This month’s Gin of the Month has travelled 10,500 miles from Sydney to surprise and delight our lucky members! Meet Vanessa and David, the creative brains behind this beautiful, ocean inspired spirit and take a peak at their gorgeous distillery down-under!
The sand in your toes, the ocean wind in your hair, the sun on your face – these are the things that summer is made of. Meet the distillers behind Manly Spirits Australian Dry Gin, who have bottled sun and sea and sent it straight to your door!
Here in the UK, we wait breathlessly for the clouds to part and blue skies to usher in the best season of all: summer!
But, for Vanessa and David Wilton, the distillers behind the brilliant bottle we surprised you with this month, summer is a way of life.
That’s because they live in beautiful Manly Beach, Australia. As the home of surfing and one of the sickest spots in the world to catch a swell (check out page 21 to learn some surfing lingo!), Manly is a world drenched in sun, sand and sea.
“Manly is about surfing,” says Vanessa. “It doesn’t matter what standard you are – the only rule is don’t ‘drop in’ on anyone!”
As year-round residents of this paradise, Vanessa and David spend their days in a state of bliss. They wake up early, stroll down the beach and let the water wash over their bare feet.
“It’s fork-out-a-small-fortune-for-a-Mediterranean-holiday kind of water,” Vanessa says, “and it’s our inspiration for our Australian Dry Gin and our blue bottle.”
Made with foraged botanicals from the brilliantly blue waters of Manly Beach, the bottle in August’s Gin of the Month box is the Australian sunshine in a bottle. Here’s how it’s made.
If Brits flock to Manly Beach when they’re looking for a spot of sunshine, where do people who already live in paradise head when they need a break?
For Vanessa and David, a quick break to Tasmania – a beautiful island off the south coast of Australia – was the break they had been waiting for. With busy careers in design and chemical engineering, respectively, they jetted off with rest and relaxation in mind. But they would find something else in Tasmania: a self-described ‘fit of madness’ that would lead to a whole new life.
As David explains: “We spent a boozy long weekend with great friends, enjoying Tasmania’s best culinary and cultural offerings, including a spur-of-the-moment trip to a distillery off the beaten track.”
As Vanessa and David sampled the small distillery’s offerings, they chatted with the owner about what it took to handcraft spirits in the modern world. As it happened, the distiller let it slip that the distillery was up for sale. Maybe it was the silly holiday mood or maybe it was one too many samples of gin, but David was suddenly struck by a strange possibility.
Vanessa laughs: “David turned to me and said, ‘We could do this.’ I responded with a quizzical look – I was wondering if it was midlife crisis time!”
As it turned out, the distillery on Tasmania itself wasn’t for sale; just the land it stood on. But even when that opportunity fell through, the idea of being distillers wouldn’t go away. With their backgrounds in design and chemical engineering, they knew that they had the skills to make a go of it – David at the still and Vanessa building a brand that would connect with craft spirits lovers all over the world.
They even knew what spirit they would start with. Once a keen yachter, Vanessa had just one tipple of choice: gin!
“As gin was Vanessa’s drink of choice in her yachting days, we had to make the stuff,” David laughs.
Vanessa continues: “In those first few weeks after returning from Tasmania, we steadily worked out how we could make both whisky and gin – and, in fact, how it would be a far better long-term proposition to build a distillery capable of making both, but also other spirits that we may not have even thought of yet.”
Vanessa and David were naturals. Whilst there was certainly a learning curve when it came to setting up a distillery and learning their way around a still, their previous careers had given them a strong foundation of skills on which to rely.
“We’re quick learners,” David explains. “It didn’t take long for us to realise that creating a gin is a highly creative endeavour, where a sense of place can – pardon the pun – be distilled into a spirit via the use of nature’s botanical palette.”
“We don’t see making a great gin as a technical exercise,” adds Vanessa. “It’s about flavour combinations and balance developed over time, through countless small-scale distillations and tasting sessions.”
