Review: Headlands Distillery’s Two Gins and Illawarra Plum release

Looking to create a unique Australian expression of gin, the team at the Headlands Distilling Company have pushed the Australian craft distilling envelop with these releases.

In a previous review I looked at their excellent Vodka ( read about it here)  and I took my time to get acquainted with their Boobialla Australian Native Gin, Daalgaal Illawarra Plum Infused Gin they sent to me some weeks back, along with a bottle of their Spirit of Illawarra Plum.

Founders, Dean Martelozzo, Jared Smith, Lachlan Hingley and Thomas Simnadis have taken a fresh approach to crafting these small batch spirits with a strong commitment to place and environmentally sustainable production.

Before I get to the spirits proper, it’s worth taking a minute to consider what the state of play of gin expressions there are in Australia. We’re in the golden age of both innovation, quality and quantity with over 265 gin producers and many more coming, most producing several styles of gin.

As a whole they’ve warmly embraced local ingredients, water and native botanicals to fashion a distinctively Australian contemporary style of gin, or fresh takes on the classic London Dry or Barrel Aged styles.

But what Headlands have done in producing the Boobialla Native Gin is take the innovation a step further. To my knowledge this is the only gin available using a native form of juniper with the exception of Kangaroo Island Spirits.

As Jared told me, “Is Boobialla gin even gin since it doesn’t use any juniperus communis? Good question and the answer is probably not if you get technical. We are really stretching the definition with this one. European Union rule is that it has to be predominantly juniper in flavour.

Boobialla uses only myoporum insulare, commonly known as Australian native juniper, a completely different species. It is juniper-like in flavour, though quite different overall. More floral, less pine. All wild, hand foraged.

We could have added some Macedonian juniper into the mix so it is definitely gin but that goes against what we are trying to achieve.

We were tossing up whether to call it Australian Native Juniper or Australian Native Gin. We chose to go with gin to give it a category, people who already appreciate gin will know roughly what they are getting. People will know how to use it, when it sits on the shelf in a store it will be with other gins.”

What is Boobialla?

Myoporum insulare, commonly known as common boobialla, native juniper or blueberry tree[1] is a flowering plant in the figwort family Scrophulariaceae and is endemic to coastal areas of Australia. It is a shrub or small tree which grows on dunes and coastal cliffs, is very salt tolerant and widely used in horticulture. Source: Wikipedia 

What is the legal definition of gin?

Currently there is no regulations that define gin in Australia (unlike say, the EU), some think this is a good thing as the creativity of distillers to create new expressions isn’t inhibited, and other distillers think that maybe some definition is a good idea.  There seems to be common acceptance that a London Dry style gin requires Juniper in the botanical mix, but beyond this, it’s an open field.

Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code

In Australia, there are certain provisions under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code which govern such products where these are manufactured or imported into Australia such as Standard 2.7.5:

“spirit means a potable alcoholic distillate, including whisky, brandy, rum, gin, vodka and tequila, which, unless otherwise required by this Standard, contains at least 37% alcohol by volume, produced by distillation of fermented liquor derived from food sources, so as to have the taste, aroma and other characteristics generally attributable to that particular spirit.”  

Note the Australian Commonwealth Legislation established back in 1906 governing the production of spirits defines whisky, rum and brandy but not gin! You can read the Act here (PDF)

So the bottom line as I read it, is that the definition of gin is in the eye of the beholder as it stands and the lads are well within their rights to present this spirit as such in my opinion.

So time to get comfy with a favourite drink and let’s get better acquainted with the thoughts of one of the distillery’s founders, Jared Smith.

How did you all get into distilling?

Our company is four friends from high school who all like to appreciate high quality spirits. We have a strong science background, which suits perfectly for having complete quality control of fermentation, distilling, filtering etc.

I (Jared) was an organic chemist/chemical engineer, working in clean energy startup companies (hydrogen generation and batteries) before moving to distilling, Thomas has a PhD science, specifically on grains, hence the use of grains from scratch. Lachie also has a PhD in science and Dean has an MBA, so combining our science and business skills was a perfect combination.

What botanicals inspire you? 

Without a doubt our favourite botanical is the Illawarra Plum, native to our area. A lot of the bush tucker foods are quite low yielding. They haven’t been bred for thousands of years like wheat and barley to produce large yielding crops, you might get a large bush with only 10 small berries on it.

Illawarra Plum is an exception to this, a real star for east coast bush tucker. The tree grows very large, is salt and drought tolerant and produces an excellent crop of fruit. It is a beautiful tree also!

Not one of them is sprayed with any pesticide and I’ve never seen an Illawarra Plum with bugs in it. With all this being said though, the tree is still very rare, it is just the difference between being useable at all vs not. We have saved thousands of seeds and are growing the trees.

How did you go about sourcing the local ingredients ?

Our dream is to have an entire orchard of Illawarra Plums with a possible on site distillery. Then we can share a unique taste of Australia with the rest of the world. All our botanicals are completely wild, hand foraged, unfortunately no one is farming these ingredients at this stage.

We forage about 1/3 of them ourselves and the rest we pay for.

What are some of our future plans for the distillery you can share?

We want to turn Spirit of the Illawarra Plum and Daalgaal Gin into national products, but for that we need a much greater supply of Illawarra Plum fruit.

At the moment we can only do small batch releases, 1000 bottles per year, and the Spirit of the Illawarra Plum is only in 200mL bottles.

Since it doesn’t look like anyone is going to do this for us…..we have planted around 800 seeds and will keep planting in the coming years. It is a 10 year plan for us to have an Illawarra Plum orchard near Wollongong.

