Inspired by the maritime explorers of old, the flavours of the New World that they discovered and the twin spirits of camaraderie and rebellion that they encapsulated, The West Winds Gin, producers of our January Gin of the Month, The Sabre, offer drinkers a truly unique gin journey.
An October day in 1616. Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, a modest wooden ship, far from home, cuts through the uncharted waters. Two long months at sea have already passed since the Dutch vessel, the Eendracht, set sail from South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, bound for the exotic spices and attendant riches of the island of Java. Still, the crew know they are only a fraction of the way through a trip that typically lasts a year or more.
However, their captain, Dirk Hartog has assured them that the new route he has persuaded them to take, much further south than usual and powered by strong prevailing westerly winds, will get them to their destination in just six months. The crew remain sceptical, not yet aware that their employers, the Dutch East India Company, are in fact now instructing all ships leaving Amsterdam to take exactly this route.
But today even Hartog is feeling uncertain. He suspects they may have been blown off his intended course and headed further east than he meant to before turning back towards Indonesia, in the north.
As he studies his charts below deck, a voice resounds up top – they’ve sighted land. But how is that possible? There’s nothing been recorded here by the few ships that have made this passage before. Rushing on deck, Hartog scans the horizon. Sure enough, there are the outlines of a number of small islands.
As the crew makes landfall on what is to become known as Dirk Hartog Island, they aren’t yet aware that they are making the first European encounter with the as-yet unnamed Western Australia. Or, indeed, that they are only the second group of Europeans ever to lay eyes on the continent as a whole.
These western shores will see another two centuries and many more intrepid ships pass until a European settlement is finally established on the shores of the Swan River in 1829, on the site of what will later become the city of Perth.
And almost another two centuries will go by after that until the intrepid adventures of these early seafarers, blown by the westerly winds in search of the spices of the Far East, will be remembered in the form of a spirit that has those spices at its very heart – gin.
The West Winds distillery, home of The Sabre, our January Gin of the Month, was named “in a tribute to the ocean breezes used for centuries by travellers and explorers coming from Europe around South Africa to the west coast of Australia and beyond, in search of the riches of the New World.”
As The West Winds co-founder, Jeremy Spencer (or ‘Jez’) puts it: “everyone was on the water trying to establish trade routes and get into that rich and lucrative spice trade. ‘The West Winds’ was our little tip of the hat to the brave sailors of old.”
Spices, sailors, the spirit of adventure – they’re all key elements in understanding what The West Winds and their unique gins are all about. But to begin at the beginning, where it really all starts is with a group of four friends – Jez, Jason Chan, Paul White and James Clarke.
A LOVELY BLEND
The West Winds was born in 2010 when these four men, from disparate but complimentary backgrounds, got together with the intention of making something truly special.
James explains: “It was kind of like six degrees of separation...Paul had the still in Margaret River, I had worked for wineries over there but was based in Melbourne when he and I caught up over dinner and discussed what might be possible...in turn I had a good mate in Jez who knew all about the spirits world and he in turn had the foresight to bring in one of the spirits industries most talented mixologists, Jason, to complete the circle.”
“It’s four of us as friends which I think’s really important,” expands Jez, describing the mix of different talents and personalities in the group as “a really lovely blend”.
“Whatever happens at any stage we always revert back to friends – if there’s a disagreement, if we’re sort of going in different directions – we stop, we’re friends and we go on with the programme, which I think’s quite unique in the modern day of commercialisation and corporate mentalities.”
But why, in a land renowned for great wine and great beer, did this intrepid band of drinks entrepreneurs choose to make gin? The answer, in short, is flavour. “Without sounding naff, we wanted make something that tasted like Australia,” Jez explains. “Gin really gave us a vehicle to do that.”
This truly Australian flavour was something that the team felt was missing from the drinks scene at the time. Five or six years ago, Jez remembers now, if he wanted to take a drink from Australia to give to friends overseas, “it was either an expensive bottle of Shiraz, or some foul lager in a tin, or something with a horrible duty-free motif on it.”
Gin, with its versatility and its ability to absorb local flavours through the incorporation of indigenous herbs and spices, was the obvious choice to showcase the flavours of Australia to the rest of the world.
And so the team began their gin journey with Australian ingredients – wattle seed, myrtle and even the bush tomato, all ingredients that were both familiar and woefully underused. As Jez explains:
“Forty-thousand years of indigenous Australians using it and the last 15 we’ve suddenly come out of some sort of deep sleep as a Western culinary society and are realising how many unique, beautiful and exciting products we have in our own backyard, really.”
And it wasn’t just the botanicals that were important in crafting The West Winds gins – finding the right water source was just as important.
Jez grew up in Perth, drinking what he describes as its “vile” tap water; “I wouldn’t put it in my ex-wife’s mouth, and you can quote me on that.” But he spent his summers, “surfing and chasing pretty girls,” in Margaret River, a popular seaside resort about two hours south of the city. It was there that, as a boy, he remembers drinking the fresh rainwater that to him, “tasted like the promised land”.
Subsequently, when it came to choosing a water source for The West Winds “there really wasn’t much choice for us except for Margaret River rainwater,” says Jez. And so The West Winds distillery was established in the town and, in late 2010, began producing gin using a one-shot method and a 150 litre copper pot still from Holstein Germany (since upgraded to a 600 litre version, due to demand).
