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David Kernke - Shene Distillery

Written by Gin Foundry

Ahead of Junipalooza Melbourne, we’ve caught up with a few distillers and owners, to talk all things Gin, Australia and what they’ve been up to. Here we meet David Kernke, the man heading up Shene Distillery’s operations to see how he felt things are shaping up both in Tasmania and for them in particular.

Hi David - Let’s jump straight in the deep end! What do you think the next 18 months looks like for the Gin category in Australia?

Exciting, to say the least!

There’s no denying the Australian Gin scene is booming. Gin distillers use the world as their spice basket and Australian producers are lucky enough to be able to access Australia’s unique offerings – the surface has only just been scratched with what we have to offer. The next 18 months will be full of experimentation, and this is something that we pride ourself on with Poltergeist - using native botanicals and bringing the Australian bush to the bottle.

You’ve been growing steadily but surely these past few years, how big is the team now and are you all based over at the estate in Tassie?

At Shene, we have always been a family business, with our focus being the conservation of the Estate. From the beginning, the business was run by myself and wife Anne, but we were soon joined by daughter Myfanwy. With the formation of Shene Distillery, the team Shene workforce soon grew and we are now a team of seven.  Six members are permanently based here in Tasmania while the seventh team member, Myfanwy, is jointly based in Tasmania and Sydney.  When not assisting with production, Myf undertakes marketing of Distillery products. The next team Shene member to joining our team with be our grandson George, who at one and half is being groomed to be a future Head Distiller at the Estate.

That’s quite an early stage to be starting an apprenticeship! When did you first decide to make your delicious Poltergeist Gin at the estate?

Archeology undertaken during the conservation works of Shene Estate revealed vast quantities of early 19th century Dutch Case Gin bottles and Pitt’s aerated tonic water bottles from London. It is apparent the preferred drink of the first settlers at Shene in the 1800’s was gin and tonic, imported from England. It was a no-brainer that when Shene Distillery was incorporated in 2014 we must make gin. And we have been making and drinking Poltergeist Gin at the Estate ever since.

As a link to the past, we have adopted the pale aqua colour of the imported tonic water bottles as the base colour of the Poltergeist Unfiltered label. And we are happy to echo history with our sights set on exporting Poltergeist Gin back to England.

You have two gins at the moment - What made you chose to release a filtered and un-filtered version?   

In simple terms, taste was the overriding decider. Poltergeist Gin is a unique, full flavoured and aromatic gin that reflects our choice of botanicals, including the unique Australian ones, and our pristine Tasmanian water.

The complexity came about when we were considering the filtration process.  Most commercial gins are filtered through a carbon filter prior to bottling.  Poltergeist A True Spirit has been filtered using a coconut fibre carbon filter to ensure that we achieve a crisp London Dry Gin style.  Taste testing before and after carbon fibre filtration revealed two exciting, and yet, totally different results, both of which were deemed exceptional. Indeed, there is a strong following for both expressions and the Shene Team makers of Poltergeist are divided as to which expression is the best. The debate continues…

As outsiders based on the other side of the world, it seems like Tasmania has a scene all of its own, that’s buzzing with great producers but kind of separate to mainland Australia. Is that a fair assessment and what’s it like to be a part of the craft moment over there?

Tasmania is indisputably a unique part of the world. We are an island off an island and still manage to do things differently from the mainland. Separated by the Bass Strait and the Indian Ocean / Tasman Sea from mainland Australia, Tasmania has a population of only 515,000 and boasts the purest air and water to be found anywhere in the world. Being close to the Antarctic, it has a climate similar to that of Europe rather than that experienced throughout much of the relatively hot and arid mainland of Australia.

The uniqueness of Tasmania, its favourable inherent climatic conditions and clean and green perception ensures that it has its own separate and special identity when compared to mainland Australia. Being a part of the craft movement here is thrilling for us all.

And what about the name… Poltergeist conjures very specific ideas for people, what made you chose it and how did that come about?

The name Poltergeist is derived from the German word that roughly translates to ‘active spirit’ or ‘rumbling ghost’.  The name is apt for a number of reasons: firstly, engraved into the walls of the 1851 Gothic revival stables is Australia’s first discovered and documented evil averting mark, known as a hexafoil, which is a series of circular scratchings designed to ward-off evil spirits.

Secondly, we say that our family actively embraces the spirit of the heritage site’s conservation and history and lastly, that Poltergeist Gin itself is a cheekily active spirit. As a bonus fact: Poltergeist Unfiltered tends to ‘ghost’ over ice due to its high oil component not removed by filtration, which too, seems appropriate.

And look, mysterious occurrences have taken place at Shene Homestead which adds to the name. But this story is for another time – perhaps at dark with gin martini in hand.

We spook easily, so we’ll need some fortifying and that Martini might not last long! What are you working on at the moment?

Gin was exported from England to Australia in the early days of colonial settlement.  Our aim is to reverse history by exporting Poltergeist Gin back into England and Europe.

If there was one thing you wished people knew more about you as a distillery - be it ethos, people or place - what would it be?

The place. Shene Estate is an iconic early Australian property dating from 1819. It has links to King George III of England and prominent early colonialists including a former English lawyer Gamaliel Butler. The architectural styles and structural improvements include a Georgian Regency homestead, Georgian outbuildings and a unique Gothic revival stables complex.

The stables hold a secret chapel on the second floor, ritual marks etched into walls and heralds itself as one the more ostentatious buildings of its kind in Australia. The Shene Holdings played an important part as a wheat and wool producer in the early days of settlement and has continued to maintain its importance as an agricultural and grazing property to this date. Shene Distillery opens up a whole new and exciting chapter for the Estate which will ensure that Shene remains relevant into the future and that the iconic structural improvements will survive for the benefit of all. We’re also very proud that funds generated from the sale of distillery products are used in the conservation of the Estate.

All image credits (and our thanks for being allowed to use them) to the brilliant Alison Cosker, in particular the portrait of David and Anne entitled Australian Gothic. 

Australian Gothic, Shene Distillery, Poltergeist Gin, DAVID KERNKE