When it comes to the strong stuff, whiskeys and spiced rums are usually my drink of choice these days, but with vodka being a past staple in my drinks cupboard and gin making a spirited revival (mind the pun) in the last few years, there was no way I was going to pass up an opportunity to check out the inaugural Fine Spirit Expo, held on 30-31 October in Sydney.
The expo provided a great opportunity to experience and taste the latest trends in gin and vodka, with representation from both Australian and international brands (including a few boutique ones making their mark on the industry). Each ticket included tastings from around 40 brands of gin and vodka, cocktail masterclasses, a hot and cold buffet food to graze on in between tastings (an important part of maintaining your staying power, as we found out!), and a tasting glass to take home.
This year, the Fine Spirit Expo was held in the Grand Ballroom at Rydges World Square, and we attended the Saturday afternoon session which kicked off at 1pm. After we collected our showbags (with our tasting glass and tasting notes for the spirits) and made our way inside, we made a beeline for one of the tables of buffet food to grab a quick snack and scope out the stalls we wanted to hit. Most other people seemed to be doing the same thing, so there was a fairly soft and restrained mood in the room at this point - but after about 15 minutes, once everyone had a couple of drinks in them, the vibe picked up noticeably and the afternoon was in full swing!
There was plenty of food on offer, with the tapas-style options being perfect for a bite in between drinks. The sliders, mini chorizo hot dogs, and kransky & pickle rolls were incredibly moreish (I think I'd had about 5 of each by the end of the afternoon) and easily the most popular, while the Polish-style salad was also worth sampling. The only dish which didn't work for me was the beef stroganoff with steamed rice, which didn't have a great consistency after it came down to room temperature. And I didn't try the fruit skewers because, well, hot dogs > fruit.
We ended up spending a bit over 2 hours at the expo - but even then, we didn't get close to visiting every stall, since some of the reps were keen to feed you a few different samples while you were there, while others were happy to have a good chat about the product, the brand, and their own experience with it (since many of them were bartenders/mixologists). Below is a run through of what we did manage to sample - and what we ended up buying a bottle of at the end.
1. Boë Gin
Hailing from Scotland, Boë (pronounced 'bwah') gin is named after Professor Franz de la Boë, who's credited with creating the world’s first gin in 1658 while he was searching for a medicinal tonic. As gin drinkers would know, it's all about the botanicals - and Boë has 13 of them to give a pretty complex taste.
The rep started off our tasting with a shot of straight Boë, which was already quite drinkable on its own (and it's not often that I can drink gin straight!). The spicier botanicals such as the juniper, ginger and cardamom hit the tastebuds at the front of the tongue first, eventually leaving behind a citrus aftertaste from the orange and lemon. We then tried a 50/50 mix of the gin and tonic, served with a thick slice of orange which brought out the citrus even more.
2. Berry Bros. & Rudd No. 3 London Dry Gin / Karlsson's Gold Vodka
The Berry Bros. & Rudd stand featured their famous No. 3 London Dry Gin, as well as a Swedish vodka which hasn't yet been released in Australia called Karlsson's Gold. If you haven't heard of them, Berry Bros. & Rudd is one of Britain's oldest wine and spirit merchants, dating back to 1698 when they opened their first store at 3 St. James's Street in London (hence the name of the gin). Remarkably, they still operate out of the same shopfront, and the business remains in the family to this day.
The gin itself is a classic London dry gin, with only 6 botanicals - juniper, orange peel, grapefruit peel, cardamom, coriander seed and angelica bark. Since it's designed for classic dry martinis, the idea is to keep the flavours as clean as possible. The rep also had spray bottles with distilled spirits from each of the 6 botanicals, so you could smell them individually and spray them one by one onto your hand to see what each botanical added to the mix, essentially ending up with the smell of gin on your hand! It was a fun way to get to understand the flavours a bit more - particularly the juniper on its own.
Berry Bros. & Rudd are bringing Karlsson's Gold vodka to Australian shores early next year, so we were lucky to get a taste of it early. Karlsson's uses heirloom virgin new potatoes from a small peninsula in Sweden called Cape Bjäre, with the potatoes harvested when they're still young (before they've even fully developed their skin) so that they have a delicate flavour, high water content and low starch content. Supposedly it takes 8kg of potatoes to produce a 700mL bottle of vodka!
Karlsson's recommends you drink the vodka with some black pepper freshly cracked over the top of it to complement the vodka's flavour and bring out some of the subtle pepper notes. It sounds a bit strange, but I thought it worked pretty well, and the vodka itself was exceptionally smooth (especially considering it's only distilled once). They're hoping to supply our bars with a Karlsson's-branded pepper grinder, so if you see someone at the bar getting pepper cracked into their glass, you know why!
3. Dry Fly Gin
This stall had by far the most animated and engaging rep - I reckon he could sell shampoo and conditioner to Bruce Willis if he had the chance! Whenever he spoke, people listened up, and others would even start to crowd around. The gin he was repping comes from a small distillery in Washington State called Dry Fly, which is a boutique label that only uses locally sourced ingredients. Their gin is unlike any other out there - it has big Granny Smith apple flavours and only a hint of the more traditional botanicals, making it very palatable for those who aren't used to gin. This one might be polarising, particularly for gin purists, but we certainly enjoyed it and could easily have a couple by the pool on a warm summer's day.