A SPIRIT OF REBELLION
In early 2011, The West Winds brought two new gins to the market: The Sabre (as featured in Craft Gin Club's January Gin of the Month box), a London Dry, at 40% ABV and with Australian toasted wattle seed, lemon myrtle and cinnamon myrtle among its list of botanicals; and The Cutlass, at 50% ABV and with the unusual addition of Australian bush tomato.
The team had started initially with the idea of The Cutlass, knowing they wanted to create a gin with a savoury character. After experimenting with a range of Australian botanicals, the native bush tomato gave them exactly what they were looking for.
Alongside this highly unconventional spirit, and as lovers of classic gin, they also wanted to share their own expression of something a bit more traditional. The Sabre, unashamedly classic and citrus-led, was their “doff of the cap to the gin houses of old”. Jez describes The Sabre as embodying “the English gentry, the naval officers”. But crucially, it was also a way to “bring people back into flavour territory” in a bar scene at the time dominated by “blandness”.
“We were building a category five years ago in Australia with the Sabre. I’d walk into bars and say ‘I’d like to talk to you about gin’ and they’d look me up and down and go ‘you don’t look like you go to the gym’ and I’d say ‘no, no, no – GIN.’ And they’d kind of look at you and go ‘no thanks. We’ve got gin – two bottles’.”
This lack of a ‘gin scene’ in their native country wasn’t the only front on which the team were battling scepticism. As Jez recalls, “somebody said you couldn’t put tomatoes in gin – we said ‘sod off’”. And as for launching two gins at the same time? “People said we couldn’t do that either. Well, I don’t know if you’ve heard of a little boat called the Australia II? Somebody said it couldn’t win the Americas Cup [it did, against the odds, in a landmark victory in 1983]. Well, we kind of like that underdog thing, you know?”
That ‘underdog’ streak of rebellion and derring-do is reflected in the piratical spirit that emerges through the brand’s nautical imagery. Indeed, when it came to naming their still, as gin distillers are wont to do, the team decided on Pugwash – a name that not only reflects the rebellion inherent in the idea of piracy, but also, importantly, the sense of fun.
Reflecting on this swashbuckling maritime theme, Jez says it just made sense for them. “Well, 78% of our nation live on the coast. My father’s one of the most acclaimed merchant navy seamen around, James’ father’s a merchant navy captain as well. We’ve all sailed. Three of us surf – it’s a big part of our life. And we like to have a little fun. The pirate theme is a little cheeky, it’s a little irreverent. We’re not saving kids’ lives or rescuing kittens from trees – we’re making booze and it’s about having fun and hanging out with our mates and sharing the love a little bit.”
A GIN VICTORY
That sense of fun certainly comes through in the brand and you’ve undoubtedly detected a uniquely Australian swagger in the way the team talk about their work. But behind that laid-back Aussie mentality, with its refusal to take itself too seriously, The West Winds team also demonstrate a passionate commitment to quality, a true understanding of gin and of what drinkers want, and a staunch belief in what they are doing.
And it seems to be paying off. The Cutlass and The Sabre won double gold and gold respectively at the prestigious San Francisco International Spirits competition within three days of launching. Jez remembers: “I got a phone call whilst drunk in a bar in Vietnam because I didn’t really think we were going to pick much up!”
Both gins have since gone on to reap multiple more international awards. But while this gives the four friends the satisfaction of knowing the industry is taking their Australian gin seriously, the most important thing is that drinkers are enjoying it. “Look, medals are great,” says Jez, “but if you don’t like my gin – I could have 32 medals and it’s irrelevant.”
He continues, “we’ve made our gins specifically as bartenders. It’s about putting flavour first…we didn’t want to make it a chore for you to find the flavour.”
They certainly seem to be winning the battle for taste at home, with Australia rapidly becoming a nation of gin drinkers. “I think grown men can tell each other they drink gin now – it’s become quite acceptable,” Jez claims. “I’m seeing a lot of bars where gin sales are superseding vodka, which us a very, very healthy state to be in because it shows people are actually discerning and giving a crap about what they’re drinking, rather than just vodka sodas, which do my head in. I think it’s just the antithesis of what we’re trying to do.”
Australia is also (excitingly for us international gin fans) increasingly becoming a nation of gin makers. The country currently boasts 62 gins with another 40 on the way – “for a little, apathy-filled nation of 29 million, I think it’s quite an achievement!” Jez exclaims.
And The West Winds’ own achievements look as if they will only keep on coming. They’ve just released two new gins, complementing the citrus of The Sabre and the savoury notes of The Cutlass with two new elements of salt and spice.
Weighing in at 58% ABV, The Broadside is the only spirit in the world to have seawater in it, “the joke being that it’s my gin because I’ve swallowed so much seawater because I’m a shit surfer”, laughs Jez. And then there’s The Captain’s Cut, “the nation’s strongest gin”, a whopping 63% ABV. But that number is, they tell us “very misleading”, and the gin has much more to offer than just booze – “it’s warm, it’s wintry, it’s spicy.”
With a US launch also planned for the brand at the start of 2016, it looks set to be a big year for The West Winds team. But despite burgeoning international success, they are staying true to their initial vision – to make great tasting gin that captures the spirit of Australia.
This is perfectly encapsulated by another project planned for this year: a ‘cellar door’ venue at the distillery in Margaret River, due to open mid-2016. Jez explains it will be “a little surf place with a nice big fire pit, surfboard rack, some cured meats locally. And it’s not just about gin, it’s about coming and hanging out. We just don’t take it too seriously, we just want people to enjoy themselves and enjoy our gins.” Enough said.