Efficiency and charm are mortal enemies, so said US scholar Richard M. Weaver. The gin grown by Robert Sowter and Lachlan McIntyre is incredibly charming and far from efficient. And, yes, you read that right: the gin is ‘grown’.
“We make everything from scratch, right down to actually growing the sugar cane to make the spirit,” Sowter explains. “Planting it in the ground at the right time of year, making sure it has enough water so that the plants will survive, then harvesting the cane and chopping it into billets, extracting the cane juice, fermenting it, distilling it. That whole process, we do from the ground up.”
Sowter even built the copper still into which they do the distillation. While McIntyre was in Glasgow learning the ins and outs of whisky production, Sowter would contact him for photos of the stills he was working with in an attempt to reverse engineer his own version.
“Rob would email or sometimes call and ask me to take photos of certain parts of the still, inside and out, to try and get a sense of how it was constructed, and why,” McIntyre says.
“He’d say things like, hey, so you know those bits inside the still, could you have a look at this particular part for me and maybe take a picture, so I can try to work out how the hell they’ve done it.”
Utility rarely enthralls. Proficiency begets efficiency, and disguises complexity with magic and authenticity.
“It has to be authentic,” says McIntyre. “When you pick up a bottle of craft beer, or wine, or whatever it might be, when you pick it up and taste it, you can tell whether or not it’s authentic. It doesn’t hit you the same way. Sure, it might still serve its purpose, but it doesn’t make you stop and say ‘whoa, this is delicious. What is this?’”
This is Lantana Gin. Grown by two mates from Melbourne up on Sowter’s parent’s farm in Redridge, Queensland. They make it from the tall reeds of ripe sugar cane that grow disorderly in orderly rows beside great swathes of flowering, beautiful, yet perniciously noxious, perennial lantana. Native to Central and South America, otherwise known as Spanish Flag or wild sage, lantana first arrived in Australia in the 1840s. It was first planted at the Adelaide botanical gardens and spread like wildfire across the country – particularly up along the east coast and north up into Queensland.
“It’s pretty bad,” says Sowter. “It’s poisonous and will definitely make any animal sick, if they eat enough of it. And it grows so thick and dense; if left alone it become quite impenetrable. But it smells really delicious.
“Wild sage is a good call,” he continues. “It’s quite a special aroma, which is pervasive and intoxicating. Like, when you drive across any of the rivers between our farm and one of the towns, at the right time of year, especially after we’ve had some rain – even with your windows up and your air-con on – you drive through the river valley and get hit with this amazing scent of lantana transpiring in the air. It’s quite a powerful smell – and it really is delicious.”
McIntyre adds: “And when it’s in flower, you see it everywhere on the sides of the road. Once you see it and once you know it, you can’t un-see it and you can’t un-smell it.”
Australia is awash with craft gin these days. Walk into any independent bottle shop and witness the fitness of the Australian craft spirit industry. It’s not surprising, given how relatively cheap it is to buy a distillation unit and learn the subtle art, by reading widely and watching a few YouTube videos – oh, and buying in bulk litres and litres of ready-made ethyl alcohol, rather than make it from scratch, so that one only needs to decide what novel combination of botanicals (even lantana) to vaporise. It seems as though every man, woman, and their respective dog is making a craft gin these days. Indeed, the art of making gin has never been more efficient or less charming than it is today.
Which is what makes Sowter and McIntyre’s Lantana Gin unique.
“There’s a seasonality to our gin, which is kind of unavoidable, given the process we run with to make it,” says Sowter. “It’s still very much Lantana Gin, from batch to batch, but similar to vintage variation in certain wines from year to year, there are subtle variations that we can’t control, season to season, that we embrace.”
Efficiencies are earned over time, and charm is most authentic wherever it emerges spontaneously from the higher-order clarity inherent to complexity. Simultaneously herbal yet floral, and bittersweet. Rarely does a modern gin charm like Lantana Gin does. Sip neat with a slice of cucumber, or on ice with half soda, half tonic.