“We do know that frangipani doesn’t make a good gin,” laughs David.
To make things even easier, they had the most inspiring beach in the world to base their distillery around.
It was only natural that Vanessa and David would strive to capture their beloved beach in ginny form. After all, this golden slice of sunlight is famous all the world over.
David says, “As the birthplace of Australian surfing, and one of the world’s five surfing reserves, Manly Beach offers a lifestyle that people from all over the world are drawn to – and waves that they seek to surf!”
But global fame isn’t all that makes Manly Beach special to David and Vanessa. For decades, it’s been their happy home, and provided them and their four children with a relaxed lifestyle that the city dwellers in the UK could only dream of. While drizzle and train delays characterise our days, these Sydney suburbs are all about casual clothes and fun in the sun – with a measure of hard work thrown in!
“We get up early and stay out until the sun goes down,” he continues. “You could try a new restaurant every night for a month, and you’d still just be scraping the surface of the North’s booming food scene.”
Everything in Manly revolves around the beach. From the surfers in the sea to the sunbathers in the sand to the shoppers along the esplanade, everything here revolves around the ocean – including the Manly Spirits Distillery.
“We draw inspiration from the ocean and incorporate its elements into our gins,” says Vanessa. She means this quite literally – she and her husband sustainably forage from the tide pools around Manly Bay to bring the taste of this beautiful place into the bottle.
It was by chance that Vanessa and David discovered the potential of foraging. Always big fans of cutting-edge restaurants, they were well aware of the famous Copenhagen restaurant NOMA, a two-Michelin-star eatery that became famous for its extremely seasonal approach to Scandinavian cuisine.
NOMA’s foraging chef, Elijah Holland – who was tasked with opening NOMA’s Sydney pop-up – was being interviewed on television about the bounty of foods that could be foraged in Australia. Vanessa spotted an opportunity immediately; she and David reached out to Elijah on Instagram for advice on what Manly’s shores might have to offer.
A week later, the three met at a Manly café. But NOMA’s foraging chef didn’t show up emptyhanded.
“Elijah brought me tubs and tubs of stuff that he had foraged,” smiles David. “He counselled us to not take the easy way out. He encouraged us to take the time to learn each botanical by distilling it separately, building our knowledge from the ground up.”
David set to work creating a flavour library, cataloguing and comparing how each botanical distilled. He explains, “It’s a bit of a black art, with some botanicals transforming with the distillation process into a gorgeous nectar, and others into a foul liquid.”
But Elijah did more than present Vanessa and David with buckets of botanicals and bunk off. He was an inspiration and a guide through the process of developing a botanical blend that would capture the spirit of Manly Beach.
Vanessa says, “We learned from Elijah that what works well in cuisine could work well in our gin. Elijah’s enthusiasm was infectious, and it led us to taking the necessary risks with our gins to produce unique spirits, which reflected the terroir of Australia and its coastline.”
The Manly Spirits Australian Dry Gin in your August Gin of the Month box is testament to Elijah’s skill and guidance, along with David and Vanessa’s talent and determination – and, if its bright aromas remind you of the ocean, it’s because a very important part of this gin is plucked straight from the surf.
Elijah introduced Vanessa and David to a whole range of oceanic botanicals. But one stood out in particular for its umami flavour – a savoury note that defies description. It’s the rich warmth of a thick broth; the earthy depth of a mushroom from the farmer’s market; the salty complexity of soy. Add a touch of seaspray and you have sea lettuce, the flagship Australian botanical in the Manly Spirits Australian Dry Gin in you August Gin of the Month box.
Sea Lettuce was just one of the many seaweeds that Elijah brought for Vanessa and David to distil, but it instantly stood out to the pair. It imparted their distillates with the evocative taste of sea brine and that ever-elusive umami character – and, because it litters the rocky headlands around Curl Curl Beach, just a stone’s throw from the distillery, it reminded Vanessa and David of home.
