Whether your tipple is gin or whiskey, these are the best distilleries near Adelaide and abroad in South Australia.
When Never Never Distilling Co. launched in 2017, Sean Baxter and his co-founders were operating from a 16-square-metre shed in Adelaide’s industrial western suburbs. “Not an awful lot of foraging happens in Royal Park except for scrap metal,” he laughs.
“Now,” he tells me, “if you get up on the roof you can see where 90 per cent of the ingredients for this come from.” The “this” he’s referring to is Dark Series Med Gin, the award-winning distillery’s latest product. It’s a paean to the company’s new home in breezy McLaren Vale (about 45 minutes south of Adelaide’s CBD) that incorporates local olives, almonds, coastal rosemary and a rich bouquet of herbs.
Juniper is one of the very few ingredients that doesn’t grow here but gin’s signature botanical is at the heart of everything Never Never does, typified by the robust Juniper Freak Gin. “I wanted to make something that birds would flock to,” Baxter says cryptically. On seeing my puzzled look, he elaborates: “Something that smells like a forest – big and piney.”
I sense the juniper long before the viscous, oily spirit hits my lips and the flavour lingers on my palate as I look to the pine forests that darken the Mount Lofty Ranges. Below them, bushy trellises of vines give way to hilltops crowned with stands of gums. From the spectacular cellar door Never Never shares with Chalk Hill winery and eatery Cucina di Strada, I can see it all.
Soon afterwards, I’m winding through that landscape, grateful to be relaxing in the passenger seat with Angela Leske at the wheel. After noticing how many people were keen to get their hands on local produce long after visiting the area, Leske created the online marketplace, Toast the Locals. “It started as a way for me to bring great South Australian produce to visitors,” she explains. Now she also guides bespoke tours to those same producers.
Never Never looks out over an entire region but our next stop exists in its own world deep in the Adelaide Hills, a self-sufficient utopia protected by a coronet of pale golden hummocks. With a wastewater treatment plant and 690 solar panels, Lot.100’s entire 84-hectare Hay Valley property operates off-grid, despite housing the Adelaide Hills Distillery alongside a winery, brewery, cider maker, juice company and restaurant.
As we pull in, the goats that serve as groundskeepers gaze hungrily at large garden beds filled with juicy tomatoes, dark green leaves of cavolo nero and pale yellow banana peppers. But this produce is reserved for the venue’s restaurant, where chef Shannon Fleming’s hyper-local tasting menu of “seven-ish” courses can stretch to 15 or more dishes when snacks are included. Each course is matched with a drink: “Fortunately,” says Fleming, “there’s a lot to play with.”
It’s fitting that distillery brand ambassador Stuart “Chewy” Morrow looks like a kid let loose in a toy store. A recent arrival in South Australia, the voluble Englishman quickly fell in love with the state. “There are so many producers of every kind – for someone who loves food and drink this is like Disneyland,” he beams. It’s an ideal home for a distillery turning out products such as 78° Sunset Gin, which gets its rich berry flavours and fairy-floss colour from fragrant strawberry gum leaves, rosella flowers and bush apple.
My palate is still singing when we leave and I watch horse studs and strawberry farms zip by out the window. We’re close enough to the city that plenty of locals commute but the hamlets we pass through exist in a time before traffic lights. Against this backdrop, sleepy Hahndorf is a veritable metropolis, its streets lined with bakeries doing a brisk trade in cream-filled bienenstich cakes and pubs selling cold lagers and sizzling wurst. At the northern end of town, Trudy Dickson is watering her garden alongside Hank, a young kelpie-koolie cross who rolls over at the merest suggestion of a pat. Just metres away, her son, Matt, presides over the Ambleside Distillers tasting room.
A lanky, relaxed man who’d almost certainly be a surfer if he lived near the coast, Matt saw the beginning of the gin renaissance firsthand when he was living in London more than a decade ago. But when it came to opening his own distillery, there was only one location he considered.
“I grew up in the Adelaide Hills and look around...” he says, gesturing towards the gently sloping paddocks and magnificent gums made famous by Hans Heysen’s watercolours. “You just can’t go past it.”
His parents agreed to house the distillery on their 1.4-hectare property but deciding what type of gin they should release proved more challenging. “Like a typical family, we couldn’t come to a decision on one thing,” he says with a grin, “so we thought we’d do a recipe each.” His contribution is Big Dry Gin, a robust London dry style.
Matt goes uncharacteristically silent as I raise the glass to my lips and I can see him watching me, waiting. One, two... there it is. “That’s the jalapeño hitting,” he beams as a pleasant warmth reaches the back of my throat and engulfs my palate. There’s also rosemary, thyme and makrut lime leaf to lend a savoury edge, all grown onsite in the garden Trudy is tending.
