Gin Chat: Caroline Childerley, The Gin Queen
Words by Jane Ryan
Immigrating to Australia in 2011, Caroline Childerley landed in a country that had barely a handful of its own gins. It was a land before Four Pillars, Never Never, Archie Rose and Adelaide Hills.
As part of a passion project to learn more about her new home, she began writing about Australian gin and the industry in its infancy. It turned out to be the perfect moment, and the perfect sideline seat, to watch and record the stratospheric growth of gin in Australia. A decade later, the project is a fulltime job and there’s 730 Australian gins listed on her website.
How did you get started in the gin world?
I started looking into local gins after my move, I’d seen gin production come back to the UK with a bang – this was around the time when Sipsmith was coming to the fore. There was possibly half a dozen in Australian then, but they weren’t really visible, brands like Melbourne Gin Company, West Winds and Kangaroo Island. I was banging on to friends about Australian gin and they suggested I start a website.
The Gin Queen launched a week before Four Pillars, so it was definitely a time of gin starting to emerge as something new and exciting again. Not long after Four Pillars launched, I was invited to do an event with about 60 guests, getting them to try local gins and more tastings followed. They were challenging at the beginning, there were zero Australian gins on the back bar in those days, and in fact unless you went to the Gin Palace, the whole category wasn’t a significant element in any bar, so people weren’t sure what they were being presented with.
What’s been the biggest change you’ve seen since chronicling gin’s journey in Australia?
At the beginning of my journey, it was all about Australian botanicals – lots of gins were using as many as they could cram in the bottle. That was just what Australian gin was thought to be. There’s been a shift away from this in last three to four years where yes, producers are using a couple of native botanicals, but they still want to achieve that London dry style. Never Never is good example of this.
The industry has become more educated about how strong Australian botanicals can be, which has seen the shift in style. We’ve still got a long way to go in terms of scratching the surface of what can be used here though – there’s some 16,000 native plants that grow here.
Interestingly, another change I’ve seen is that people aren’t launching with one gin anymore. They’ll start a brand with one that is classic London dry alongside a gin that is more of an Australian experimental, new world style.
Junipalooza in Melbourne
2020 was meant to be there year you launched Junipalooza in Sydney – what’s the plan now?
In 2015, I could see the way things were going and contacted Gin Foundry, saying you should bring Junipalooza here. We organised it all online, and finally met in person at Tales of the Cocktail in the July before we launched in the October. Was a runaway success in Melbourne, and 2020 was meant to be fourth year as well as launching in Sydney.
We are back this year however, launching in Sydney in August. There’ll be over 30 gin producers at Carriageworks and we’re hoping it’ll be a great start to having a Sydney festival.
You’ve been working on gin as it’s grown into a large and bustling industry – but what are your thoughts on the gin bubble and its potential to burst?
I think there’s a lot of room for everybody – it’s the same conversations that are happening in the UK, is the gin bubble going to burst? I don’t think it has to if we get national support for the industry, which spirits currently don’t get, as opposed to something like the wine industry. The taxation on spirits is still prohibitive for people getting into the business (Australia has the worlds second highest spirits tax) and the industry contributes a lot to the economy – just in terms of the tourism, distilleries tend to be in rural areas where there’s not as much else going on in terms of the economy. More tourist associations are witnessing the value of this, and that’s exciting for gin as a whole – but we could do more with effective government support.
Where does the Gin Queen enjoy a drink when you’re not busy chronicling all those gins?
I try to get out to bars as much as I can, I love sitting at a bar and watching people make drinks. Bar Margaux is my dream place, Black Pearl always, and Bar Liberty would probably my top three recommendations of where to go. Gimlet is also fantastic for a cocktail and I have to mention Bad Frankie in Fitzroy. In Sydney I always make sure to visit The Barbershop, PS40 and Continental Deli.
