16 October 2023

Meet the Makers: Discover the big flavours of Big River Distilling Co.

| Lucy Ridge
line up of colourful bottles

Clyde enjoys experimenting with different flavours and types of spirits. Photos: Lucy Ridge.

Big River Distilling Co. is a small craft gin distillery making remarkable spirits in Canberra.

Clyde Morton co-founded Big River Distilling Co. with partner Susan Helyar. Clyde initially worked as a scientist at the ANU, achieving a PhD in nuclear physics, before working for 10 years as a winemaker. He says all these experiences have served him well in his new role as chief beverage engineer at Big River (although the PhD is probably not strictly necessary).

“The wine background helped with the sensory aspect of distilling, while the science background obviously helps with the more technical, scientific side of things,” he told Region.

Clyde holds a bottle of Syrah gin

Clyde Morton is the co-founder and self-described chief beverage engineer at Big River Distilling Co.

Clyde makes all the Big River spirits in-house using a mix of high-purity neutral grain alcohol spirit and filtered Canberra tap water.

The gin is produced in small batches using a 420-litre combination pot and column still. Botanicals – the herbs, spices, and roots that give gin its distinctive taste – are either macerated with the spirit inside the pot, or vapour infused through a gin basket. The vapour passes through the botanicals inside the basket and takes on their flavour before condensing into liquid gin where it is captured for mixing and bottling.

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Through careful testing Clyde has discovered which flavours are released through the different methods, and when to use each to get the best results.

“Star anise, for example, has a really strong flavour. So rather than adding it in with everything else I actually distil it separately – essentially creating a star anise-flavoured spirit – which I can then mix in later to control how much of that flavour is in the final product,” he explained.

“Juniper berries work really well when macerated in the pot, but I would use the basket for some of the more delicate flavours.”

Small scale distilling set up

Big River Distilling Co. uses a 420-litre combination pot and column still for their batch-distilled craft gin.

With a scientist’s precision and his winemaker’s nose, Clyde combines scientific instruments and his olfactory senses to get the flavours exactly right in every batch of gin. He’s precise to the point of examining the flavour variations of juniper berries grown in Macedonia compared with those grown in Hungary to determine how the differences in terroir affect the final taste of the gin.

From starting out with a classic dry gin, Clyde has since expanded the range to include a cinnamon gin, a rose and rhubarb pink gin and a fig liqueur. He has worked with the Lotus restaurant group in Sydney to create a bespoke gin that uses Szechuan peppercorns, mandarin peel and Chinese five spice to complement the flavours of Chinese cuisine.

Man uses scientific instruments

Clyde has a PhD in nuclear physics and over ten years experience as a winemaker and viticulturist which serves him well when distilling.

One of his most recent releases is not a gin at all but an Italian aperitifstyle amaro – a bitter spirit traditionally drunk before a meal – flavoured with Japanese citrus yuzu. He’s named this drink Junos: the scientific name of the yuzu fruit. He recommends it served neat, with a dash of soda, or in a light and fresh Negroni-style cocktail.

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Clyde’s latest creation is a collaboration with local Canberra region winery Wallaroo Estate, where Clyde was previously a manager. He’s made a Syrah gin, inspired by the Shiraz gin created by Yarra Valley distillery Four Pillars but using his own signature technique.

“I’ve actually partially fermented the grapes before adding the base spirit, which halts the fermentation process and leaves you with some residual sugars,” Clyde explained.

Bottle of red Syrah gin

The award winning Syrah gin uses grapes from Wallaroo Estate wines.

Rather than use his regular dry gin as the base spirit, Clyde distilled a special lemon and pepper-driven gin to complement the spice notes typically found in Syrah or Shiraz wines. The result is a sweet and smooth drink that is dangerously moreish. The newly released Big River Syrah Gin recently won a trophy for best Wine/Grape Gin at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards. There were over 970 entries this year, and these awards are considered the premier spirits awards in Australia.

Clyde is continually excited by the prospect of different gin variations and new techniques to try. He has a long-term goal to expand into whisky.

Bottle of gin surrounded by small jars of botanicals

Visitors to the distillery are encouraged to smell the botanicals that go into the Big River gins.

Big River Distilling Co. also runs weekend tours of their distillery where you can test your nose against Clyde, see the distilling process up close, and taste these remarkable spirits for yourself.

Big River Distilling Co. is located at Tenancy 3, Building 3, 1 Dairy Rd, Fyshwick.
They are open for tastings Friday to Sunday from 12 pm to 5:30 pm. Visit their website to book a distillery tour and find a list of their stockists, or follow Big River on Facebook or Instagram.

Original Article published by Lucy Ridge on Riotact.

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