This is the story of Cape Byron Distillery as told exclusively to Gourmantic by Eddie Brook and Jim McEwan.
Cape Byron Distillery – A New Chapter For Australian Distilleries
Jim McEwan with the Brook Family at Cape Byron Distillery
A little over two years ago, Eddie Brook, SouthTrade’s brand manager for Bruichladdich was given the task of taking Hall of Fame and Master Distiller of the Year Jim McEwan, on a tasting tour of Australia and New Zealand. The two struck a friendship and when Jim met with Eddie’s parents in Hobart, he learnt about their involvement in the rainforest regeneration at Byron Bay and the abundance of native plants and trees. “I wanted to bring something back to the world and thought I’d love to make gin from that.”
From that meeting, the idea developed and Jim found himself “in a tiny oasis going where no man has gone before in the world of gin”.
Jim McEwan has spent the last six weeks at Cape Byron Distillery mentoring the Brook family and training Eddie in the art of distilling. He is actively consulting through his new business The Cask Whisperer.
Cape Byron Distillery
Cape Byron Distillery is situated on the Brook’s family macadamia farm, set among orchards surrounded by macadamia trees and sub-tropical rainforest in the hinterland of Byron Bay.
At the top of the property, you can see the sun rise behind the lighthouse of Byron Bay. From the deck, you can see the heart of the forest as you sit outside and have a drink. Up north, you can see Mt Warning where the spring water for the gin comes from.
“The water has sweetness to it and has a lovely story. We’re using it not only for its qualities but the sense of community reflective in the spirit,” Eddie Brook explains. “We’ve replanted over 40,000 rainforest trees in the last 30 years. The distillery is an extension of the rainforest with recycled timbers and finishes from the area.”
And it is that passion for the rainforest that is at the heart of the distillery. Not marketing ploy by any means, the Brook family have been supporters for many years.
“We’ve been regenerating rainforest for the last 30 years in particular the Northern Rivers area”, Eddie explains. “Mum and Dad have long been involved in rainforest regeneration with the main purpose of regenerating the Big Scrub, before clearing in the 19th century was the largest area of subtropical lowland rainforest in Eastern Australia and acted as the main artery breathing life to the North Coast of Australia. The majority of the native plants we use in the gin are hand-harvested and come from the heart of our rainforest. Through our passion for it, we’ve built the most abundant pantry for making great gin.”
Inside the distillery, the 2000 litre copper pot still is a work of art. The brand new classic Scottish design still has a long swan’s neck which ensures that vapour has a lot of contact with copper which purifies the alcohol. The still was crafted by Peter Bailly who incidentally had no idea about Jim’s involvement until a week before when he came in to install it and condition it. The still has been named George, after Eddie’s late grandfather who was known to enjoy the juniper-led spirit.
L-R: Jim McEwan, Peter Bailly, Eddie Brook
Peter Bailly also built a spirit safe – the first he’s ever built – and this is the first distillery in Australia to have one.
At first, Jim was a little apprehensive about a brand new still but after 50 years of distilling, it was the smoothest ride he’s ever had. “I’m delighted about the speed of distilling, and we don’t want to distil fast. It’s a work of art.”
There are three points of distillation in the still and the process follows a one shot distillation. The heavy traditional botanicals (such as juniper, coriander, lemon peel, cassia bark) go in the body of the still and that’s what the vapours of the gin are made of. Suspended about 6 inches above are three Babylon Bags named after the hanging Gardens of Babylon. These contain native Australian botanicals such as cinnamon myrtle, aniseed myrtle, native ginger, river mint, native raspberry, blood lime, and naturally, macadamia as well as many more.
Eddie & Will Brook
As the spirit with the heavy botanicals boils, the native botanicals in the basket above are vaporised not boiled, so they do not become lost with the juniper. “There’s a whole new rainbow of flavours you get from the gin,” Jim adds.
High above in the neck of the still, there’s a basket with native ginger stem which gives a crisp ginger last note much like in a Christmas pudding. “There’s a lot going on in aromatics and they come together beautifully in the glass.”
What sets the gin apart is that it’s showcasing Australian native botanicals in a way that hasn’t been done before. This is achieved through the distillation method and the use of botanicals from the rainforest the family has helped regenerate.
Working with native seasonal fruits can have drawbacks when the season lasts for one month and a half. Instead of shying away from it, they are bringing the next evolution of flavours by putting a big seasonal finish to the gin.
