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