4. 666 Vodka - Natural, Autumn Butter, St. Ali Coffee
I was keen to try the 666 Vodka as soon as we had walked in, as I was intrigued by their coffee-flavoured one. As it turns out, they're an Australian distillery (hailing from Tasmania, where they exclusively use water from Cape Grim - yes, that's the place that also supplies beef to a lot of high end restaurants), and they use beans from popular Melbourne roaster St. Ali for their coffee vodka. The coffee is extracted using an aeropress (which is common amongst many coffee shops these days) - but instead of passing water through the coffee, they use vodka! The resulting taste is a bit like cold drip coffee - slightly sweet with a lingering finish, and you wouldn't even know you were drinking vodka...
Even more impressive, however, was 666's 'autumn butter' vodka. The rep told us that autumn's a great time for dairy due to the grass becoming juicier, and as a result the cream gets creamier and the butter gets more buttery. They flavour the vodka by 'fat washing' the butter (basically, mixing vodka and butter together until the butter flavour's extracted, and later skimming off the fat after it's solidified), and the final product has a wonderful creamy, buttery taste and even a glossy, buttery mouthfeel. Incredible. The rep then made us an espresso martini using the butter vodka (interestingly, not the coffee one), which added a nice richness to the cocktail and was dangerously easy to drink.
5. Absolut Elyx / Beefeater 24 / Plymouth Gin
The top-of-the-line offering from Absolut, known as 'Elyx', is hand distilled using old copper stills, and is made using single origin wheat (from within a 25km radius of the distillery in Sweden). It all sounds great, but I wasn't a fan of it - when we drank it straight, it wasn't as smooth as the other vodkas we'd tried, and it still had a bit of a burn which I find with most Absolut products.
We also had a taste of Beefeater 24, which uses tea in its distillation process, and the Plymouth Sloe Gin. I've never had sloe gin before (made using sloe berries), and I quite liked this one for its slightly sweet and sour (almost sour-cherry-like) flavours.
6. Pickering's Gin / Potocki Vodka
Pickering's is a well-known Scottish gin, with the recipe based on an original Bombay Sapphire recipe. You'll find 9 botanicals here - juniper, coriander, cardamom, angelica, fennel, anise, lemon, lime and cloves. As well as their standard offering, Pickering's also have a 'Naval Strength' gin at 57% ABV, which is the minimum strength at which gin will light gunpowder if it's spilled over it (the old naval way of telling whether they'd gotten the proper gin!). Pickering's Naval Strength gin is also the official gin of the Edinburgh Royal Tattoo, and comes with a little bearskin hat and gold neck tag so you don't forget. Maybe our palates were a bit dulled by now, but it was still quite drinkable on its own....
The Potocki Vodka (or should I say... wódka) was crisp and smooth - in fact, the lack of any burning sensation allowed us to see what vodka should actually taste like! If I was looking for a clean base for a vodka martini or just to mix with some soda water and lemon, this would be top of the list.
7. Archie Rose
Our last stop was at Archie Rose - a new distillery based just down the road in Rosebery. As well as being the first commercial producers of gin in Sydney in 160 years, they also produce vodka and whisky, run an on-site bar (which recently won an international design award), and even allow you to order bottles of spirits tailored to your liking. The guys at the stall were super friendly and happy to chat, telling us a bit about the Archie Rose story (there's a good write up on BRW if you're interested) and talking about the bar scene in Canberra (they're pretty well connected in the capital!).
Filtered Sydney water and native botanicals such as blood lime, Dorrigo pepper leaf, lemon myrtle and river mint feature in their gin, creating a pretty unique and complex flavour. Eminently drinkable on its own, or mixed with tonic or soda ("tonic has more sugar than Coke", they warn us). We fell in love with the brand as much as the gin itself - from the branding and labels, to the custom bottles which are embossed with 'Archie Rose' on the bottom, and even just the name, which reminded us of a working-class boy in early 1900's London.
$$$ Purchase Time $$$
After all that frivolity, it was time to get down to business and nab us a souvenir to take home. There was a stall towards the exit selling everything that we'd been able to sample, and they were also available to order for home delivery in case anyone was having a big house party soon. In what was the hardest decision of the day (although, it's arguably the only decision we needed to make that day). we narrowed it down to the 666 Autumn Butter Vodka and the Archie Rose Dry Gin.
In the end, Archie Rose won out - perhaps partly from the recency effect (or alcohol-influenced short term memory), but mostly because as delicious and unique as it was, I couldn't picture myself reaching for the 666 butter vodka while Netflix-bingeing on Weeds or having the boys around to talk about our life goals and dreams. Plus, there was just something cool about Archie Rose....
As you can probably tell, it was impossible not to have a good time at the expo - plenty of brands of gin and vodka to try (you'd be well on your way if you managed to sample them all!), the reps were friendly and knowledgeable, and it suited both novices (like me) and gin/vodka enthusiasts. My top tip if you're heading to the next one? Don't underestimate how much time you need to spend there - time seems to fly after a while!
To be held in Melbourne in February 2016
*I visited as a guest of the Fine Spirit Expo; however, all opinions are my own.