Sunday, 15 June 2014

Central Coast's Hidden Liquor Treasures

Last year we spent a week in Terrigal, a nice little town in Central Coast. So little, in fact, that after staying for a couple of days there one starts looking for some variety, unless one is a die-hard beachgoer. We weren't; so we jumped into the car and went exploring. We looked for road signs pointing to places of interest, and it happened so that the first three directed us to liquor producers. Well, we were looking for entertainment - we'd got it.

Distillery Botanica

Actually, it wasn't the first time we saw Distillery Botanica sign on Terrigal Drive. We passed it during previous trips to Terrigal and told ourselves that it would be a good idea to visit the place, but somehow could never find time for it.

It used to be called St Fiacre Distillery, and from those times there remained a tongue-in-cheek sign on the wall -  "Gloria Spiritui Sancto" (Glory to the Holy Spirit). The owners, however, were worried that the name evoked associations with monastic institutions, and renamed the company to avoid disappointing customers who might have expected to see something similar to a Trappist brewery.

At the cellar door we were welcomed by the owner and master distiller Philip Moore. My interest in the secrets of distillation and Philip's enthusiasm kept us talking for good half an hour during which he told me about the process, the equipment, the ingredients, the experiments and the plans. I was surprised to find that the work area was no larger than a double garage. It held several stainless steel barrels and a still, which was all equipment required for producing spirits and liqueurs.

Distillery Botanica offers a surprisingly wide range of drinks for such a small company: several kinds of liqueurs, a gin and even an absinth. Everything I tasted was worth buying, but two products were simply outstanding. One was Moore's Vintage Gin which contained a painstakingly selected combination of individually vapour-infused botanicals... Actually, I've just realised that I need to explain almost every word in the previous sentence.

Let's start with 'botanicals': they are parts of plants used for infusion. Historically, they were added to mask the smell of poorly distilled spirit. Today, distillers, in their use of botanicals, can be compared to perfumers or chefs - they start with a blank canvas of pure alcohol and then add a unique mix of ingredients to give a drink a distinctive flavour.

Now, it's time to put the word 'painstakingly' into the context: Philip had tried 250 different combinations of botanicals before he came up with his own formula, and that was only a beginning. To get the best possible flavour out of a plant, each ingredient had to be individually infused for a strictly defined amount of time. According to Philip, every botanical has its own infusion timeframe during which it gives off its best aroma. This degree of sophistication can hardly be achieved in 24/7 production cycle of mass gin manufacturers, which makes Moore's Vintage Gin truly hand-made.

Also, to produce a gentler taste, the ingredients are not soaked in spirit, but rather steamed in alcohol vapours, hence the name of the technique - vapor infusion. Those who tried both Bombay Sapphire Gin and Gordon's London Dry Gin will easily understand the difference in taste: the former is vapour-infused, the latter isn't.

The word 'Vintage' in the name of the gin may evoke an association with vintage wines, which are usually of higher quality than the ones without such denomination. In fact, as Philip explained, it is just an honest warning that the taste may vary each year (vintage), depending on the natural fluctuation of botanicals' flavour. In my view, it's not a problem at all; on the contrary, this adds another dimension to a spirit, and I am looking forward to compare Moore's 'vintages'.

The end result of all this hard work is an amazingly smooth and delicate taste, which is better experienced neat at room temperature. Usually, before drinking a white liquor neat, I put the bottle into a freezer. This approach didn't work at all with Moore's Vintage Gin; it lost the best part of its flavour and turned into a regular London dry gin, rough and unremarkable. Also, I wouldn't recommend using it for G&T - the overbearing taste of tonic will mask the subtler aspects of the gin. Still, it is awesome in cocktails like Gin Martini, where gin is the main ingredient.

Another drink that impressed me strongly at Distillery Botanica was Raspberry Liqueur. Imagine dark ripe raspberry with a bit of bitterness which you get when you crush a pip between your teeth, but without seeds or pulp - just smooth, slightly viscous liquid - pretty much all the taste of the berry in your mouth without having to chew it. I was looking for one good word to describe the taste and found it on the label - luscious - spot on. Philip told me part of the secret of this amazing taste; it was in the source material. Apparently, bulk buyers can purchase raspberry at the peak of its ripeness, something one can never find in supermarkets, where berries are always unripe. Before I visited Distillery Botanica, my favourite raspberry liqueur was Chambord. At home I performed side-by-side tasting of the Australian and the French liqueurs, and Chambord didn't even come close to matching the quality of the Philip's creation.

