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Jon Lark - Kangeroo Island Spirits

Kis 1
Written by Gin Foundry

One of the early pioneers of the gin renaissance in Australia, Jon’s been distilling Gin and the wider Kangaroo Island Spirits range for over a decade.  In a bid for some escapism and what normality looks like - we caught up with him to talk about everything else than bushfires and Covid 19.

Jon, You’ve been distilling for a long time now - where did Kangaroo Island Spirits all begin - was it really at your wedding?

Sarah’s grandmother, Mavis, shared a gin with me just before I walked down the aisle to be married. This was probably when it all started, so we later named our first still after Mavis.

Sarah and I had first met in the Great Victoria Desert in the late 1990s. We had both been working in different roles with the local Spinifex people (indigenous group in Western Australia), and were fortunate to have the opportunity to spend time sitting on the ground with people who think differently about the landscape they live in. This experience was one element in the development of our passion for making gins that reflect our own landscape.

At our wedding in 2002, we began a discussion with my brother Bill Lark (of the Lark Distillery). We had left the desert for the moment, and I had just completed a science degree. At the time only about 17 distilleries had started up in Australia since Bill had the law changed in 1992. We wondered why nobody in Australia seemed to be taking traditional gin production seriously.

In Tasmania, a few distilleries produced small batches of gin, often using oils or other shortcuts, but their love of spirits was focused on whisky, and gin was perhaps the best way of bringing in cashflow while waiting for the whisky to age.

Sarah and I decided to make gin using traditional processes and real botanicals, reflecting historical methods as well as the creative new ideas starting to emerge. We began making our first gins in a 1.2-litre still set up on our kitchen table in the western suburbs of Adelaide.

Those early tinkerings led to our decision to move to Kangaroo Island, where we established what was the first dedicated gin distillery in Australia. By 2006 we had our licence and our small 80-litre pot still, Mavis. Kangaroo Island Spirits (KIS) was born in a little shed on our property at Cygnet River on Kangaroo Island, where we now have a small distillery, flourishing gin garden and busy cellar door.

For those who don’t know it, What is Kangaroo Island like?

Kangaroo island is Australia’s third largest island. It is 170 km long and sits 18 kms off the coast of South Australia. 25% of the island is national park and has a small interesting Wine, food and beverage industry. It is one of the top tourism destinations in Australia with many quiet, beautiful beaches.

Even though the climate here is cool temperate there is similar diversity in marine life as the great barrier reef.

Why did you chose there to set up your distillery?

We had recently moved from the most remote community in Australia and the island offered some appeal in remoteness with relatively close proximity to South Australia’s capital city, Adelaide.

Our motivation was to make a traditional gin which genuinely reflected the landscape we lived in. Kangaroo Island was a great location to do this. We were able to join an emerging tourism and food-beverage industry, in an incredible landscape which continues to inspire us.

You forage for native juniper for the Wild Gin, does it have a remarkably different profile to the kind many are used to from places like Tuscany or Macedonia?

We use a plant known as boobialla (myporum insulare) in our Wild Gin. This is a native to southern Australia and we came across it on our property when we moved to the island. It is referred to as ‘Native juniper’ as its small purple berries are a similar size to true juniper and has a juniper like flavour.

For the Wild Gin we simply blend the two junipers together. Common Juniper is still the dominant ingredient that brings those lovely fresh piney notes, it is then complimented with the sweeter, crisper native berry.

You won Best Contemporary Gin at the IWSC Awards - congratulations, a huge achievement. Whilst everyone will have their different interpretations of the gin, what do you think it is that makes it stand out?

It’s a Gin lovers gin, juniper dominant and more savoury than our Wild Gin. Its our personal favourite and the aroma of Olearia brings to us memories of walking through the sand dunes on a hot summers day. We like the spice and the fresh orange and like most good gins its enjoyable neat on ice.

Monkey 47, Koala 48… All firmly tongue in cheek as a release, but what can you tell us about the Gin that was made?

We really did have a koala walk into the distillery last year so this incident inspired the idea.

Trying to understand how you would make a gin with so many botanicals has been on our minds for some years. Hats off to its creators. We decided it would be fun to make a gin using botanicals entirely from our estate.

We set about considering how to make this work and came up with a formula which we felt balanced the flavours. This coincided with our first small harvest of common juniper from bushes planted 5 years ago.

The resulting gin was complex and full of body. It worked better than we expected and was very popular here last summer. The first run of 600 bottles is sold out so we are now planning a second vintage. It will be impossible for us to get everything in our garden to line up exactly the same as the last run but we expect it to be even better with some new ingredients.

What’s the one thing that you’ve noticed that has changed above everything else in the past 10 years when it comes to Gin?

The variety of gins out there and the knowledge that consumers now have has grown enormously. When we started 13 years ago we had to explain what Craft Gin was. Now consumers are ordering by name and understand the differences in many styles of Gins.

The Aussie Gin scene looks a bit like the Wild West to those of us in Europe – we’ve got very firm regulations holding everything in place. Do you love the freedom?

We love being creative and free to consider what we create. This doesn’t mean that everything works and there are gins out there that demonstrate this. When we started, we only had history and an EU definition to guide us.

One problem with the very quick evolution- the second glorious revolution - of Gins, is the grey boundaries of what is a gin in Australia. We do have regulation for Brandy, Rum, and Whisky in Australia, but nothing for Gin.

Personally we are watching very closely the discussions coming from people like Fairfax Hall (Sipsmith) and Hayman’s recent campaign around ‘Fake Gins’. We are concerned like them that it is important to clearly define gins. This is also very apparent when entering international gin competitions who all have very different understandings of gin categories.

The one thing Australian distillers can’t quite seem to resist is Lemon Myrtle. We noticed it’s in your Old Tom Gin – that seems such a mad blend, sweetness, wood, citrussy herbal… did it take a bit of tweaking to get right?

Lemon Myrtle is common but less common than lemon in English Gins. When you have the opportunity to visit Australia and can hold the leaves in your hand you will find it very refreshing and understand immediately why it is so popular.

Our Old Tom was made to reflect those old gins from earlier London. The wood is in reference to the fact Old Tom would have been held in wood and this likely influenced the spirit inside.

And finally, are you making your way into international waters?

We are already exporting to Japan and Singapore and are having discussions with UK/EU distributors. We will be available in the UK soon, so watch our website for details!