Manly Spirits Australian Dry Gin
If you, like us, are not particularly au fait with Australian geography, the name Manly Spirits may conjure a slightly off-piste image. You might think testosterone, whisk(e)y, dumbbells, motorbikes and of course, of Ron Burgundy. Manly seems such an outdated term that we were all set to send this Gin duo back to the 1970s… that is, until, we saw the bottles.
Served up in stunningly beautiful blue glass, peppered with coral-like dimples and a gorgeous fish motif, Manly Spirits is, we quickly realised, a coastal spirit named for one of Australia’s most famous (and beautiful) beaches. It’s a bottle so pretty we want to keep it as a candle holder forever and feels as if it’s a little part of the Great Barrier Reef in our cabinet. While it’s the first thing one sees when differentiating a gin from any other on back bar or an off-license shelf, the liquid inside is, happily, equally captivating.
But first, an introduction to David Whittaker and Vanessa Wilton, the duo behind this Gin-slinging distillery. Their venture into distilling began, as so many others do, with a boozy weekend. They were enjoying all the culinary and cultural offering of Tasmania, which included visiting a distillery. The distillery, it transpired, was for sale, and while plonking down the cash for an up and running company wasn’t on the cards, the notion of making his own booze wriggled into Whittaker’s brain and latched on.
“We didn’t buy that distillery, no, but as soon as we returned to Sydney a rapid period of research told us that the idea was more than just a whim” Whittaker explained. “In fact, it was a damn good idea. We’d seen the explosion of craft beers and the rise of craft spirits globally and decided that we needed more Aussie spirits to grace back bars, rather than the standard imported offerings that were so familiar.
“So, at the end of 2015 it became ‘all in’ for us. I’m an ex-Chemical Engineer and Vanessa is a multi-skilled Designer with a great eye for brand building. Eighteen months on, we’d built and opened the door on our brand-new distillery.”
Gin was Wilton’s drink of choice – a hang-up from her yachting days – so it was the very first spirit on the agenda. Whittaker, though, was also desperately fond of whisky, having spent a lot of time in Scotland. He spent the weeks following their trip to Tasmania researching the viability of building a distillery capable of creating a while range of spirits, and while he saw it was an indeed a possibility, it quickly became obvious that Gin needed to come first.
He explains: “Gin is a highly creative endeavour where a sense of place can be distilled into a spirit via the use of nature’s local botanical palette to create distinctive gins with provenance. And let’s not beat around the bush – Gin is un-aged and can be enjoyed very soon after leaving the parrot beak of the still.”
If you ever wonder why it’s Gin that has taken off so quickly, it’s for those very reasons: it encourages boundless creativity and it is ready quick. Whisk(e)y costs money to make and money to keep and by the time it’s ready, a newbie company can be very deeply in the hole. Gin is more often than not the spirit a distillery will use to get itself off the ground, but there are very, very few who ditch it out once their other stock comes of age. It’s just too fun to make.
Manly Spirits’ flagship spirit, Australian Dry Gin, took a great deal of putting together, and quite a lot of it happened by luck and chance. A meeting with David T. Smith at the American Distilling Association conference in 2016 saw him counsel them to learn the true character of each botanical by distilling them all separately, which led them on a path to gather and understand Australian botanicals. Another bit of luck came at them through the television; they were watching a documentary about a pop-up restaurant being run by a kitchen famed for incorporating locally foraged produce into its dishes (the internationally acclaimed, Michelin award winning Noma). Elijah Holland was the restaurant’s local forager of choice. “Vanessa turned to me and said words to the effect that we should get to know Elijah as he would be sure to know what local produce we could use to craft amazing gins,” Whittaker said.
“In the modern way, I contacted him on Instagram and we met the following week in Manly in a local café. The rest is history. Elijah brought me tubs and tubs of stuff that he had forages and I then proceeded to distil them to see if they were potential candidates for our gin. Some were amazing, some were disgusting and others, such as Sea Lettuce, intriguing.”
With a huge botanical distillate library to hand and titans of the Gin industry involved (Whittaker, by this stage, had roped in Gin Queen Caroline Childerly to offer a bit of advice), Manly Spirits was off to a flying start. The search began for a distiller, so Caroline stepped in once again to introduce ex-Beefeater Brand Ambassador Tim Stones. He came on board just as the Brookvale distillery was being built and instantly set to work finessing the recipe for Australian Dry Gin.
Manly Spirits Australian Dry Gin is a strange beast, as while it does manage to involve a good handful of local botanicals, it never goes completely batshit mental in the way some Australian gins do. Juniper, coriander seed, angelica, orris, fresh orange zest, Australian finger lime, cardamom, Tasmanian mountain pepper leaf, Australian anise myrtle and sea lettuce (hand-picked by the team from the rock flats situated a kilometre or so from the distillery) are the flavoursome force that form the backbone for this gin, but somehow it tastes… well, ginny.
Manly Spirits Australian Dry Gin to taste…
There’s the ghost of anise myrtle running throughout the entire sip here, so subtle it’s as though you’re following the footsteps of Bertie Basset – every time you get to a room, he’s just left, leaving that soft, sweet vapour in his wake. There’s also a zinger of sherbet lime stealing up out of the glass, which only encourages you to sniff deeper. This, in turn, leads you on a sensory adventure, one with such depth you’ve no choice but to dive into the glass.
