When McHenry Gin first emerged on the scene way, way back in 2012, Gin was barely a twinkle in Australia’s eye. In the past five years the scene has exploded, with mad bush botanicals filling bottles up and down the country, sometimes bulldozing the very definition of what it means to be a Gin as they go. Luckily for classic gin lovers, William McHenry was so ahead of the trend that he didn’t even think to make something outlandish, so in the grand scheme of things (especially given the madness of Australian ginsmithery) his traditionally styled Classic gin is, well… unusual.
Though McHenry’s decision to go classic on his recipe wasn’t entirely deliberate, he stands by it even today: “The issue I see is that a lot of the contemporary gins have lost the key juniper-pine notes,” he told us, adding “I wonder if you can really call them gins?”
He may be protective of the category now, but Gin wasn’t McHenry’s initial focus. He spent decades in the pharmaceutical industry, traveling between offices constantly, missing his kids, not enjoying his job. He couldn’t quite work out what his escape could, would or should be until a friend joked that with a name Scottish enough to make Robert Burns blush, he really ought to make his own whisk(e)y. That was his eureka moment, and he spent the next four year researching everything that would go into running a distillery.
“Whilst I hate the expression,” McHenry says, “it was a bit of a mid-life crisis. I wanted to leave a legacy for my children and take control of my working life. I fell in love with the idea of being a distiller and living in Tasmania. So far it’s going pretty well,” he says, a little cautiously, “although the late night distillation and the long hours can take their toll.”
Near enough every newbie whisk(e)y distiller runs something else through the still during that cash-hogging barrel rest period, and Gin – taking just hours to create – is more often than not the chosen one, not just for its relatively speedy creation, but for its popularity. “We realised that not all of the people visiting our distillery were Whisky drinkers, or even interested in Whisky, so we started to make Gin to appeal to them,” McHenry said.
It took McHenry six months and 26 variations before settling on a recipe he liked: “Making a Gin recipe is complex, and not all botanicals are necessarily safe, so we decided to go the classic line first,” he explains. “Craft distilling hadn’t really made the cut-through it has today and consumers were still anchored to the established brands. We were one of the early pioneers, so it was easier for us to make headway with a traditional style.”
Juniper, orange peel, star anise, coriander, cardamom and orris are the botanicals that form McHenry Gin. They are macerated for almost 24 hours in a neutral cane spirit, this in itself selected because of its cleanliness (“we have detected very slight grain notes in the grain spirits we have access to,” McHenry revealed). The next day, the 500l jacket copper pot still is fired up. Both the heads and hearts are gathered, each labelled according to both ABV and taste profile.
The still runs slowly through the day, taking somewhere between eight and nine hours to deliver the goods. Once off the still, the spirit is cut back to its bottling strength of 40% with local spring water. This is where it’s worth mentioning quite where McHenry Distillery is based: on the Tasman Peninsular, on the side of Mount Arthur. It is amongst the southernmost distilleries in the world and it’s cool, maritime environment impacts the water greatly, which in turn impacts the gin.
After mixing his spirit with water, McHenry leaves it to rest for 24 hours to make sure no louching occurs. If he’s happy with the batch, he adds it to a bulk vessel wherein it is married with five or so other batches. This ensures a consistent release for each run.
McHenry Gin to taste…
There is an undeniable spiritiness to the nose, as well as a great deal of fruity citrus and star anise up front. Something loud and cooling lies beneath – the clove accent of star anise, possibly – but there’s nothing that really raises its head above the din. The integrated melange is both intriguing and alluring.
To taste it is a nice, rounded gin, with all of the botanicals acting as a great support network for each other. Sipped neat, It’s crisp and clean, with an understated juniper doing just enough to keep the star anise from running riot. Note we said ‘just’… the star anise always feels on the edge of flipping its lid, like it could tear right out of the glass and light the building on fire; it really reminds us of a cassia flavoured American chewing gum called Big Red (“that big red freshness goes right through it, your fresh breath goes on and on…”). Despite that fieriness, McHenry Gin is soft on the tongue (the orange helps with this greatly) and goes down without a fight – the local water has made its mark undoubtedly.
With tonic, McHenry Gin delves further into the star anise, with the citrus peels closing in behind to add a mouth-watering fruitiness. Though the gin was designed to be classic, we’d argue that it feels fairly progressive, as juniper is all but shunted to the side by that cooling anise hit. It’s a nice G&T, certainly, but it’s definitely one on the modern gin spectrum and one that sits perfectly for those who think they might like the sound of something familiar, with a slight twist.
We’d garnish with a sprig of rosemary and a slice of orange to both up the pine qualities and to bring a bit more punch to the citrus. McHenry prefers to garnish with lemon, and advises wiping the rim of the glass with the fruit to act as a bit of a palate cleanser. How civilised…
There’s a lot more than the classic in the McHenry Gin stable: there’s a Navy Strength, a Barrel Aged and a Sloe, as well as seasonal expressions, including the disarmingly yellow Summer Gin. McHenry is also keen to engage the wackiness of the local gin scene by releasing an Australian Gin. The work for this has been quite a contrast to that which went into the Classic; it took McHenry 18 months to settle on the recipe as he was working from a library of 150 ingredients, some of which were harvested by indigenous Australians.
To make his seasonal gins, McHenry starts with an idea: “for instance, a Christmas Gin: frankincense, myrrh and gold,” he says. “We then do individual distillations with the ingredients to see what flavours and intensity we get. We then work up proportions we think will work together and start by making a master gin. From there we take it to a blind tasting panel using trusted mixologists and look to tweak the final recipe. If the team at the distillery are happy with the final taste, we release it.”
Everything McHenry knows about distilling, he taught himself. “It was a case of docendo discimus, or ‘see one, do one, teach one.’ I have a science degree so the distilling process all came easily to me, and one of the best tips I got when starting out was to develop my palate. The process of distilling isn’t actually hard to do, it’s the blending and balancing that is the most difficult.”
It’s fair to say that McHenry has well and truly caught the Gin bug, and his appreciation is one he wants to share far and wide. He hosts workshops at the distillery in which he runs through the evolution of Gin before showing guests how to pair the spirit with food and, finally, giving them the chance to make their own.
McHenry is, undoubtedly, a fantastic contributor to the Gin industry. He seems to have an almost inherent knowledge of how to bring experimentation on board without compromising the category. With the Classic gin he created something that is familiar but different, and with his more boundary pushing gins he has shown the importance of storytelling through botanicals. The distillery’s home has a real part to play in all of this…
Tasmania is the beating heart of all of the products that flow from the McHenry Distillery, and its terroir is reflected in each sip. McHenry explains: “Tassie is a rugged and isolated part of Australia. It is an area which is largely unchanged by development; nearly 50% of the state is untouched and still wilderness. Our property is surrounded by bush and national park and is blessed with its own springs. We are near the sea where the cleanest air in the world brings pure fresh rain to feed our springs. Clearly there are real advantages to being at the edge of the world when it comes to our gin.”
McHenry Gin is not impossible to get hold of in the UK, but it won’t be dotting supermarket shelves anytime soon. Anyone who’s been to Australia will tell you that the pound positively quivers at the site of the dollar, so the gin is priced somewhat exorbitantly when compared to those made a little closer to home. It is worth a peak, though, and if you get a chance to try it you should. It’s a gin that suits hard-core fans of the genre as well as those looking for something a little bit different. We’re certainly fans.
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