Inland from Cairns, about ten minutes out of Mareeba sits Mt Uncle Distillery, a site that’s been in the news a bit lately for cracking the huge British market and selling their gin, that has an Australian twist, to the poms.
Mt Uncle has been on our radars for a long time now, originally producing exotic fruit liqueurs, vodka and an interesting marshmallow vodka liqueur where the marshmallows are actually melted by the vodka giving a unique, velvety smooth and liqueur with marshmallows sweetness, it has to be tried to fully understand it, as nothing I write here can fully explain it.
About ten years ago, Mark Watkins, co-owner and head distiller, decided to branch out from vodka and liqueur and try his hand at gin, rum and whiskey, with great success. I might add, however I was personally sorry to see their coffee liqueur cease commercial production.
Mark has created one of the most amazing gins I’ve tried to date, that has won more awards than an athlete on steriods, his whiskey is delightful as a sipper, and his rum is much more than just a nod at French Caribbean inspired “rhum agricole” sugar cane juice made rums. This stands shoulder to shoulder with some of best, at times standing much taller than the best, and like those very flash Caribbean rums, all bottles are hand labelled with bottle and barrel numbers, without carrying the same price tag though.
The distillery was set up in 2002, based in a banana plantation owned and run by the Watkins family, with the distillery running out of the banana packing shed. The area itself adjoins Mount Uncle, hence the name, and has had many roles over the years from cattle farm to macadamia nut and avocados, now bananas, distillery, tea rooms/café/restaurant and an extremely unique function centre that has seen its fair share late nights with weddings and events.
It’s a family affair with Mark’s parents run the upkeep of the land, his wife Claire manages sales and marketing, and his brother and sister in law have their own successful business involving banana by-products most notably their ingenious banana flour.
Over the years Mark has tinkered away and built himself two stainless steel stills (a 50 litre and a 100 litre) and invested in 1500 Arnold Holstein copper pot still that’s nicknamed Helga. He put his environmental science degree to good use by finding Australian equivalents for his London Dry Gin recipe, using juniper, peppermint gum, anise myrtle, wattle seed, pepperberry, cinnamon myrtle, lillypilly, lemon myrtle, lemon scented gum, eucalyptus, finger lime, native ginger, river mint and bunya nut.
The distillery houses a 12,000 litre fermenter that ferments the base spirit with a naturally occurring yeast to about 10% ABV over a fortnight. That liquid is then transferred to Helga, and the distillation process begins – the head comes first and contains all the bad alcohol (acetone) which is disposed of, the heart is the good stuff at between 68% and 90% alcohol, and the tails is everything under 68%, which is re-used in the next batch so the alcohol doesn’t go to waste.
After the distillation, the spirits travel on different paths: to create the Botanic Australis Gin, all of the Australian native botanicals are added to the base spirit and left to soak for three days, its then strained and redistilled to gain pure notes and oils of those botanical. Distillation takes six hours and produces around 1500 bottles worth of liquid. The clear spirits are chill-filtered at -6°C to remove any cloudiness, while the rum and whiskey spirit is placed into barrels for aging, the whiskey is aged in hybrid barrels with a French oak body and American oak head for 5 years while the rum is aged in American oak.
I’m just glad we get to enjoy the returns from this time heavy investment.
The Mt Uncle spirits range can be found locally in independent bottelo’s or online.
A couple to try:
Mt Uncle Distillery Botanic Australis Gin – yes it’s a London Dry Gin, but it’s so different to any other gin on the market, every time I take a sip something else comes to the fore, and its ever changing. Lemon and liquorice on the nose, with touches of pepper. Those flavours are alive on the tongue too but with mint and lime, long finish with notes of spice, the pepperberry and ginger giving it a touch of heat. Has the usual juniper notes in there, but it’s the complexity of all the other flavours and aromas that make this a complex gin. Its menthol qualities can make it a little too big for some classic cocktails, but makes an awesome G&T, and it’s super easy to drink neat. 40% alc
Mt Uncle Distillery Botanic Australis Navy Strength Gin – a textbook example of how ABV can affect the flavours of a spirit, in this case the Navy Strength 57% ABV moves from those lime characters to more lemon, with the ginger and cinnamon pushing through stronger on the tongue, the liquorice/aniseed dialled back a bit. Great drink, but watch that ABV, I’m not sure how it happens but after a few your legs don’t seem to work properly. Makes a superb martini, no vermouth needed here, the spirit is that easy to drink straight out of the bottle into a martini glass with an olive.
Mt Uncle Distillery Iridium Gold Rum – 4 years of barrel ageing gives the rum a fantastic, luscious golden colour to it. Huge hit of alcohol and cooked banana on the initial opening, which dies away quickly to leave notes of salted caramel, mixed spice. On the tongue there some heat, but not from alcohol, more of a peppery bite, a touch of minerals or metallics in there too, vanilla from the oak and flavours that remind me of the old school fete toffee apples.
Mt Uncle Distillery The Big Black Cock Whiskey – ok, stop sniggering, its named after one of the old massive black roosters that were on the property, its sold in packaging that bears a chicken wire front. Made using malted Queensland barley, and then spending five years gaining some barrel age which gives it a bright copper colour, malty and light wooden spice aromas leap from the glass, the odd waft of dark chocolate too. On the tongue it’s like someone has squeezed all the liquid out of a dark Christmas cake, vanilla, dark dried fruits brown sugar. Wonderful sipping drink.