The production of artisan spirits is equal parts science and art.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that distilling is strictly a practice of science when contemplating exact measurements, alcoholic volumes, temperatures and times of a distillation run. However, there is something so beautiful and intriguing about a curious stainless steel pot still with chambers, pipes and a copper botanical basket. Flavours and aromas are developed, refined, assessed, and gently adjusted in the pursuit of a perfect drop. Sounds like art, right?
We went to Big River Distilling Co. to see small batch craft distilling at its finest!
Owner and distiller Clyde showed us the distillery door and behind the scenes as we watched a distillation run of Big River's Canberra Dry Gin.
Clyde is the driving force behind Big River Distilling Co. He leans into the science of the process with a background spanning four science degrees and a post-doctorate degree in nuclear physics. Having been a wine maker for ten years prior to starting Big River, Clyde understands the process and the craft of producing these artisanal, fine drinks.
Watching the distilling process is captivating.
Having carefully selected and prepared 10 different botanicals prior to the run, Clyde loads the 420L stainless steel pot with neutral grain spirit cut with filtered Canberra water from the Brindabellas. The pot gets heated gently with great precision as the temperature and timing is recorded by Clyde (and noted in his special black book). As the botanicals macerate the cut spirit is turned into vapour. Four disk chambers fill, bubble and release into the next chamber.
3 more botanicals await in the next chamber, seated within a copper basket. The basket is away from direct heat and creates a vapour infusion of the chosen botanicals. This technique allows Clyde to preserve the more delicate 'high-notes' such as the floral characteristics and lofty citrus suggestions that can be tasted. During this process, science starts giving way to an artistic, creative pursuit.
During this process Clyde is opening and closing chambers, recording temperatures, times and checking gauges. He is capturing the liquid that forms the 'heads' - he then smells it to analyse the character and inspects the clarity. The 'heads' and 'tails' are the first and last volumes of liquid; the distiller takes the first and last cut and removes them from the final product, leaving the middle volume of liquid - perfectly named, the 'hearts'.
The cutting here is guided by all the data Clyde has recorded during the distillation run and the intimate knowledge of his process and product, but ultimately is decided by his sense of smell.
The last botanical is added to the hearts after distillation... a cool cucumber!
The freshly distilled spirit is left to rest for weeks to form its final flavour before bottling.
How long have you been distilling spirits and how long has Big River Distilling Co. been running?
Big River Distilling Co was established in 2017 and after 10 months of bench-top distillation and exhaustive sensory trials the first gin, the Canberra Dry Gin was released to the market July 2018.
Why is local shopping important to you?
Lower food miles for the products is one advantage of shopping local but also the flow on effect of a local purchase in our economy is significant. Shopping local helps support Canberra's emerging food and beverage scene.
What is your favourite stage in the making process?
Definitely developing a new style of gin or spirit. This is a chance to exercise the creative part of the brain and I love releasing a new beverage at the Distillery Door and gauging people's (positive of course) reaction to it.
What’s next for Big River?
We are busy expanding on the Distillery Door experience out at Dairy Road, Fyshwick, and I am always trialing small batches of new spirit styles like the just released Fig Gin Liqueur. Made like a sloe gin but using local figs from Hundred Acres Produce steeped in our Cinn Gin for many months to extract the flavour, sweetness and colour of fresh figs.
What is your favourite spot in Canberra?
The Jerrabomberra Wetlands are a great place to escape the built environment, observe some diverse birdlife and learn from the traditional owners how to better respect the world in which we all inhabit.
What have you been binge watching?
The Coen brother's inspired Fargo series is dark with lots of odd looking people. Can't wait till the next series.
You can find the full range of Big River spirits in store at Shop POP or in The POP Panty online! These are truely artisanal, small batch spirits aimed to evoke a sense of time and space, celebrating place and surrounds; contributing to the wonderful local ecosystem we are so lucky to be a part of.