With more than 400 gins now available on the Australian market, there’s a dizzying array of styles and flavours to choose from. Traditional London dry-style gins (which don’t have to be made in London), are oily and piney with the resinous flavour of juniper, usually backed up with the brightness of citrus and the earthiness of orris root or angelica. Many contemporary Australian gins lean into a brighter, more perfumed style that relies heavily on native ingredients such as lemon myrtle — brilliant when executed well, but often tipping into soapiness. Tropical fruit flavours like pineapple and passionfruit have made a strong showing in Aussie gins recently as well, and why not?
But gin has always exemplified a certain spiritous sophistication that attracts adult palates — those earthy, dry botanicals, the bitterness of tonic, the saltiness of olives in a martini. Stepping into this great tradition of gin as the anti-sweet-tooth tipple is a new generation of Australian premium gins that lean on salty, savoury and umami flavours to distinguish themselves from their fruity, floral kin. To achieve this distinction, these new-wave savoury gins rely on unique ingredients that, despite gin’s 500-plus-year history, have never before graced the inside of a martini glass.
“In the past 10 years, fruit-forward gins have been flooding global markets,” says Harriet Leigh, head of hospitality at Archie Rose Distilling Co. in Sydney. “These gins have their place, but, personally, I prefer more savoury, more bracing flavours. We recently released a Salt and Pepper twin pack with a salt gin and a pepper vodka. The salt gin is a real masterpiece, with sea celery, sea lettuce and lime. It’s a thoroughly modern gin that makes you feel elegant and sophisticated as you slurp a martini with an olive on the side.”
Olives, of course, have long been associated with a good dry martini, and Victoria’s excellent olive growers were the inspiration behind Four Pillars’ Olive Leaf Gin. Head distiller Cameron Mackenzie says Olive Leaf Gin was a long road to travel, dating back to a 2015 collaboration with the Spanish gin producer Santamanía [now Destilería de Madrid]. “We went over there with the aim of sharing botanicals and knowledge,” Mackenzie explains. Together, they made a gin called Cousin Vera’s. “It was delicious,” Mackenzie says. “Savoury, delicate, soft and textural. It was the first time I had a chance to work with more savoury botanicals like bay leaf and rosemary. But we always felt we could make the gin a little bit more confident and intense, so we continued to tinker with the idea.”
A friend of Mackenzie’s who works for the premium Victorian olive oil producer Cobram Estate invited him to the olive harvest at the Boundary Bend grove. “As we walked through the olive groves, the aromas were incredible — green, herbaceous, fresh and savoury,” recalls Mackenzie. “That reinvigorated the savoury gin idea that led to Olive Leaf Gin.”
Asked about the response to the project, Mackenzie says drinkers and bartenders seem just as enthusiastic about savoury-style gins as he is. “The feedback has been amazing and, truthfully, I was nervous about it,” he says. “It’s a long way from the citrus- and spice-forward gins we usually make. Bartenders, in particular, have embraced it and taken their martinis to new heights, and it also seems to have good momentum in the US with the martini set.”
As well as recognisable ingredients such as salt and olives, Australian producers are also pushing boundaries and palates with less expected additions to their savoury gins. At South Australia’s Never Never Distilling Co., it’s oyster shells. “We made our Oyster Shell Gin in collaboration with Society restaurant in Melbourne,” says Never Never’s head distiller, Tim Boast. “They wanted a gin specifically for martinis, so we looked at the flavours in our own region that would work for them. Oyster shells enhance mouthfeel when distilled, so we knew they would be perfect.”
Oyster Shell Gin takes much of its inspiration from South Australia’s beautiful Fleurieu Peninsula. “We source the Pacific oysters from American River on Kangaroo Island,” says Boast. “Other ingredients like coastal daisy bush, round mint and saltbush grow freely all the way up and down the Port Willunga coastline, and we get marsh grapefruit from the South Australian Riverland. Finally, we add Tasmanian wakame to deliver an umami rinse to the final spirit, which ‘tricks’ the tastebuds into picking up a hint of oyster.”
