Chris Cameron came to distilling unexpectedly. In 2016 the former professional basketballer and primary school teacher was making beer with a few mates at DIY operation The Public Brewery in Melbourne. He wondered why something similar didn’t exist for spirits.
With the idea to open a place where people could make their own gin – by far the most customisable spirit – Cameron bought a little Italian pot still, set it up at home and started teaching himself. It didn’t take long for reality to hit: distilling is mostly dull work.
“It’s not a quick turnaround,” he says. “It takes time. I couldn’t imagine people wanting to come in for five and a half hours, sit there and watch the still boil. It sounds great, but literally nothing happens.”
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Regardless, he was hooked on the process and wanted to forge ahead with opening his own distillery. He spent several years buying vodka and re-distilling it with classic gin botanicals such as juniper and coriander, and more out-there additions including banana and pineapple.
“I spent over 20 grand on vodka at Dan Murphy’s,” he says. “I swear they thought I was the biggest alcoholic in the area. I’d go in and buy 20 or 40 bottles at a time.”
After 300 separate distillations, Cameron arrived at a recipe he was happy with and approached several established distilleries, including Four Pillars, for advice on how to scale up. In 2020 he launched Naught Distilling in the leafy outer Melbourne suburb of Eltham, near where he grew up, later adding a cocktail bar.
That original recipe, Naught Australian Dry Gin, was last year crowned champion New World/Contemporary Gin at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards, the most prestigious competition in the country. And this year it earned a gold rating (“exceptional spirits that are near the pinnacle of achievement”) at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Its lead botanicals are juniper, orange and cassia. Toasted wattleseed adds a nutmeg-like robustness, and pepperberry leaf a hint of spice. Then there’s rosemary for herbaceousness, star anise for a liquorice finish and macadamia oil to impart a smooth, luscious mouthfeel. Cameron also adds a dash of honey to all his gins, more out of “superstition” than for flavour.
There are another three gins in the current line-up, including the 57.5 per cent ABV Overproof Gin bursting with pink lady apples, pink grapefruit and lime (another gold in San Franscisco) and a newer London-style dry, a minimalist, six-ingredient gin ideal for making dry Martinis.
But if the barely two-year-old distillery is going to blow the roof off, it’ll be with its Sangiovese Gin. Recently it was awarded 98 out of 100 points at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in London (an event with similar clout to San Francisco) and earned Naught one of four spots on the shortlist for Best International Gin Producer, the same award Four Pillars won in 2019 and 2020. Two other Aussie distilleries were in the running, both from Queensland: Granddad Jack’s and Kalki Moon, but Estonia’s Junimperium Distillery took out the top gong.
The parallels between Naught and Four Pillars are striking: both are located in or near the Yarra Valley, both are precocious award-winners, and both make cult, limited-edition wine-grape gins.
Four Pillars’ Bloody Shiraz Gin started as an experiment in 2015. While increased production has made it more and more attainable each year, some of the earlier, ultra-limited vintages sold out in weeks. Naught’s at that stage now: last year’s 900 bottles sold out in a month, and this year’s run of 5500 is well on the way.
Where many fruited gins can be quite fruit-forward, Cameron wanted his to remain a gin first, with the sangiovese adding a background glow. He likes the Italian grape’s versatility: depending on how and where it was grown it can range from dry and earthy to positively jammy.
“The cool thing about this and other fruit gins is that they’re seasonal,” Cameron says. “So our 2022 vintage might be completely different to 2023, based on the weather.”
This year’s fruit – two tonnes in all – was handpicked up the road at Yarraland vineyard and adds cooked cherry and strawberry notes for a post-dinner, digestive-style gin. Get it before it sells out.
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Article updated on September 30 2022.