20 February 2023

Everything you need to know about Canberra's first 'International Gin Festival' (including how to drink it)

| James Coleman
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Gin from Canberra’s own Big River Distillery Company will be at the festival. Photo: Big River Distillery Company, Facebook.

There’s one for flowers. There’s one with flashing lights and noodles. There’s one for modified cars, for multiculturism and another for the ‘folk’. Now Canberra is set to receive a festival for gin – lots of gin, from all over the world.

The inaugural International Gin Festival is coming to Canberra from 30 June to 1 July this year, bringing together 120 gins from 40 companies and several countries, including New Zealand, Germany, Italy, Japan, Singapore, Spain, England, France and Scotland.

The two-day festival will be held in the Refectory at the University of Canberra (UC), and include a three-hour tasting session where attendees will be handed a tasting glass and tote bag and invited to “taste your way around the room”.

There’ll also be gin masterclasses featuring three unique Japanese craft gins, run by French liquor company Pernod-Ricard.

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The Australian Gin Distillers Association already hosts the Christmas Gin Festival in Canberra each year, but CEO Judith Kennedy says this one is the first to bring together gin distilleries from around the world.

“If you go into a good bar with a good range of bottles from other countries on the display shelf, you can’t taste them all – unless you want to pay $18 or so for each cocktail – but at our festival, you can,” she says.

“It doesn’t have to be a huge educational experience but there’s certainly a learning process.”

Judith comes from a background high up in the world of wine but upon her retirement quickly found herself bored. It was then at a dinner with one of Australia’s most famous wine critics and Sydney Morning Herald columnist Huon Hooke she was put onto gin.

“He told me gin is on the rise, with more focus on gin compared to other spirits such as rum and vodka,” she says.

Using her connections, she set up a nationally contested award for the exploding market, followed by a ‘Gin Events’ loop of Australia’s major cities. A colleague then suggested she bring an international event to Canberra, based on the success of the Christmas Gin Festivals.

“The doors are virtually knocked down with the number of people who want tickets every year,” she says.

“We have about 50 distillers packed into the National Convention Centre with 4000 people attending. It’s tremendously successful.”

Not only will the attendees win, Judith promises a smile on the faces of all the distillers.

“When we told the Australia companies we were going to put their gin up against that from Ireland or Germany and show the world how good they are, within 45 minutes of opening the stands for the new International Gin Festival, our computers went crazy.”

Canberra’s delegation won’t be absent, however – Big River Distillery Company from Dairy Road in Fyshwick has a stall.

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And to top it all off, don’t expect a packet of soggy chips from a nearby food truck. Judith says it’s important the food adds to the tasting experience.

“If you’re tasting a French gin, for instance, how nice would it be to have a slice of French cheese with it?”

Australian mixer company Long Rays will provide a range of tonic and soda water products for all tastings, while Schibello Coffee will add to the aroma in the room. The new head chef from the National Convention Centre will also be concocting a range of light meals for purchase.

Judith says based on the other festivals in Australia’s other cities, there’s a variety of people who attend, from those who live and breathe gin to those who have heard of the strange clear liquid and are keen to see what it’s all about. But she says the events are partly responsible for the rise in gin.

“We sell 40,000 tickets a year across our festivals, and we estimate that a good 80 per cent of people don’t know gin,” she says.

“They’re taking bottles home and they’re sharing them with their friends and family members who have never heard of the particular brand.”

Matt Farrah

Farrah’s Liquor Collective owner Matt Farrah says their range of gins are available for trying before buying. Photo: Region.

But to make sure you can at least come across somewhat enlightened, Matt Farrah from Farrah’s Liquor Collective has some advice. His warehouse in Fyshwick stocks 150 varieties of gin, mostly from Australian distilleries, making it the largest range in Canberra.

“Before I started this store, I didn’t like gin, but I started tasting it and thinking it’s actually beautiful – fragrant, with character and complexity,” he says.

He says it’s an enormously popular drink in Canberra, helped by not only the facts “we’re a nice little hub” when it comes to distilleries and a “great area for the botanical flavours”, but also because we tend to appreciate the higher end spirits.

“People are generally drinking less spirits, but they’re looking for better quality,” he says.

“And through the festivals, a lot of people are falling in love with a product they thought they didn’t like.”

Matt enjoys his gin straight – without tonic water – to bring out the nuances of the actual liquor, but recommends having it over ice.

“One of those big square chunks which allows the flavours to really come out. And it also means it’s nice and cold for summer.”

Tickets to the International Gin Festival are available online, at $70 for tastings and $160 for participation in a masterclass (including tasting).

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I know this is bit early, but…cue noise complaints…

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