Bass & Flinders
Bass and Flinders were two famous British cartographers, navigators and adventurers who teamed up in the late 1700s to explore Australia together. Their names, as tends to happen with these sorts of chaps, were stamped on streets and towns up and down the paths they trod – there’s a Flinders Village here, a Bass strait there. Many of these are located on the Mornington Peninsula, where neighbours Wayne Klintworth and Bob Laing happened to holiday every now and again.
Retirement was never really on the cards for Wayne and Bob. They were experimental gents with busy minds and busy feet. They had a shared interest in brandy to boot, so when they realised that the Mornington Peninsula was home to plenty of wineries but few, if any, distilleries, the fragment of an idea was born.
They started playing around with local produce in 2009, tinkering around with grapes in an attempt to make some local eaux de vies on what was very much a “back yard” set up. Though neither had much experience, the idea took root, and the products they were making continued to improve. They poured a great deal of research into it, visiting Cognac and Normandy, seeking advice from a mentor and learning the ropes from someone who was already well involved in brandy production. In 2010, Bass & Flinders Distillery was born. In 2011, it produced its first eau de vie.
Wayne and Bob’s experimental natures carried Bass & Flinders far beyond brandies. Before long, they were using their grape base to create gins, vodka, grappa and Limoncello. The gins themselves take up a fair bit of shelf space; the core range comprises three: Gin– Soft and Smooth, Gin 10 – Wild and Spicy and Monsoon Gin – Eastern Twist. These are joined by seasonal gins, such as Cerise and Winter and rare, premium gins, including a Truffle Gin and – strangest of all – Angry Ant Gin. We like to think that Wayne and Bob were like mad old scientists, wired and frantic, plucking berries from trees and shouting “eureka” whenever they stumbled upon something new.
When Wayne’s daughter Holly stopped by Gin Foundry HQ to drop off a couple of bottles, she painted a similar picture. “They were very much a try it and see if it works team; there are dormant labels everywhere, stuff that didn’t quite get made,” she said.
Holly became an important part of Bass & Flinders Distillery in early 2016, following a great loss to the team. In February of that year, Bob, who’d been fine – teaching masterclasses, keeping busy as Head Distiller – passed away. His heart gave out suddenly, leaving a huge void.
Holly was already in the booze industry; she’d been doing marketing for a global wine brand before taking time off to work in a vineyard in Burgundy. Whilst there, she fell in love with Calvados, as a result gaining a little more interest in what was going on back home. When it came time to move over to Bass and Flinders, she studied a short IBD course run through the Tasmanian Whisky Academy. The rest she learnt from Wayne, working by his side for the first few months until she had it down.
Holly is now in charge of the day to day distilling at Bass & Flinders. She makes both the base spirits and the gins, all of which are created from Shiraz grapes. Wine is added to Bass and Flinders 300-litre copper pot still and driven up to 86% ABV.
Under EU law, for a gin to wear the ‘Distilled Gin’ title, the base alcohol upon which it is being made has to have been distilled up to 96%. By only going as far as 86%, Bass & Flinders grape spirit falls short and so is used in combination with a Neutral Grain Spirit which is brought in for their gin production. While no longer grape to glass what that means, though, is that the grape flavour very much remains a core part of the vodka, and acts as the very first botanical when it comes to flavouring the gins.
Though Bass and Flinders Soft and Smooth Gin is the most traditional in the collection, it’s still far removed from any gin you may have tried before. Well… unless you’ve tried Thai gin Iron Balls, which has a great deal in common on the nose. While the Iron Balls base is made from crushed pineapples and coconuts, the fruitiness of the wine brings a similar, unrepentant candy, calling to the mind fruit salad chew sweets and childhood flashbacks. Lime zest, angelica, liquorice, juniper, cardamom and pepper berry make up a good chunk of the botanical line-up, but – despite their efforts to shine – Shiraz grapes are the star and that base literally screams throughout.
That sweetshop smell dominates the nose, and if you’re enjoying the sensation you can breathe freely, as there is no alcohol burn to speak of – this is every bit as smooth as its name would suggest. The lime pops up like a flashbulb – a loud, zesty burst of citrus that leads the nose to a dusty cardamom and fresh pepper spice. Bright, but never burning, the spice adds depth, suggesting that to taste, the gin will be one of many facets.
On the tongue, the spice is much louder – leaping out of the glass first and anchoring itself down before the fruit onslaught. And fruit is what happens next – the citrus tastes fresh and juicy, well supported by the Shiraz base. It begins in a candied state, like the green crunchy sweet of a Chocolate Lime, but blends in with the spice to become much warmer, almost bringing a coriander seed quality. It has great length, too, coating the mouth with a zesty heat that is all at once alien and familiar. There is a notable absence of juniper to taste, but there is a minty, myrtle-like freshness that comes back into the fold and hints at the juniper within. We’d argue that it doesn’t quite fall into gin territory but, and this is a big but – it does taste quite wonderful.
With tonic, the lime loses its candied element, instead holing up with the tonic and becoming a much more bitter character. There is a huge freshness, with the fruitiness of the nose roaring back. It’s a dry G&T, and a fun one to boot. We’d serve it with an orange wheel and a sprig of rosemary, the former to sweeten the citrus, the latter to up the pine.
Bass & Flinders Gin 10
Bass & Flinders 10 – Wild and Spicy has a very similar nose (in the way that siblings have a familial similarity, yet with their own character) to the Soft and Smooth, so it comes as something of a surprise to hear that it features 10 very different botanicals – amongst which is orange, pepper berry, cassia, cardamom and juniper.