How do you go about creating spirits that are environmentally sustainable?

We use 100% renewable electricity at the distillery and this is our only energy source, no gas steam boiler etc. The next step is reusing as much waste heat as possible and using as little water as possible.

Our spirits are initially distilled from a continuous distillation column which allows us several energy saving advantages. We pump the 7% alcohol solution through the outer shell of the condenser and bottom still exit, and then this is injected into the continuous column already hot.

This has two benefits- we don’t need to waste water to cool the alcohol vapour (or don’t need to run a chiller) and we get the product heated from ~20 degrees C to 65+C completely for free, a huge energy saving. The product itself is its own condenser coolant.

This is much trickier to setup than a standard column or pot still, with special computer controlled pumps, pressure sensors, thermocouples and automatic valves. Lachie and I built this continuous still from scratch, it doesn’t look so pretty but it is incredibly energy efficient.

This can’t be done with pot stills/regular stills. Say you have 1000L of 7% ethanol. You heat it to boiling, remove the 70L of ethanol, then you are left with 930L of boiling water which is dumped down the drain. The heat energy is wasted, let alone the cooling water to condense the vapours in the condenser.

The next is cutting down on plastic waste. Most microdistillers who use grain get it in 25kg sacks.

We don’t use any plastic woven sacks, instead we get it in bulk in a truck direct from our farmer and use an auger to put it into our silo.

None of our bottles have any plastic seal on them either, using only a paper label or wax to seal. We also offer a bottle buyback program. $5 off any of our spirits if you bring back a 700mL bottle. We will sterilise the bottle and put it into our recycled bottle program for reuse, like the old milk bottle system.

Even if the bottle is recycled in a council bin, which is unlikely, it still takes a lot of energy to process it, bringing the bottle back is the best option.

How do you recommend people enjoy your spirits?

Our spirits are best enjoyed without a large quantity of overpowering mixers. Boobialla gin, made exclusively from Australian native juniper, is much more subtle in flavour than the Macedonian juniper. Using less tonic and more ice in a glass will allow the native juniper to shine through.

Illawarra Plum tastes great with sparkling wine, Prosecco, champagne etc with the optional dash of vanilla. We also love drinking it with tonic, straight- as an after dinner sipping type drink, or swapping the vermut in a negroni.

Daalgaal- this one is great on ice! It can also be used in any sloe gin cocktail recipe or a gin and tonic or soda. It is our version of a sloe gin, except with Illawarra Plums instead of slow berries and native stingless bee honey instead of glucose.

Tasting Notes

  • Boobialla Gin
    • Nose: slightly musky botanical, no spirit volatility 
    • Neat: A very mild hint of spirit up front with a bone dry finish leaving a lingering taste of a subtle mix of white pepper, lemon citrus, and what I take for as the lime mint hint of Boobialla at the back of the palette. Quite light overall on the palette, austere but crisp and restrained.
  • Illawarra Plum
    • Nose: Not much revealed here to note.
    • Neat: some tartness up front, then that gives way to a full palette of natural plumb fruit, with some mild spice from the spirit closing it out. Not sharp at all, neither a liqueur style, something of it’s own style. Given it’s production process, more akin to a barrel aged gin, or a Sloe gin style. 
  • Daalgaal Gin
    • Nose: Lightly aromatic with a bright clean plum nose with no spirit volatility 
    • Neat: The nose follows through on the palette with a delicate and ever so slightly naturally sweet spirit that puts the Illawarra Plum front and centre with a crisp, dry finish. Delicate and balanced overall, this is both approachable, and thoughtful in that you want to really think about the palette complexity as you sip it.

The Take Home

Each of these releases represent a real commitment to craft distilling and a thoughtful approach to creating something quite original.  The beautiful packaging, the environmental approach to production (even a recycling program for their bottles), and a long term vision to create a distinctive Australian expression is very commendable.

When I presented the Boobialla Gin to a large group as part of a line up of Aussie gins, I didn’t tell them what it was until after they tasted it. They all agreed it was something completely new, intriguing, subtle and worked as a spirit, even if they couldn’t quite get their head around it.  All really appreciated it for it’s finesse and originality, even if it wasn’t to their personal taste. Not a bad debut for a new expression of gin in my opinion.

The Daalgaal Gin is very interesting and accomplished, with the Illawarra plums infusing the gin for some time lending it a lovely ruby colour and a delicate flavour that is completely balanced and natural. This stands up very well as something to sip by itself over ice.

The Spirit of the Illawarra Plum is actually barrel aged on the plum skins for added complexity and depth and is only 20% ABV. Consistent with the other releases from this distillery it offers a refined drinking experience, well balanced, not sweet, offering the plum a poised setting to be experienced.

So overall, these, along with their Vodka, are a very confident and polished debut from the team at Headlands Distilling from the New South Wales south coast. So often native botanicals in gins dominate and unbalance the spirit, this team doesn’t make that mistake and this is a distillery to watch.

I applaud their approach to present native botanicals in an original and elegant setting that lets them shine along with the quality of their spirits and presentation.

Update 10 April ’21

The team have recently updated the formula for their range. They advise that “The Mount and Sea is more classic juniper forward than the 100% native Boobialla, but also includes some natives like rainforest limes, roasted coastal wattleseed and macadamia. Tidal Lines is also a classic juniper gin, then steeped in Illawarra Plums. The Illawarra Plum liqueur is sweeter than the first release and a 2019 vintage.”


Disclaimer: this review is of an unsolicited samples provided by the distributor, opinions expressed regarding the product are my own.

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