A visit to Kangaroo Island goes hand in hand with visiting KI Spirits. If you visit Kangaroo Island without visiting the latter, then you really haven’t visited at all.
As my readers would already know, I LOVE a good gin. And next to loving gin, I love visiting gin distilleries – it has become a bit of a favourite pastime and a major part of my bucket list profile. Add to the mix a destination like Kangaroo Island, and I have myself found myself a little patch of paradise… and I didn’t want to leave!
Kangaroo Island itself is a 45-minute ferry ride from Cape Jervis, south of Adelaide. KI Spirits, a further 40 minute drive from the Penneshaw ferry terminal. And what an adventure it is.
Kangaroo Island really needs a few days to be enjoyed, and I would suggest leaving at least an afternoon to immerse yourself in the full gin experience at the island’s distillery.
Kangaroo Island Spirits, or KI Spirits (or even KIS), is a small craft gin distillery that has been operating on the island since 2006. With seven gins currently in production, and with over 80 both national and international awards to its acclaim, as well as being Australian’s only producer of a gin with Australian grown juniper berries, it has pioneered a craft gin industry that embraces passion and innovation, and above all GREAT gin!
I enjoyed the opportunity of speaking to founder and gin crafter/master distiller, Jon Lark on my recent visit to the island, while appreciating some of the distillery’s fine gins. Chatting with Jon is a journey of gin history, gin whimsy, science and botanical discoveries – and I am deeply envious of the wonderful lifestyle that he has forged on this island with his wife and distilling partner, Sarah.
Jon began his journey in 1993, when he claims ‘a bloke from Tasmania decided to make some whisky’. At the time, the law didn’t allow the distillation of whisky in Australia, but after a visit by ‘this bloke’ to Canberra, to seek audience with politician, Barry Jones, an appreciator of fine whisky himself, history altered its course. This bloke’s reasoning convincing enough, and upon which the first boutique distillery license was issued.
Turns out, ‘this bloke’ was Bill Lark, and the Tasmania Whisky Industry and Lark Distillery was born. As it happens, this ‘bloke’ is also Jon’s brother.
Meanwhile, Jon met his wife, Sarah, at a remote aboriginal community in Western Australia where he had been working since the 80s, and where Sarah came to work as a teacher, and slowly the KIS dream began to unfold.
It was at their wedding that Jon questioned why no one in Australia was making ‘proper’ gins, where his brother reasoned that it was because gin was never going to go anywhere.
So Jon did what all good brothers do, ignored him totally, and set about creating what they believe was Australia’s first dedicated gin distillery, becoming pioneers of an industry which has experienced phenomenal growth and innovation along the way. Nothing quite like proving a brother wrong!
Jon and Sarah got their distillation license in 2006 and have made the conscious decision to remain small craft distillery. Influenced by the Spanish, who produce and consume more gin than their English counterparts, they have created their own unique botanical blends, in the spirit of gins such as Spain’s Gin Mare, where they took some of their initial inspiration.
Exciting things were happening in the gin industry at this time; distillers were breaking the rules using a variety of non-traditional botanicals, pushing boundaries and exploring new flavours. Jon, having trained as a chef, thought if this can be done in cuisine, then why not also with gin?
Incidentally, Jon was also a zoo keeper, and quips that he hasn’t yet decided what he wants to be when he grows up – we both agreed that not growing up appears to be working quite well for him!
Additionally, Jon and Sarah wanted to make gins that reflected the environment that they live in. Looking around Kangaroo Island, that is not hard to understand. Wide open natural spaces. Native botanicals. Sea breeze. Fresh air. Sunshine. It was part of the reason why they chose Kangaroo Island as where they would settle and take that leap of faith back in 2002.
Back then they would have to explain what gin was, whereas now, with over 200 gin distilleries in Australia alone, that job has become much easier and they now just concentrate on making great quality gins. As a testament to the quality of the industry, people are now actually asking for Australian gins.
When Jon and Sarah started out there was no ‘gin school’ to learn about gin, as there are now. So they went to Europe, and visited Sipsmith in Hammersmith, London to gain a greater understanding of what constitutes a good gin. They had to teach themselves distil gin, so used very traditional processes. They chose to focus on a single distillation method, which means that all the botanicals go into the pot together and come out the other end as a single gin distillate.
As a craft gin distiller, they don’t make the base spirits – as the producer of a good gin, they want the botanicals to be the hero – they don’t want you to taste where the base spirit comes from – it is simply the carrier. Though they did buck tradition by using a grape spirit, where gin was traditionally made from a grain spirit but that tends to be more a matter of circumstance – in England that is all they have/had.
