Unlabelled gin from The Gin Joint (Photo: Sinéad Fogarty)

The Australian women rising from Mother’s Ruin

Hatch@Macleay’s Sinéad Fogarty uncovers the gin gender gap in the Australian spirits industry.

Australia’s thirst for homegrown gin continues to grow. Not only are we girt by sea, our 130-odd gin distilleries mean we’re also awash in the white spirit.

Its coddling with craft botanicals, in beautiful copper-pot stills, arose in Belgium and Holland in the 17th century. Once disparaged as Mother’s Ruin, its origin unites the Black Death, King Billy and beer propagandists.

Moreover, it may explain why only four Australian gin distilleries are owned by women. The women who run The Abel Gin Company, Killara Distillery, The Gin Joint and SouWester Spirits are distilling their own stories. They’re following in the steps of women centuries before them, in a time when the bubonic plague brought death to a quarter of London’s citizens before the Great Fire bathed 80 per cent of the city in ash.

Gin Lane by William Hogarth (1751)

Indeed, the muck and misfortune of mid-17th century London were enough to drive a man to drink. Women and children too. Getting tanked in the 17th century began at breakfast, with children often sipping low-strength beer to start their day. Fermented cordials and punches were viewed as a healthy alternative to plain water, which was usually tainted with sewage.

Spirits weren’t regularly consumed until King William the Third rode into town in the Protestant Revolution of 1688. Dutch-born, he loved gin as much as he hated the Catholics, placing high tariffs on French wine and Catholic brandy, while deregulating British-made gin. Gin swiftly became such a core element of London life that songs were written about it.

While the British had always been heavy drinkers, the 18th century united women and gin.

By the 1730s, London crawled with 1,500 registered distillers fuelling the gin craze. Twelve hundred of those had small, home-style stills, the kind used by enterprising women. They customised quarterns of juniper-heavy gin with their choice of flavourings, served in their front rooms.

One in four premises in the London parish of St Giles was a gin shop. People from all classes, enamoured with their quarterns of gin, personified the spirit itself. Madame Genever was the soul of the lauded white spirit, with toasts heralded in her name. Eventually, Genever, the Dutch word for juniper (the botanical that defines the spirit), was abbreviated to “gin”.

High crime rates soon rocked the city, and a scapegoat was needed for the tribulations facing old London town. As gin had become cheaper than beer, it was the beverage of choice, much to the chagrin of breweries.

Beer Street by William Hogarth (1751)

English artist William Hogarth, who was in favour of the proposed Gin Acts to regulate gin, created two illustrations (above) that are synonymous with the Gin Craze.

Gin Lane extols the evils of Madame Genever, etching riotous displays of filth, headlined by the central image of Judith Dufour. It is said Dufour strangled her baby, to sell its clothes for 16 pennies – the price of a pint of gin. His Beer Street, on the other hand, celebrates the good humour and health of those who drink beer.

Love or loathe the lapping hell of Gin Lane, a series of eight separate laws was introduced from 1729-1751 to regulate gin. These targeted the small-scale distillers, primarily enterprising women, who couldn’t afford the exorbitant licencing fees and were knocked out of the market. Only large, male-dominated distilleries remained. Almost 300 years later, the gendered effects of the Gin Acts have rippled across the Commonwealth, with only a handful of solely women-run gin distilleries in Australia.

Natalie Fryar and Kim Seagram

The Abel Gin Company is one such distillery, co-owned by head distiller Natalie Fryar and Kim Seagram, whose great-great-grandfather founded Seagram’s, once the world’s largest producer of alcohol. Like those 18th-century women, they began their operations with a kettle-sized still, but they’ve since graduated to a 40-litre still, Genevieve.

Natalie Fryar, co-owner and head distiller of The Abel Gin Company, Launceston.  (Photo: Supplied) 

“She is a stainless steel and copper combination, and she’s beautiful. She even has a scarf for the winter time,” Kim Seagram told Hatch.

“I think it’s really exciting to be a female in this industry because you bring a different perspective to the distilling industry. We didn’t even think about it when we first started the company. It was just like ‘Oh, really, we are only women!’”

