Take 96-per-cent-proof alcohol, usually distilled from grapes. Mix the alcohol with some sort of zesty botanical – such as rosemary or orange peel – and then place the lot in a copper still. Distil one at a time so that each botanical distillate becomes a building block for the perfect gin, which then must be mixed in the right ratio, using the right selection of ingredients. It’s a process that can take years, and for Andrew Marks of The Melbourne Gin Company, it has.
A winemaker by trade, Marks started experimenting with gin back in 2009. “A friend and I started this thing called Martini Tuesday,” explains Marks, putting some ice in a glass. “And we’d have a few martinis and a bit of banter and it grew from there.” He bought a miniature pot still (about the size of an espresso machine) and the initial results were promising, although his flatmate began to complain of strange dreams from the vapours.
Marks knew he had to move the operation out of his flat, so he purchased a larger still, this time a copper pot baine-marie from Portugal, and moved out to his family vineyard in Gembrook. From there it was about refining the botanicals he wanted, and getting the ratios right. “Gin is traditionally flavoured with juniper berries and coriander, but I wanted to use something a little more Australian,” says Marks. “I played around with honey lemon myrtle and cassia bark, as well as some imports. I also gave up on some ingredients, like star anise because even at one per cent concentration it’s all you can taste. You don’t want any one flavour to dominate. You want a nice, even spread.” In the end he settled on 12 different botanicals, vialed samples of which he displays in a leather box. There’s macadamia, sandalwood, orange, angelica and orris root. Finally, at one end, is a vial marked ‘love’.
Marks is now slicing off some lemon peel. He’s also pouring out sweet vermouth and gin as he explains the leap from deciding his gin was good, to it actually being good. “I took it to Spain, where there is an amazing gin culture, and I was very proud of myself, so I shared it around and people said, ‘you know, it actually has a way to go’. I realised, ‘oh god, they’re right. It’s still not ready’.” Marks repeats a saying penned by Frank Moorhouse in his 2005 memoir Martini, “Every time it is served, the martini represents a journey towards an unattainably ideal drink, and that’s the whole point. You can never actually make the perfect gin or wine, you can only get closer and closer to it.” And with that Marks hands me a martini.
Marks’ gin is a nod to London Dry Gin, but with perhaps a few brighter notes of citrus and something sunny. It’s the type of gin that sits perfectly in a summer G&T or any martini at any time. “And that’s what I’m trying to do,” says Marks, studying the frosty glass. “A bit of banter can be as good as it possibly can be with the right martini, and of course that starts with the right gin. It’s just all about reaching.”
The Melbourne Gin Company is stocked at Blackhearts and Sparrows, Rathdowne Cellars, Smith St Cellars, Gertrude St Enoteca, City Wine Shop, Prince Wine Store, Toorak Cellars, Bottle House South Yarra, Boccaccio Cellars, Seddon Wine Store, Barrique – Healesville and Woodend Wine Store for about $70.