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That’s The Spirit: The Rise & Rise of the Micro-Distillery

How does a distillery in a remote town in Far North Queensland take out numerous global spirits awards across several categories on the international spirit circuit? And if it can be done in just a few years, beating the English at their 300-year old game, can it really be that hard? While spirit production might – from the outside – be little more than a few potatoes, some sugarcane or a bathtub, the challenge to stay present and relevant in a very busy industry takes quite of lot of blood, sweat and gin.

Nestled in the foothills of a banana plantation just outside Mareeba, an hour and a bit north west of Cairns, Mt. Uncle Distillery is the shining beacon at the start of Australia’s Great Dividing Range. The distillery is based on a banana plantation owned and run by the longstanding, local Watkins family. The land has played many roles – it was originally a cattle farm, then home to macadamia nuts, then avocados. The banana plantation still stands strong, with its packing shed doubling up as the distillery.

In recent years, Mt Uncle Distillery has collected more than a swag of awards – their flagship product, the Mt Uncle Botanic Australis Gin has more national and international medals than can be listed; the Mt Uncle FNQ Co Platinum Rum collected gold at the 2019 Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits and was ranked second overall out of all rums worldwide, and most recently the Watkins Whiskey picked up the Category Winner for Australian Single Malt Whiskey (12 years and under) at the 2020 World Whiskies Awards. These awards follow on from the outstanding success of the distillery being named Australian Distillery of the Year in 2017 at the Melbourne International Spirit Competition, and in 2019, the FNQ Rum Co Iridium Gold was named World’s Best Pot Still Rum (5 Years & Under) at the World Rum Awards.

“It’s a fantastic gong for a white rum to rank second out
of all rums on the international scene and score a gold medal,” says Head Distiller and company director, Mark Watkins. “Ranking so highly at the international level is incredible, and now the white rum has a bit of brass that can compete with its older sister the gold as best pot stilled rum in the world.”

VIEW FROM THE DISTILLERY FLOOR

There’s no denying it – the distillery floor is a crowded one indeed. The Australian Distillers Association (headed by Four Pillars co-founder and director Stuart Gregor) has seen an exponential rise in memberships over the last decade. From 12 members in 2012 to over 200 members at the end of 2019, it’s clear that competition is increasing.

“The spirit industry in Australia is exactly where is the Australian wine industry was in the 1970s,” says Gregor. “Australia has incredible ingredients and indigenous botanicals in addition to the classical botanicals, like juniper that you use in gin, so we’re making a really unique-flavoured gin.”

New data from Roy Morgan’s Alcohol Consumption Currency Report shows that 26.7% of Australians 18+ consumed spirits in an average four-week period. Gin has shown the largest pick-up in recent times and is now ahead of vodka as the spirit of choice for Australian drinkers. Locally made gin accounts for 13.8 per cent of all gin consumed in Australia. And that is a decent portion of the industry. As the Aussie palate becomes more discerning, a growing community of micro distilleries are catering for every conceivable liquor combination. Aussie gin is being made with bush tucker products, seaweed and even whey – the by-products of cheese production – and spirit drinkers cannot get enough of it.

DIFFERENTIATION IS KEY

So how do distillers differentiate themselves in such a competitive market? In Mt Uncle Distillery’s case, the business decided to truly focus on local ingredients across all products. The Botanic Australis Gin uses 14 locally sourced botanicals including peppermint gum, wattle seed, lemon myrtle, native ginger, finger lime and bunya nut in addition to juniper and a 300-year old recipe. The FNQ Co Iridium Gold is an Agricole style using locally grown sugar cane, then aged for 4 years in American oak, formerly used for red wine production. Their award winning (and eyebrow-raisingly named) single barrel single malt whiskey, The Big Black Cock, uses only the finest Queensland barley.

The distillery now has three gins on the market (their Navy Strength and a Bushfire Gin, botanicals smoked prior to blending), a marshmallow liqueur (SexyCat, made from local and perennial marshmallow plant), two award winning whiskies, two award-winning rums, and have now also joined forces with the extended family’s business, Plantation Brew Co. to produce the world’s first sweet potato vodka, changing the way food wastage from commercial farms is handled in rural Australia.

“At the end of the day, we want to tell people the sustainable story of not only our spirits, but of the Tropical North” Watkins says. “We want people to connect with the authenticity of what we do here at Mt Uncle – we’re making a product that brings enjoyment and we’re incredibly proud of that.”

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