Since they began their distillery, there has been this glorious explosion of gin, with many Australian winemakers adding gin to their repertoire. This has seen many distillers blending gins in a similar way to wines using individual flavour distillates, which are distilled singularly and then blended.
However, Jon believes that as a single distillation, the complexity has a certain depth and as distillers, are much more fun to create!
There is also an additional element of skill required, and an understanding of the botanicals, and the flavour profiles the lead to the end product. This also means that there is more volatility, and the end result may need some adjustment. There too, different seasons bring varied flavour strength to each botanical, so there will always be a variance between batches. It is this complexity of flavour that Jon delights in exploring, and what he accredits their 80+ awards to.
Then there is the KI Spirits sprawling garden in which many of the botanicals are grown – AND the home to Australia’s first juniper berry/gin producing juniper trees. Juniper berries (not actually a berry) are the primary botanical used for gin giving it its unique flavour/aroma. An evergreen shrub, found growing wild in the Northern Hemisphere’s more mountainous regions, up until now, it has not been cultivated commercially in Australia. Though suspect that this is all about to change.
With this year seeing the maiden juniper berry harvest from the KIS gardens, it has joyfully led to the ultimate prize – the first all Australian botanical gin that includes the primary ingredient juniper, Australian grown – meet ‘Koala 48’.
Koala 48 explores a certain whimsy that Jon seems to take pleasure in retelling – the ‘48’ representing the 48 botanicals that are grown on the property. Why 48? Why not? Taking inspiration from Monkey 47, an exceptional gin produced in Germany’s Black Forest using 47 botanicals, Jon took to the challenge and indulged in a bit of good old Australian one-upmanship and produced one with 48.
The Koala? Well, they also had a koala that would frequent the distillery… no doubt in search of an alternative to gum leaves. Jon ruled out distilling koalas (joking) – and in a play of words that paralleled a monkey, the story behind Koala 48 came to fruition. Too late, sold out… and I am guarding mine like gold!
However, you can settle for the O’Gin while we wait for the next juniper berry harvest, which is equally exceptional so it is hardly settling at all – 8 Awards, including Double Gold at the international SIP Awards.
The ‘O’ is for Olearia, a native coastal daisy found throughout the island that became its botanical inspiration. Olearia has pine/passionfruit notes, so when wandering the island beaches on a warm summer’s day, that is what you smell. Smell is an evocative sense, so these aromas come into play as you sip away on your gin on that fine summer’s day. The aim was to produce gins that reflect the region – to create a drink that smells like the beach, or indicative of the natural surrounds, so there is a subconscious recognition, and our wonderful brains make that association. Olearia is just one of the many locally grown botanicals that they use.
Exploring this further, there is also KI’s Mulberry Gin – a slow gin of sorts, using mulberries grown on the island. The mulberry trees on the island stem from an original tree planted at Reeves Point, near Kingscote, in an early settlement. The first Mulberry Gin batch was made on Valentine’s Day 2010 – 100 years to the day from when good old Aunt Mary signed her Pledge of Temperance, the certificate of which hangs proudly on the distillery wall. And in the humour of which Jon seems to approach many things, the Mulberry Gin was created in her honour and to mark the day they ‘broke the drought’ for her. All I can say, is ‘I will drink to that!’
The KIS still, Mary, is named in honour of her also.
Wandering the gardens and the juniper grove in its tender years, I love what Jon and Sarah have created. It has taken many years for it to pay off – juniper trees are slow growers! And it is not just the juniper; it is taking courage and approaching a yet undiscovered industry with fresh eyes (and nose), harnessing a passion to create something that is truly unique… AND exciting. I, for one, am soooo glad they did.
So, back to my initial statement:
A visit to Kangaroo Island goes hand in hand with visiting Kangaroo Island Spirits. If you visit Kangaroo Island without visiting the other, then you really haven’t visited at all.
To really immerse yourself in the KIS experience, do a Gin Blending Experience at the distillery, or enjoy the KIS Gin Tasting Platter. It is a fun way to learn more about gin and understanding the role each botanical plays in the creation of a gin – as well as understanding your own palate more. I will drink to that as well!
To find out more, or purchase their exceptional spirits online visit:
And, keep an eye out for Pop Ups on the mainland!
Oh, and I almost forgot, they make some pretty cool vodkas and liqueurs as well – love the SLAP – vodka infused with samphire (from the island), lime zest and pepper, and the Limoncello, ahhh #yesplease!
And a big thanks to Jon Lark for his time and wonderful story telling (and gin). An afternoon most definitely well spent.
This story was written by Petra Hughes – Pebbles + Pomegranate Seeds
Photographs by Petra Hughes – © Copyright 2019 – All rights reserved.
Images may not be reproduced, downloaded or used without written permission from the copyright holder.