrup.
“We're still experimenting,” Wilson says. “We're producing three gins currently and will have a full cocktail list to compliment these flavours come next month.”
All fermentation and distilling is done on-site, with the base alcohol brewed at Westside Ale Works in South Melbourne.
Artwork for the labels is hand drawn by Kerby Rosanes, a Filipino artist who specialises in intricate sketches. The design is based on the original Little Lon district layout, and eagle-eyed drinkers will spy some characters of the time, including Ginger Mick and Yokohama, like a historical Where’s Wally.
On Saturdays, gin masterclasses run from 3pm for $65. Guests receive a drink on arrival, a cocktail of their choice and a tasting of four different gins.
Little Lon Distilling Co
17 Casselden Place, Melbourne
0434 796 873
Thu & Fri 4pm–11pm
This article was updated on October 4, 2018 at 12.40pm. Menu items may have changed since publication.