For a distillery and bar combination I like drinking at Patient Wolf. Cellar doors, or distillery doors, are the number one thing that makes my heart happy – you get to meet distillers and see what they’re doing and I’m a massive nerd when it comes to stills. I always want to ask why did they start distilling and what were they doing before, because a lot of these people have made a massive jump from what they used to do. I’ve heard so many stories like that, people were doing jobs where they weren’t happy and they put everything, houses and all their savings on the line and had a go. To take a punt, or have a crack, it’s a very Australian thing to do.
What’s the best part of the booze industry for you in Australia?
It’s definitely the people. I love going to events and meeting all the incredible businesswomen and men. I’ve just been to an Australian Distillers Conference where there were people from all different backgrounds and it’s so genuine, everybody loves everybody. At the end the guests all bring a bottle of their own spirits, people taste other people’s, go out of their way to share and compliment. And it goes further than bottle swapping. Distillers will ask for help from each other, they’ll message and say I’m out of juniper, can you help? Do you want to share a palate of bottles to split cost? I can’t think of any other industry that would be so kind to each other. It’s competitive but its not at the same time. I think people like Bill Lark set the tone very early on in Australian distilling, we all rise together.
What gin cocktails are your favourite?
I love a French 75 – if I’m in a celebratory mood it puts pep in my step and it’s just a lovely way to start an evening. I’m all about the Dry Martini with an olive and I love a Negroni as well. Currently I’m obsessed with canned cocktails, the ones from Curatif are beautifully made and I’m partial to some of the RTDs the gin brands are bringing out –Adelaide Hills, Patient Wolf and Manly Spirits are all brilliant. As you can see, I can be a bit lazy when it comes to making drinks after a long week.
It may or may not be a dirty burger at lunchtime – but the first thing I reach for is coffee, and then fizzy water.
How did the idea to create the Ginporium and a Gin Concierge come about?
I was toying with the idea of doing something within the online retail space but couldn’t figure out which way to go, there’s already fantastic subscription services and fantastic online stores that have 100s of gins. I also have been wanting to work with Inoka Ho, who runs Cocktail Co in Sydney, but the way the idea eventuated was a typical trip in Dan Murphy’s one morning.
I always do a quick scan of the gin aisle to see what they’ve got and I heard a woman’s voice say ‘oh my god, it’s the Gin Queen’ – I should note I have pink hair so I’m easily spotted. We had a chat and it turned out she was torn between three gins and looking for advice. I spoke to her for about 20 minutes and went on my merry way. Talking to Inoka about the experience we thought, that’s it! We wanted to create something as if you were in the gin aisle and didn’t know which bottle to choose and you could talk to us.
We launched in August last year and we get users to do a quiz, and then match gins to their ideal flavour profile. It’s easy questions such as are you a beach holiday person? What sort of chocolate do you like? We’ve gone for a tight, carefully curated list. No, we don’t have everything but that wasn’t the point of the service. We’ve tasted everything and that’s the important thing and judging by reviews from customers, we have nailed it – Max Allen tried it and said we were spot on so we’re pretty delighted.
Who have been your mentors or teachers on your gin journey?
I’ve been very lucky and had some great teachers. To name some of these wonderful people I have to mention Emile and Olivier Ward from Gin Foundry, Emma Stokes (Gin Monkey), Mikey Enright (Barbershop) and Cameron Mackenzie (Four Pillars) as mentors and people who really helped me out in the beginning (and didn't tell me to go away!).
Early on I decided I really wanted to know how to taste and evaluate gin professionally, so I did WSET level 2 but back then you learnt lots about wine and then there was just this one video you watched for spirits with a page at the end to fill out. WSET could see the changing tide and created a level 2 specifically for spirits which I did with the Australian Distillers Association.
As the years have gone by I’ve been honoured to judge gin competitions which in the beginning was challenging but I’ve learnt so much from the judges around me. I recently judged the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the World Gin Awards where I judged alongside people from Germany, Ireland, Norway and England. You can’t pay for experience like that and in return I can offer guidance on the new flavours coming through from native botanicals.