To taste, it’s an altogether different affair, moving past the opening fruity tones quickly and setting a fire in the mouth the very second it stays on the tongue and shouting bloody murder as the spices singe their way into the senses. It tastes of electricity, positively scintillating with spice. It’s alive, almost, it catches in the throat, causing the drinker to sit up and acknowledge that this – whatever it is – is something entirely unique. The spice lingers long after too.
With tonic the burn is more subdued, with the spices taking on an almost tannic role. The battery hasn’t quite gone flat, but it doesn’t give off the same spark. Instead, its green and fresh, with a hint of nettles and just picked spice.
Bass & Flinders Monsoon
Bass & Flinders Monsoon – Eastern Twist is pumped full of East Asian botanicals, including lemongrass, ginger and ginseng. Such a combination means that we can’t help but mention Iron Balls Gin again, which features a very similar line-up. The grape base is huge here – sweet and crisp, with an almost red berry-esque fruitiness.
Though the initial fruit sweetness delivers a very similar first step to that of the Soft and Smooth, a quick taste sends the gin spiralling off in another direction, with lemongrass delivering a warming citrus twist and ginger adding fire to the belly, warming the throat and the heart. It certainly lives up to its name, as it’s everything all at once – sweet, gentle, warming, and dry – like a sudden tropical downpour on a bright, hot day.
Quinine adds legs to the lemongrass, so it’s a bright, citric G&T, with huge notes of ripe red fruit and a ginger warmth that is never curried or hot, but foamy and light – like a strange, palate cleansing mousseline.
Just before his untimely passing, Bob had been working on a very peculiar gin. He’d been watching Australian Story, a weekly documentary series broadcast on ABC Television. The episode in question focused on Wooleen Station, a 375,000-acre former sheep station north of Perth. The station is known for its attempts to cultivate a vast area of outback, encouraging the growth of weird and wonderful flora and fauna that tells a very Australian story.
Bob was instantly enchanted, and wanted to make a gin using botanicals from Wooleen right away. He got in touch with owner David Pollock and they set to work picking out botanicals that would work well in a Bass and Flinders Gin. They picked mulla mulla, purple vetch, lemongrass, sandalwood and currant bush amongst others. So far, so weird, but then David suggested going one step further. Great ants were all over the land, and they happened to be very flavoursome. In fact, native Aborigines used to fry them up and use them as pepper, so they pack a punch.
We were (understandably) curious as to how anger is harvested. Ant harvests seem easy enough to wrap your head around, but how does one collect rage? Holly explained that this is a fairly simple process. You stomp around the nest, unsettle them, make them swarm at you, catch them and drop them into spirit. Yum.
Sadly, Bob died before he ever got to see Angry Ant Gin completed, but Wayne and the team at Wooleen Station forged ahead with it and now the product serves as his legacy, showing off his relentless excitement and propensity for experimentation.
That Bass & Flinders base, so familiar by now, is there, but it’s met, and equalled (maybe even slightly usurped), by the angry ants. Now, we may be all wrapped up in the story here, but we like to think that the pheromones genuinely resonate out of the glass; musky and animalistic, like the aftershave-soaked office of a sleazy television executive in the 1970s. If Sex Panther was a gin, this would be it and Ron Burgundy would be quaffing it. There is nothing familiar about it at all – it’s a total mystery, which is no surprise considering purple vetch and mulla mulla aren’t quite in our botanical repertoire.
The taste is incredibly musky, too – almost acrid in its peppery bitterness. That taste clambers into the mouth first and beds in, but there is room for the flowers to stretch out at the back; they come across a little herbal – like a strange lavender/heather hybrid. While the name might suggest gimmick, this is far from it and it’s certainly one of the most interesting gins we’ve tried in a long, long time.
Tonic does nothing to placate the madness; each sip is rich with that intense musky taste. It feels manly, in a cartoon sense of the world – manliness from the Mad Men era of manliness, when women were silly little things encouraged to ‘run along.’ While it’s not something we’d ever reach for, and it’s certainly something we’d struggle to serve, it is something we’d have on our shelves for the sheer fact of what it is and how it’s made. And what it is is rage – Bass & Flinders has made rage soup.
All in all, we love the Bass & Flinders range. As gins, they’re certainly a liberal, very progressive interpretation, but as botanically intense, provenance-rich, story-telling, evocative spirits, they’re genuinely wonderful. What an adventure they take you on, and what a legacy for Bob to have left.
Actually, Bass & Flinders lays claim to producing around 2,000 unique gins a year, thanks to the Gin Masterclasses it runs. Here, enthusiasts are able to create their very own blends – the details for which are stored digitally should they wish to reorder. Some of the gins produced aren’t half bad: in 2015, they held a competition amongst those who’d attended their classes. The winning gin was packaged up and sent to the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, where it was so well received that it came home with a silver medal.
The packaging across the range is stunning; the core trio come in short, square necked bottles with intricate illustrations printed onto the back of the rear label, filling the bottles with colour. The square bottles, as seen in Angry Ant Gin and their more premium/seasonal offerings – like the summery Cerise Gin or the extremely rare Truffle Gin, are imposing and noticeable.
Products aside; Bass & Flinders are contributing to the category and to consumer interest in championing local and supporting what craft distilleries are doing in a big way. They delving into the weird and wonderful and producing some outstanding spirits as they do it too. The passion for crafting from the ground up is loud and inspiring, and the products they’re creating are strange and beautiful things to behold. Seek them out!
For more information about Bass & Flinders, visit their website: www.bassandflindersdistillery.com/
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