When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When life gives you a global pandemic, make wasabi gin.
Lee McAlister-Smiley, owner and brewer of White Lies Brewing, doesn’t do things by halves. So when the coronavirus restrictions hit and he was forced to close the White Lies taproom, he got creative. Like a number of other small breweries, he started canning his beers for the first time and set up an online shop. Unlike a number of other breweries, he also started distilling gin and set up a gin lounge above his brewery.
“COVID was one of those things where you could bunker down and be safe, or you could throw the kitchen sink at it,” Lee says. "We’re throwing the kitchen sink at it.”
The idea started small, as many ideas do, but quickly snowballed. When one of the food truck owners who'd been setting up at White Lies suggested he and Lee started making hand sanitiser, Lee jumped online to see what it would take to do it by the book. Within ten minutes, they had their permissions in, waiting for approval.
But if there's one thing we’ve all learned about the COVID-19 pandemic, it's that between the virus, the restrictions, and the way people respond, nothing is predictable.
“The market [for hand sanitiser] tanked faster than we thought it was going to. So we quickly moved across and got full ATO excise licence to start producing spirits above ten percent - all your gins, vodkas, spirits maturing in barrel…
“It's something I've always had an inkling to do – I've seen the growth in the US with the craft distilleries over there, and Tasmania is the pinnacle at the moment where all the craft distilleries are going well… but I never really knew how to do it.”
They’re calling the gin label Ginesis, playing off the idea of "the evolution of gin”. Taking inspiration from single hop beers, Lee decided to use minimal numbers of botanicals (though juniper berries and coriander will always be present) to keep a clear canvas for the the predominant flavours.
Right from launch, Ginesis will have a mandarin gin, a finger lime gin, and a wasabi gin.
“We're not complicating it by having nine botanicals in there. Three or four at most. We're using a lot of mandarin in [the mandarin gin], really punchy and pungent," Lee says.
“I’m not a fan of chilli, but I love wasabi. So thought I'd give that a go – something different.”
Since fresh wasabi from Tasmania would be prohibitively expensive at $300 a kilo, they’re currently opting for powdered wasabi from Japan. “But we’ll play around with it.”
To begin with, Ginesis will be available in Brisbane only, though the team are working towards national distribution. But there’s already more than enough interest from locals to take care of the initial supply.
“We keep having to say to people, ‘No, we can’t sell it yet.’ For the first time, I'm not worried about selling the product!”
As well as installing the distillery, Lee used the time in lockdown to renovate the Sumner venue. Part of this meant creating a new space for customers to enjoy the new product: punters can now head through the back area, past the still and the spirit tanks, and up the stairs to discover a dim and relaxed gin lounge.
“While we're more than happy with the demographic we have down here, this will open it up to a new demographic as well.
"The locals are really excited.”
It’s easy to see why. A combination of mood lighting, fabric chairs and retro wallpaper give the place a 1920s speakeasy vibe. There’ll even be a small gin bar operating during busy periods to save customers having to make their way back to the front bar.
Unsurprisingly, Lee’s feeling both fatigue and satisfaction from his work over the past few months in setting up the distillery side of things. But, as you might expect from anyone who's blessed and cursed with an entrepreneurial spirit, he's already looking forward to the next exciting stage of the project.
“We're planning to be able to have – in two years’ time – a single barrel release every month. So we're going to get 24 barrels in, and then every month we'll be able to release a different barrel.
"We're going to continue with the way we run the beer side of things – we're not really concerned with conforming to the norm. We'll play with things, do a vanilla bourbon, or a vanilla rum, something like that. We're trying to play around with all those flavours you don't normally see in mainstream spirits. We've gotta stay on brand.
“But don’t worry – beer is still the main game!”
Ginesis will be launching on Friday July 3, along with the grand re-opening of the White Lies taproom. See the Facebook event for more details.
As part of the #keepinglocalalive campaign we're running Postcards from the Edge stories, highlighting the ways in which people are adapting to survive. If you've got a story you think is suitable – or have something to add to the campaign resources online – get in touch.