Two other liqueurs that I bought there, Mountain Pepperberry and Lemon Myrtle, were just as good in preserving the natural flavour of their title ingredients. I also had a taste of absinthe, but, unfortunately, it was sold out. Philip was making another batch of absinthe with American wormwood and let me smell the nascent concoction from the barrel; it was already good enough for me to plan another visit to his distillery to buy a bottle of The Green Fairy.

Six Strings Brewery

After the distillery we were following some meandering backroads, trying to get back to civilisation, when suddenly we found a brewery! It was, in fact, located on the Central Coast Highway, which we passed several times, but never noticed the brewery there. Later, shuffling through the web pages on their site, I found why - the brewery was opened only in 2013.

My preferred tasting size is a pint, or at least, a schooner, but, as I was driving, I had to limit myself to a regular tasting paddle; otherwise, I wouldn't be able to taste more than one variety without spending half a day there. Looking through the menu, I was pleasantly surprised to find Hefeweizen - a kind of beer that I never expected to be produced outside Germany. I was even more surprised when I tasted it - it was a very decent brew, on par with its German counterparts. After the tasting I was going to buy a squealer or a growler, but, unfortunately, they ran out of those vessels, so the only things I brought back from the brewery were memories and an intention to return there some time.

Fires Creek Winery

When I saw Fires Creek Winery road sign I wondered what kind of wine was made in Central Coast; I had never heard of any wine produced there. My curiosity was ignited, and 5 minutes later I was parking my car in the vineyard. Well, it fitted the formal definition of a vineyard because it had rows of grape vines. The whole two of them. The rest of the estate looked more like an orchard or a berry farm. The first glance at the tasting range in the cellar door dispelled the mystery - it was a fruit winery.

I can appreciate the craft of fruit wine-making having produced my own cherry, apple and red currant wines. Unlike grapes, berries and fruits usually don't have a good balance of sugar and acid. They aren't sweet enough to produce a decent volume of alcohol, so you have to add sugar. If it's not too acidic, you can put in some citric acid; but if it is too sour you have to add water, which dilutes the taste. It's a finicky business, and I didn't have great expectation from that visit. Having tasted once a suboptimal cherry wine from Southern Tablelands, I was prepared to leave the cellar door with just one souvenir bottle purchased as a memento. And you know what? I bought five!

There were about 8 different wines on tasting, both sweet and dry. We tried them all, and we were impressed. Lime, tangerine and strawberry sweet wines had better, more natural flavour than any cordials or liqueurs I had tasted before. Interestingly, between mandarin and orange I never really saw a place for tangerine in this world, but the bitter-sweet wine made from that fruit became my favourite; and one more piece of great cosmic puzzle clicked into its place.

Have you ever tried a flower wine? Not a flower infusion, but a real wine made of real flowers? You may ask how it is possible at all, what with petals being pretty dry and lacking sugar for fermentation. No, it wasn't a new variety of roses with unusually succulent and sweet petals. This is where those two rows of grape vines came into play. The grapes were used as a basis for fermentation to which copious amounts of flowers were added to imbue the wine with floral scent. The resulting rose petal and violet dry wines had a delightful flavour of real flowers, which harmoniously blended with Durif grapes.

The lady who conducted the tasting told us that they produced only a hundred bottles of violet wine a year.

"Why won't you make more?" I asked her. "It should be just flying off the shelves."

"We can only grow so many violets," answered she.

Before leaving, I also asked her about C.C. Winery, the name of which I noticed on some road signs.

"Unfortunately, they have closed," said the lady, "but have you visited Philip in Distillery Botanica?"

"Yes," said I.

"And do you know about Six String Brewery?"

"Yes, we were there just before coming here."

"Well, there is only three of us left."

This parting comment left me with a sad, but, at the same time, warm feeling; it was touching to encounter such genuine community spirit in the competitive commercial world.

I have marked all three businesses on the map below. They are 5 minutes away from each other and less than one hour drive from Hornsby.

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