Ann Houlihan – Great Ocean Road
Ahead of Junipalooza Melbourne we’re playing catch-up with some of the down under distillers making their way to the Aussie version of the show. This one goes to Ann Houlihan, founder and distiller of Great Ocean Road Gin, who wears her love for the Australian coast loud and proud on the front of (and inside) every bottle of gin that she makes.
If there was just one thing about your gin that you want everyone to know about, what would it be?
That my gin is about my love of the Great Ocean Road. I set about to create a coastal gin using local botanicals which I think gives this gin its uniqueness. The gin is complex, there are 24 botanicals, but the use of local honey, coastal plants and eucalyptus provide a flavour that does make our gin unique in comparison to other coastal gins on the market. When I smell my gin I do get the citrus and juniper notes but there is a saline saltiness that comes through particularly on our Navy Strength gin at 57% that makes me think of sea spray.
You made a sea change moving from Melbourne to Anglesea – was making a gin always a part of that plan or did it come as a result of moving?
A bit of both really. I have worked in the Melbourne food & booze scene with producers, brewers, distillers and winemakers for over 20 years in different roles, so I was wanting to be part of the food scene here on the coast as part of the move away from Melbourne. I do love gin and was exposed to Australian spirits and gin as it was emerging in Australia through the development of the first Australian spirits competition the ADSA, so I was working with the ADA and some of the early pioneers in the industry on developing a competition that was about showcasing & promoting Australian spirits.
I was lucky through that process to meet some fantastic mentors and I spoke with Sebastian Raeburn who was at Craft & Co at the time about doing some R&D to create my first gin, which is where the gin journey began.
Your flagship dry gin, Guvvos, has a lot going on in terms of ingredients. How did you decide which botanicals to include?
I love citrus forward gins with lots of juniper, so I guess that was the starting place for the base of the gin. There are six different types of citrus in the gin, including yellow grapefruit which is underrated in the grapefruit world, but a favourite fruit of mine, plus lemon myrtle and citradora (lemon gum).
In terms of the indigenous plants, I spoke to a few different people on the types of local plants that I could use, including Nick Day from Otway Indigenous Nursery located in Aireys Inlet. Nick provided great help and advice and foraged for the ingredients initially. The majority of the local plants I now grow myself, which Nick propagated. I always wanted to include a local honey and have used Surfcoast Honey since the gins inception. We are also part of their Adopt A Hive program.
What was the process of creating and refining the gin for you? Easy, hard, somewhere in between… how long did it take you?
As mentioned I was very lucky to be doing my R&D alongside Seb who I think is an amazing gin alchemist. My brief was pretty clear – I wanted a clear, bright citrus gin that spoke of the region. We smelled and tasted a range of different local ingredients, gums, seaweed and kelp before refining. Initially the salt characteristics were too strong, so adjustments were made to pull the coastal plants back to allow the citrus and juniper notes to sing. R&D commenced in November 2017 and the first gin was released in August 2018.
Do you have a preferred garnish for it in a G&T, or a favourite cocktail perhaps?
Preferred garnish is yellow grapefruit peel – it adds a lovely citrus spritz and freshness and makes the gin sing. Cocktail would have to be a dry martini with a lemon twist.
Ooh, tasty! If you had to describe the personality of you gin, what would be like?
Fun. Reliable. A good all-rounder.
Your tasting room has been a big project to also get up and running – what’s the response been like for it and how have you enjoyed that challenge?
The Tasting Room/Gin Garden has been a really fun project to work on and its a space I love to work in. Its a unique space for the coast and it has been really well received by locals and tourists alike. The garden is a lovely space to sit and enjoy a G&T, or a gin cocktail. But it’s a commitment like all retail/hospitality that takes lots of time and energy. We’ve had a great group of locals working with us on the team and a few guest bartenders from Melbourne too. We are really looking forward to our second summer and I think the experience we have gained over the last 12 months will help make this year all the better.
Our next big challenge is opening the distillery here on the coast. We are scoping locations and getting quotes on stills at the moment so within the next 12 months we will be running two venues (as we intend to keep the Tasting Room in Aireys operating as long as our lease allows).
Earlier this year, you launched a raspberry gin liqueur – what was the inspiration behind that?
We launched the new raspberry gin liqueur in August to coincide with our first anniversary. We wanted something pretty and playful to celebrate this fantastic milestone. I was always wanted to add other gins to the range and was keen to dabble in a liqueur. I trialed a couple of different types of fruit as part of the R&D and the raspberry was the clear winner. We are using raspberries from a neighbouring berry farm in Bannockburn, a region which is also known for its fantastic wines and is part of the Greater Geelong region. Our new liqueur was been very well received and is great on the rocks, delicious with tonic and makes a very fine cocktail.
The rise of gin liqueurs and flavoured gin has been huge in Europe – do you think that’s a trend that’s also increasing in Australia?
Definitely! Coloured gins and liqueurs are very popular in Australia and are very versatile as mixers for the cocktail/bar industry too.
Just over a year into your gin journey – based on what you’ve learned so far, what’s the best advice you could give a new distiller?
You need to love what you do in life. But owning a spirits business or distillery is a small business with a commitment that is 24/7. It’s all consuming, it’s costly, but it is for me still incredibly rewarding.
I was recently in my branded van in a supermarket car park and I had a woman come and knock on my car window to tell me how much she loved my gin. Having someone tell you they love something you’ve created is pretty special.
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