“There will always be subtle changes depending on what we’re getting from the rainforest but always good changes. There will never be a distraction from the flavours because nature doesn’t do that,” Jim explains.
“We’re bringing a new level of excellence to distillation. When you taste this gin, it tastes pure. There’s no E150, no chill filtration. You’re tasting a bit of nature, it has the warmth of the personalities associated with family distillers.”
Brookie’s Byron Dry Gin
Brookie’s Byron Dry Gin has a base spirit made from Australian wheat and is bottled at 46% ABV. Below are the tasting notes as told by Jim McEwan:
“The spirit opens on a captivating combination of Citrus notes, led by Aniseed and Cinnamon Myrtle in harmony with a lively drift of Finger and Blood Limes that awakens and stimulates the olfactory system which rejoices in the purity of their aromas. But be patient, that is just the start of an aromatic odyssey. Juniper berries pop like champagne bubbles lifting the senses to a place they have never been. With a little time and aeration Juniper and Coriander enter the scene bringing the depth and distinction that one expects from a high quality Gin. As the spirit evolves further, the taste receptors are going crazy with anticipation, but they will have to wait as White Aspen and Riberry join the party. Add a little Lily Pilly and Dorrigo Pepper leaf and now your getting there. It’s an incredible beguiling ground breaking aromatic exploration.”
“All the above are a precursor for what you are about to experience on the palate. A brilliant combination of Licorice, Aniseed and Wild Ginger captivate and totally seduce the palate, which is not complaining, it’s totally captivated. However after some 15 minutes of sipping a brilliant beguiling flavour of native Raspberries dusted with Macadamias emerged bringing a fabulous contrast to the above. What an adventure, in many ways, a journey back in time to the rainforest where most of the ingredients and not all are mentioned above, have been harvested by the Brook family who have pledged their lives to its regeneration.”
“This is without doubt the most natural Gin in the world, let yourself be transported to that amazing place, enjoy the enlightenment.”
Bruichladdich and Cape Byron Distillery
I ask Jim if he saw any similarities between the early days of Bruichladdich and Cape Byron Distillery. “Absolutely not. Bruichladdich was Cinderella, never invited to the ball, used and abused by various owners. When I walked in, there were two men and a dog and a broken down distillery but the ghosts and karma were still there. We took it to the ball. Today, ninety people are working there, and it’s one of the largest employers on the south west of Scotland.”
“But in a funny way, [Cape Byron Distillery] has the same karma as Bruichladdich had. It’s meant to happen for the right reasons, to help regenerate the rainforest like Bruichladdich regenerated a whole community and a small island.”
Cape Byron Distillery is currently in production. They have distilled two batches of the gin which are bottled this week. Seasonal native fruit liqueurs will follow in four months. While there are no immediate plans to make whisky, they will be looking at doing a first run in approximately 12 months. Jim will be returning to Australia once or twice a year while Eddie will continue to distill in the traditional method as trained by Jim.
The distillery will officially open on Monday 14 November 2016 with select business owners in attendance. Distillery tours that include visits to the original rainforest and newly planted sub-tropical fruit and plant orchards will soon be on offer.
A crowd-funding campaign for Brookie’s Byron Dry Gin will be launching at the end of November/start of December with a RRP of $75 AUD. A percentage of the profits will be channelled to the Big Scrub Rainforest Landcare groups whose mission is to preserve rainforest and encourage consumers and landowners to plant trees.
“I will leave this country a better man because I know a bit more about what’s going on in this environment. There’s a sheer joy of taking something from the rainforest and knowing that the profit from the gin is going back into regeneration,” Jim says.
Jim’s initial time in Byron Bay is coming to a close but what he is leaving behind is something far more personal.
“I can assure you young Eddie Brook is going to be a great distiller. He has the touch, he has the patience and he has that kind spirit that leads to quality. He’s not a guy to rush, he appreciates quality. When he was distilling with me, it was like watching a child on his first Christmas.”
Brookie’s Byron Dry Gin Co-Creators: Eddie Brook & Jim McEwan
“It’s been very emotional for me,” he adds. “I hope the gin will reflect that emotion. I leave here shortly knowing my job is done and they will continue to make a gin with the same pride, passion and integrity that I have in my lifetime. So the legacy goes on.”
Cape Byron Distillery
St Helena Rd. Byron Bay, NSW 2481
All photographs are courtesy of Cape Byron Distillery and used with permission.
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