The healthy competition between the Dicksons mirrors that of the broader craft spirits industry, which exists as a supportive rivalry. “There’s a huge sense of community among distillers,” says Dave Pearse at my next stop. “If I’m having a problem, I’ll call around for advice or if I’ve run out of corks, someone will send over a bag of 1000.”
Pearse, balding and bespectacled, meets me out the front of his house in the Adelaide Hills. After pointing out the garage that transforms into the production facility for 5Nines Distilling every weekend, he leads me through his backyard. The hastily coiled hose and cubby house seem normal enough but as soon as he opens the door of the garden shed I’m engulfed in a haze of honeyed oak.
Hundreds of barrels of maturing single malt whiskies are stacked in here, the chardonnay, apera and bourbon casks distinguishable only by chalk marks scrawled on the outside. Selecting one seemingly at random, Pearse removes the bung and draws out a deep amber liquid.
“Watch out,” he warns, “this is cask strength.” But despite an alcohol content approaching 60 per cent it’s surprisingly smooth, the ex-bourbon cask giving it a rich butterscotch flavour that warms my tongue. When he asks if I’d like to try one of the frontignac barrels, I’m grateful to have a driver for the day.
The onward journey requires Leske’s full attention as we follow the elaborate filigree of Greenhill Road past orchards and precipitously plunging bushland. The broad Adelaide plains grow ever closer until we’re in the city’s leafy eastern suburbs.
Inside a former mechanic’s workshop near the CBD’s southern edge, Prohibition Liquor Co.’s industriallooking tasting room is a far cry from the bucolic scenes that have dominated the day. The products are made to stand out, too. When the company launched in 2015, it was with “the most expensive gin Australia had ever seen” – at $95, that record has long since been eclipsed.
“There were somewhere between seven and 10 distilleries in South Australia then,” says co-founder Wes Heddles. Now there are more than 50, making every style of gin, vodka, brandy, whisky and rum. A friendly man with a ready grin, Heddles adds that even in that crowd Prohibition stands out. The thick French glass bottles are so wide, “they’re essentially a decanter”. The spirit inside is just as distinctive and as I work my way through the range, I’m glad I’ve made this my final stop. The original gin is soft and delicate, the Navy Strength is bold and pleasantly salty, while the Bathtub Cut Gin is a barely contained brute. The herbaceous spirit has anise notes reminiscent of arak and is so laden with oils that it turns opaque when introduced to any mixer. Heddles assures me that at 69 per cent alcohol it’s the most potent in the Southern Hemisphere.
It’s a fitting match for the distillery’s industrial aesthetic but even in the heart of the city a strong community has been forged. “Foraging” for ingredients often takes place in the nearby Central Market, where the distiller knows many traders by name, and the onsite cafe means local workers stop by in the morning for coffee and pastries before visiting the adjoining cocktail bar and tasting room later in the day.
Perhaps the cumulative effect of the tastings has caught up with me but as I look at the rows of bottles behind the bar, I begin to connect the day’s experiences. It takes a lot of imagination to capture a pine forest, a sunset or an entire region in a glass. All around Adelaide, creative minds are proving that distillation isn’t just a craft; it’s an art.
More pit stops to consider
- 36 Short This distillery (36short. com.au) in Adelaide’s north creates rich, flavourful rakia (fruit brandy).
- Applewood In a former cold store in the Adelaide Hills, a husband and wife team craft limited-edition gins that foreground native botanicals.
- Australian Distilling Co. The extensive portfolio at this Adelaide distiller includes blends inspired by every major city in the country.
- Fleurieu Distillery A coastal location at Goolwa adds a hint of the sea to elegant, lightly spiced whiskies.
- Seppeltsfield Road Distillers Enjoy sweet shiraz and semillon gins at this establishment, in the heart of Barossa wine country.
- Imperial Measures Distilling In Adelaide’s industrial Inner West, former bartenders craft their own gin, vermouth and liqueurs that are turned into exquisite cocktails at the onsite bar (imdistilling.com).
- Lobo A cider maker in the Adelaide Hills uses produce from its own orchards to produce quince-infused gin and rich, calvados-style apple brandy.
- Sunny Hill Distillery A true crop-to-drop operation on the Yorke Peninsula that distills vodka, gin and liqueurs from wheat grown onsite.
- Twenty Third Street Distillery Brandy made from Riverland grapes is joined by gin, vodka, rum and whisky at this historic facility in Renmark.
- Two Accents This McLaren Vale distillery uses finished wine rather than unfermented grape juice in its unique Shiraz Gin.
Image credits: Ryan Noreiks and Meaghan Coles.