Natalie Fryar sought to claim the Tasmanian terroir with their two gins, Essence and Quintessence, by melding indigenous botanicals like kunzea and mountain pepperberry with traditional aromatics like angelica.

“Gin is a really heavy-lifting spirit – it’s required to do so much. The thing I love about it is the endless expressions of it: you can go for the really juniper-heavy, navvy-strength, hair-on-your-chest flavour, all the way through to something like Quintessence which is quite elegant … and everything in between,” Ms Seagram said.

The distillation of spirits in Tasmania is only possible thanks to Bill and Lyn Lark, who founded Lark Distillery in Hobart in 1992, opening the first Tasmanian distillery since 1839.  

The Larks’ dream of making whisky in Tasmania immediately hit a hurdle: legislation requiring that stills be at least 600 imperial gallons (roughly 2,727 litres) in size.

“The Distillation Act of 1901 really promoted industrial-sized operations,” Bill Lark told Hatch. “But back in 1901, you’d have to remember that, nobody had thought of boutique wineries or boutique breweries, let alone boutique distilleries. And [that didn’t change] until we came along and asked the question, ‘Is it possible to make whisky and get a licence with a very small still?’”

Once the Larks had won the support of a federal minister who introduced an amendment to the law, it was Lyn who took the lead.

Lyn Lark and Kristy Booth-Lark

“Women have by far the better palate and nose for understanding what goes into the make-up of a whisky… Having females in the role of distillers and blenders means understanding they have a much better nose for what is going on in the processes of mashing in, fermentations, distillation. So I found myself learning a lot from [my wife] Lyn,” Mr Lark said.  And it was Lyn who created the brand’s gin – because she longed for a decent drop herself. 

Kristy Booth-Lark, owner and head distiller of Killara Distillery, Hobart, checks her 600 litre copper-pot still. (Photo: Supplied)

“Bill changed the legislation, but we built the distillery together,” says Mrs Lark, who taught her daughter, Kristy Booth-Lark, how to distill gin when she expressed an interest in the family business after completing high school.

Booth-Lark would go on to become Australia’s first female owner-distiller when she launched Killara Distillery in Hobart in 2016.

“There’s a bit more involved in making gin than in making vodka,” say Mrs Booth-Lark, “so it takes a bit more art and a bit more finesse to come up with a recipe you’re really happy with. I have 10 botanicals in Apothecary Gin, and I love celebrating the botanicals we have here in Australia.”

So keen is she to encourage more women to enter the industry, and support those currently working within it, she founded the Australian Women in Distilling Association alongside Genise Hollingworth of Black Gate Distillery in Mendooran, western NSW.

“Women are known to have fantastic palates so I’d certainly love to see more women in the industry. There’s now lots of female distillers coming through the ranks, and there’s some fantastic people making some fantastic products out there. It’s great to see.”

Liz Beech

Liz Beech is another of those woman who are becoming a rising force in the industry. She fell in love with gin when she attended a gin-making masterclass at a gin distillery while holidaying in Edinburgh.

Liz Beech, owner and head distiller of The Gin Joint, Melbourne (Image: nipofcourage.com)

Hooked, she attended Moonshine University in Kentucky, where she sourced her second-hand still, Eliza Jane. The university organised internships for her at leading distilleries Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark and Corsair.

“When we went to visit other distilleries, the only time when there were women involved was in the tasting rooms or running the tours. When it came to the actual distilling, mashing, working through the process and so forth, it was all men.”

“I’ve never felt like because I’m a woman I couldn’t do something,” Liz Beech told Hatch. “It doesn’t even cross my mind.”

Now she’s pushing the boundaries with her Here’s Looking at You, Kid gins, under The Gin Joint label in Melbourne.

So history has gone full cycle since the spirit was slagged off as Mother’s Ruin in the mid-18th century… to be pioneered, once again by women, in the 21st century.

Now the spirit is being kept alive by women like Kristy Booth-Lark, who are distilling more stories for those to follow.

“I come into work following the steps of all the women that have pioneered this industry before me,” she said. “It’s great that I can pass on a tradition to [my children] that’s been going on for years and years and years.”  – Sinéad Fogarty

The process of making gin. Graphic: Sinéad Fogarty