David, Vanessa and their distillery team – along with fishermen looking to lure black fish and luderick for dinner – still brave the breaks at Curl Curl to collect their sea lettuce. They keep a wary eye on the ocean as they fill their buckets, making sure to never take too much of this sea vegetable, which in its own right supports colonies of smaller fish.
As Vanessa explains: “We forage sustainably, across a large area, to ensure that the sea lettuce is there for the next time we need to make gin. It grows fast in the temperate ocean, and it’s available all year round.”
But how does this incredibly unique botanical fit into the finished product, the Manly Spirits Australian Dry Gin in this month’s box?
Vanessa and David enlisted the help of Tim Stones, a gin expert who had a hankering to start working behind the still, to perfect their flagship gin’s unusual blend.
David says, “Essentially, he embraced the traditional London dry gin flavour profile, whilst crafting a quintessentially Australian botanical profile, with a marine and coastal leaning.”
A gin true to its name, this spirit starts with a strong punch of juniper, and allows other flavours to unfold along a backbone of coriander, angelica root and orris root. On the nose, anise myrtle – an Australian variant of aniseed – lends its gentle sweetness. Tasmanian mountain pepper leaf, green cardamom and the sea lettuce add depth and finish, while throughout the bright thrum of fresh orange zest and local finger limes bring a characteristic Australian brightness to the liquid.
“Like a good Aussie, the gin is bold and loud,” smiles Vanessa, “creating a full-flavoured spirit that maintains its character in a classic G&T and Martini alike. We made a gin that, with a splash of tonic, releases the ocean from the glass. We wanted it to remind the drinker of a seaside holiday and a warm ocean breeze.”
But, while this gin certainly brings the Australian sunshine to the UK, there’s even more to discover on the shores of Manly Beach.
That’s because Manly Spirits didn’t stop at their Australian Dry Gin – they kept experimenting, innovating and finding new ways to bottle their beloved beach.
From their Coastal Gin – with meyer lemon and fresh coriander leaf – to their botanical vodka to their amazing liqueurs (both their Limoncello and Blackfin Coffee Liqueur are big favourites here at Craft Gin Club HQ) David and Vanessa have continued expanding their brand. Their first batch of whisky is currently maturing.
All of these amazing expressions are bottled in amazing glass your Manly Spirits Australian Dry Gin was discovered in. A beautiful creation of custom cut-glass, it was designed by Vanessa herself. As she laughs: “It’s one of the perks of having a distillery owner with a professional background in branding and design!”
Immediately, this beautiful bottle conjures up images of the sea, with the way it shifts the light and underwater motifs. But there’s a deeper meaning, too.
“The pattern on the lower edge of the bottle is actually the Fibonacci pattern,” says Vanessa, “which represents perfection and balance in nature. You find it in shell patterns, leaves and even the perfect wave ratio.”
She continues: “As we strive for perfect balance in flavours – and don’t use any artificial flavours – we believe this pattern reflects who we are.”
“Nature in a bottle!” smiles David.
As well as continuing to expand their range and perfect their branding, Vanessa and David have also opened their distillery to visitors – and quite a few Brits, hardened gin lovers that we are – have managed to stop by!
Visitors can drop in at the bar, attend events and see the Manly Spirits team working on the distillery’s four incredible copper stills, each named after one of their children – two of whom work behind the bar at the Manly Spirits Company!
“They endured hearing about our adventure and coping with absent parents as we built our distillery,” laughs David. “We thought it fitting to dedicate our stills to these kids, who now think it’s pretty awesome to have parents who own a distillery.”
As well as a family affair, Manly Spirits Company has become a hub of the local community. From gin raves to gin yoga – “It takes a lot of skill to sip a gin whilst perfecting crow pose!” laughs Vanessa – the distillery has opened its doors wide to gin lovers of all description.
So should you ever find yourself Down Under, head to Manly Spirits Company. You’ll find sun, sand and sea, of course – but also a welcoming smile and a giant G&T awaiting you!