Sheep's whey and wakame: Tasmania's off-beat gin boom

Ruth Dawkins

George Burgess didn’t set out to be a gin distiller. Born in Melbourne and brought up in north-west Tasmania, Burgess dropped out of school early and spent most of his teens in libraries and museums rather than the classroom. After talking his way back into formal education – studying chemical technology at Tafe – Burgess then worked through a succession of roles in the brewing, dairy and biotech industries.

Now the head distiller at Southern Wild Distillery, which opened near Devonport in 2017, Burgess is taking his experience as a food scientist and flipping it on its head.

“I knew if I could work in the food and beverage industry I’d have a job for life,” Burgess says. “People will always need to eat and drink. But I didn’t like big business – I didn’t like what it does to individuals and communities, so I wanted to break away from that model.”

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The name of Southern Wild’s gin, Dasher + Fisher, comes from two rivers that carry Cradle Mountain snow melt through the area. But Burgess’s commitment to the often-overlooked region of north-west Tasmania is far more than just lip service; he is passionate about showcasing local produce and building genuine relationships with suppliers.

The distillery’s three core gin products – Ocean, Mountain and Meadow – all contain a trio of Tasmanian ingredients (native pepperberry, lavender and wakame), and special editions have used locally-grown saffron and sloe berries. Burgess says that it’s not unusual for farmers to stop by the distillery unannounced with handfuls of herbs for him to try.

When a fruit-fly outbreak led to export restrictions in 2018, Burgess’s approach really paid off. The distillery bought large quantities of strawberries from local growers – fruit that would otherwise have been dumped – and produced a special-edition strawberry gin. It won Best Australian Gin at the 2019 World Liqueur awards.

“It’s great when we outperform bigger producers on the world stage,” says Burgess. “We sell out when we win an award – we can’t even meet the demand in Australia, let alone worldwide.”

In the south of the state, there’s another distiller finding success with a small-scale, innovative approach. Hartshorn Distillery in Birch’s Bay is producing the world’s first gin from sheep’s whey. Made in batches of just 120 bottles, with a hand-painted design on each , the gin earned Hartshorn a gold trophy at the 2018 World Gin awards.

Distiller Ryan Hartshorn first started distilling vodka as a way to use the waste product from his family’s Grandvewe Cheesery. After mastering the technique to produce sheep’s whey vodka, Hartshorn turned his attention to gin.

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“I want everything I release to be of a standard where you can drink it neat or as a martini,” says Hartshorn. “For the gin, I use an Australian flower and an Australian sweetgrass that no one else is using. That makes it light and delicate.”

He acknowledges that while the Hartshorn approach helps its gin stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace, the focus on sustainability is not an unusual one in Tasmania. “It’s almost the ethos of the entire state, it doesn’t matter what the business is. Everyone is trying to do things better, to be environmentally and socially impactful. It’s such a beautiful place, and we want to keep it that way.”

Both George Burgess and Ryan Hartshorn believe that in a state as small as Tasmania, it’s necessary for distillers to support each other. “They’re comrades, not competitors,” says Hartshorn – and someone who has a close-up view of that community spirit is Ginuary organiser Courtney Quinn-McCabe.

Ginuary is an annual festival that takes place in Hobart every January, bringing together Tasmanian distillers and customers for tasting sessions, events and sales. It began life as a university project back in 2018 and in that first year, 18 distilleries took part. For 2020, 28 have already signed on.

“Individually there are so many points of difference between the distillers,” says Quinn-McCabe, “but collectively they are a close, tight-knit group and it paints a powerful and strong picture of the industry. I could list every single distillery and give you a reason why they’re great – whether it’s because of an ingredient they forage for, like wild fennel, or their amazing approach to marketing. I can’t pick a favourite though. That would be like asking me to pick my favourite child.”