Neat, a wave of welcoming citruses washes over the tongue, acting as a palate cleanser to pave the way for the fresh, green, eucalyptus notes. Juniper is here, but it’s here in a contemporary fashion – not the be all and end all of the gin, but a prominent character, none the less. The strangest botanical is undoubtedly the sea lettuce, which adds a striking umami note that really sets this gin apart from its peers. Pepper leaf and anise myrtle circle around for the finish, leaving an evergreen, toasty warm sensation on the tonnage. It’s an interesting, bold flavour journey and totally redolent of its geography. To do this while staying true to Gin is a real achievement.
If you’ve managed to get hold of a bottle and are a little lost as to how to serve it, we’re opting for a classic Indian tonic and a big, juicy orange wheel.
Manly Spirits’ Coastal Citrus Gin is an altogether different affair, with juniper the only traditional Gin botanical in the mix. Fresh coriander leaf, lemon aspen, lemon myrtle, lemon zest and sea parsley form the rest of this delightfully vibrant line-up.
The sea parsley is foraged from nearby sandstone cliffs whenever there has been enough rain to let if flourish. During drier seasons it’s brought in from other regions, but it’s always handpicked and always fresh.
Manly Spirits Coastal Citrus Gin to taste…
Manly Spirits Coastal Gin came about through collaboration between distiller Stones and a local bartender, Kurtis Bosley. They worked through the botanical library together, seeking to create a lighter, Mediterranean-esque gin. The aim was to create something entirely different from the more classically intended Manly Spirits Australian Dry Gin, in turn providing an alternative spirit for those looking to craft contemporary cocktails.
Though the botanical line-up may sound like a who’s who of the entire lemon family, many of the botanicals are surely polishing their CVs a bit when they claim their citrus heritage. More often than not they have a lemony twang but offer equally bright, green verdant flavours, evocative of lush plains and pathways lined with foot-crushed herbs. Coriander leaf, sea parsley and lemon aspen add citrus in a dual and sometime secondary manner, allowing layers and layers of the citrussyness with varying degrees of other elements, rather than a full-on but singular zesty assault. Take lemon myrtle in particular, it’s got swathes of citral that make it positively stink of lemon – but it’s not sharp or volatile, and with a leafy depth it’s more like a turbo charged verbena.
To taste, saline coastal notes emerge alongside the bright whip of lemon rind, along with a dark earthy flavour. The sea effect is almost lost here, and rather than waves lapping at your feet, you’ll feel the sea breeze rushing through a citrus grove on a hot summer’s day. It’s a delicate gin with a savoury finish, but much like its counterpart, it’s thankfully not that weird.
In our super geek circles (were such anorak matters are discussed) we’ve overheard that Manly Spirits use a London Dry method (all of the botanicals in the still at once). They do not, nor are they saying that when asked. For example the Dry Gin distills most of the botanicals together, but uses a little separation for the orange, which is distilled individually and blended in after. Method is important, of course, but so is taste and they do this to better control the consistency. It’s a very minor detail, but it does mean that the gin no longer falls under the ‘London Dry’ categorisation. In the age of transparency it’s a wise move for them to wear this fact with pride, and they do, yet we merely add it here in acknowledgement that many use this site as a reference for production notes.
As you may have divined, we like this duo. The Gin world has exploded around our very ears and sometimes we don’t know which way to look. Everyone’s vying for attention and getting increasingly desperate (and increasingly silly) as they do so.
Manly Spirits is a confident product that celebrates the unique nature of the distillery’s geography but it has stooped to no lows in order to get attention. The distillery’s ethos is “innovation following tradition” so while they’ll do some mad things, they’ll never make a gin that isn’t a bloody honest effort, built with integrity and love of the spirit. They are contemporary Australian takes on gin, sure. They involve uniquely bizarre challenges like wading out into the local surf to collect the ingredients while trying not to get soaked in order to make it. But they are “Gin’ never-the-less.
It’s this honesty that has reeled us in. Manly Spirits is clearly not afraid to try new things, so while that botanical library has been put to good use, the team aren’t relying on the ‘gin’ label to sell their products. Instead, they’ve even been so bold as to create botanical vodkas in their range!
The Marine Vodka is akin to mis-timing a wave and getting a face full of sea water, while the Terra Firma is a fastidious examination into the peculiarities of what Wattle Seed has to offer. Both are full-on flavours, made better by being unshackled by not having to account for juniper and instead, freed to be brave, bold and brilliant. They named it for what it is and deserve huge respect for that, as it’s about time many brands started doing it too.
In fact, we’d go as far as saying it’s this willingness to delve into other booze types that has stopped their gins from becoming ridiculous and for them to be on the cusp of something that will probably become far bigger for them in the Australian market. In late 2018, Limoncello was added to the roster, so while the Coastal Citrus Gin flirts with the botanical, the Limoncello really lets them go to town on citrus forward, accessible (and into Liqueur territory). Critically, just as with above, calling it for what it is and nailing the execution of it has meant a lot of turned heads, eager to try some. A super citrusy gin would have been a dime a dozen, a craft Australian Limoncello however, is proper innovation. Use it in a spritz if you come across it and don’t be surprised to hear it outsells their gins by the end of the year either…
We could go on and on here – we’re really big fans of Manly Spirits as a distillery, and of course, their gin in particular. Let us then simply conclude by saying that we think this is just the start of a long and exciting journey and we’re excited to see what comes next, both in terms of the reception in the UK and the broader development of the distillery and their future product releases.
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