But for Never Never, it’s not just about wandering around in the bush to see what smells good. Its collaborative projects are a direct response to what bars and restaurants are requesting. “A lot of the bars we collaborate with are asking us to create gins specifically for the purpose of a martini experience for their menu,” says Never Never co-founder Sean Baxter. “A lot of the ingredients we use are there to amplify the mouthfeel and texture of the spirit, which are incredibly important for martinis.”
Baxter suggests drinking Oyster Shell Gin in what they’ve dubbed a “Shelly”, a classy riff on the ridiculous Aussie drinking tradition of a “shoey” (sculling a drink out of a shoe). “Pour the ice cold gin into the empty shell of a fresh oyster straight after it has been consumed to mop up any jaunty little seaside lingerings,” he says. The Never Never crew also love replacing tequila with their gin for a savoury, saline twist on a margarita that they call the “Oyster Shell Tommy” (see recipe at left).
Sebastian Costello is the head judge for gin at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards, the largest competition for Australian-made spirits. He has seen a marked uptick in savoury-style gins in recent years, a trend he attributes to the way people are drinking. “There has been a rise in consumers ordering more savoury drinks at the bar,” he says. “Think dirty martini or red snapper [a bloody Mary made with gin instead of vodka]. You don’t want the gin to be bright and citrus-driven in those drinks — it wants to be savoury and oily. Producers are also starting to concentrate on what people are eating with their drinks, like pairing your martini with an oyster, so we’re seeing gin makers incorporate those flavours into the gin-making process.”
Costello notes that as the trend takes hold in the still-young local gin market, the results are improving all the time. “The longer our gin makers play around with these flavours, the better the results get,” he says.
Asked if he has any other thoughts on the style, Costello sums it up simply: “Yes,” he says. “They are delicious.”
While every gin maker will tell you their particular gin makes the best martini, my favourite cocktail to showcase these savoury, salty gins is a white Negroni, especially with gins that have a little bit of coastal funk. This lesser-known Negroni variation is a bit brighter and lighter than the traditional recipe, perfect for an afternoon in the sun. The added layer of salinity acts like a pinch of salt in your cooking, really lifting the herbal flavours and creating a lovely balance of sweet, bitter and umami.
30ml savoury gin
30ml gentian liqueur (a traditional European bittersweet liqueur — Suze is the most widely available brand)
30ml aromatised white wine (such as Regal Rogue Lively White vermouth or Lillet Blanc)
Add ingredients to a rocks glass. Fill glass with ice and stir.
Garnish with a twist of grapefruit peel and a sprig of rosemary.
Four Pillars Olive Leaf Martini
A savoury martini for the salty-minded; this is how the team at Four Pillars likes to drink them.
60ml Four Pillars Olive Leaf Gin
20ml Maidenii dry vermouth
3 drops good extra virgin olive oil
Green Sicilian olives in brine
Add gin and vermouth to a mixing glass with lots of ice. Stir until chilled and diluted to taste.
Strain into a cocktail glass that has been chilled in the freezer for at least 20 minutes.
Twist the lemon peel over the drink to express the oils, then discard. Use a pipette or the end of a chopstick to add three drops of olive oil to the surface of your martini.
Serve with a side dish of as many Sicilian olives as you like.
Never Never’s Oyster Shell Tommy
“Our Oyster Shell Gin makes a better coastal ‘margarita’ than any of those cheap imported tequilas,” says Sean Baxter, co-founder of Never Never. “If someone was able to convince a bartender back in 2010 that tequila works in a Negroni, then I can get people to try Oyster Shell Gin in a margarita in 2023.”
60ml Never Never Oyster Shell Gin
30ml freshly squeezed lime juice
15ml agave nectar
Half a pinch of salt
Add ingredients to a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice.
Shake furiously until the outside of the shaker gets frosty.
Strain over fresh ice into a rocks glass rimmed with kelp salt.