31 January 2023

North of Eden's creamy oyster shell gin a pearler for small Sapphire Coast distillery

| Katrina Condie
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Gavin Hughes and Karen Touchie operate the North of Eden Distillery on their rural property. Photo: David Rogers Photography.

Fresh local oysters are a popular summer treat, but what happens to all those shells?

A Bega distiller has found the perfect way to recycle the region’s Sydney Rock Oyster shells and, at the same time, has created one of the country’s finest and most distinctive gins.

Australia’s gin queen Caroline Ashford has described the North of Eden Distillery’s Oyster Shell Gin, made from locally sourced shells alongside saltbush, juniper and citrus, as “an absolute cracker”.

“If you love martinis, this is the gin for you,” she said.

North of Eden owner and master distiller Gavin Hughes says the calcium in the oyster shells gives his gin a superb mouthfeel.

“We were the first in Australia to do an oyster shell gin,” he said.

“We extract the same sort of compound found in milk – essentially calcium – and as a consequence get a very creamy mouthfeel in our gin. It’s quite a unique feature in a spirit.”

Gavin suspends the shells in a basket over the still and adds saltbush and cumquats grown on the farm, as well as spices, to create a gin that’s “almost savoury, rather than sweet”.

Hawthorn leaf, rose and lemon myrtle add delicate herbaceous floral layers, while the addition of ginger delivers a slight spicy tingle on the palate.

After being “upcycled” into gin, the shells are given to the distillery’s resident chickens to help with egg production before eventually breaking down into the biota of the distillery’s farm gardens.

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Gavin believes using and promoting local produce is important.

“We’re on the Oyster Coast, so we were looking at how to showcase that in our products because that really speaks to our region,” he added.

“Every distillery should speak to the space they’re located in, like a wine in a wine region.

“We use botanicals and citrus grown on the farm and forage for golden kelp in Mystery Bay.”

He says people are “generally quite surprised and delighted” when they taste the Oyster Shell Gin.

The gin has been picked up by eateries around the country and features on menus at Josh Niland’s Saint Peter in Paddington and Bennelong Restaurant at the Sydney Opera House.

Nestled in the rolling green hinterland of the Sapphire Coast, about 10 kilometres north of Bega, the North of Eden Distillery is one of the smallest commercial distilleries in Australia and all gins are handcrafted in small batches.

The distillery was established in 2018 by Gavin and his partner and co-owner Karen Touchie. The couple runs a weekend cellar door and they’re sharing their love of gin by operating a gin school at the property.

“Gin School is definitely the naughtiest school in town and a huge amount of fun,” Karen said.

“Whether you’re a lover of gin, a budding alchemist or simply want to try something new, it’s a great afternoon that offers something for everyone.”

The three-hour classes, for a maximum of 12 people, are run by Gavin, who will tell you everything you want to know about the ”dark arts” of distillation.

“He’ll help you create your very own gin recipe before letting you loose on one of our gorgeous copper stills where you’ll transform your ingredients into a bespoke bottle of gin to take home,” Karen added.

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She said the classes were popular with groups of friends or family members seeking a fun day out.

“We have people that are gin curious and want to know more about the chemistry behind the distillation process, then there’s the serious home brewers and distillers who want to work out how to make their own gin,” she said.

“Everybody gets something different out of it and they’re always happy to get a bespoke bottle of gin to take home that they have made themselves.”

The popular Valentine’s Day couples’ gin-making class is booked out, but more workshops are planned for the coming months.

Gavin says the Bega Valley is becoming a “foodie” destination, with more high-end restaurants opening up and a focus on fresh, local produce.

“More people are coming down from Sydney and Canberra for a nice weekend experience, which includes local produce,” he said.

All North of Eden gins are handcrafted on two small 100-litre copper alembic stills similar to those used by distillers more than 1200 years ago.

But, while they may be old-school in terms of scale and process, Gavin says their gins speak to the whirlwind of botanical innovation that is making Australian gin-making so exciting.

Check out the North of Eden Distillery website to plan your visit or book an upcoming class.

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