There's a fairly solid lineage of seafaring types in the family of Jeremy Spencer, the co-founder of The West Winds Gin. His father was a merchant seaman and Spencer himself spent a childhood messing about in boats.
So it was fairly natural that 'Rear Admiral' Spencer should eventually unleash a stronger batch of gin - known as 'navy strength' - on the public.
Let's face it, nobody ever walked into a bar and said 'I'll have a tonic and gin'.Jeremy Spencer
At 58 per cent ABV (114 proof), The Broadside Navy Strength gin is not for the faint-hearted. In fact, it actually exceeds the criteria for navy strength – the level at which gunpowder that is damp with the spirit will still light - of 56.3 per cent.
During the 18th century, the Poms were out in their ships conquering the globe. All that pillaging required a fair degree of liquid sustenance; this was where gin came in handy. To test whether their gin had been over-diluted with water, the sailors would use the gunpowder test. Anything below 56.3 per cent would be considered a fizzer.
The West Winds Gin has drawn on that heritage, naming its gin after the broadside – one of the most brazen and aggressive tactics in naval history, where warships released a close-range barrage of firepower from every gun along one side of the hull. The result is not unlike how you would feel after over-imbibing a gin this strong.
World Gin Day
If you're looking for an appropriate tipple to celebrate World Gin Day on Saturday, June 13, try a navy strength-infused gin and tonic. "It produces a far more pronounced G&T, or stirred down into a martini," Spencer says. "Let's face it, nobody ever walked into a bar and said 'I'll have a tonic and gin'."
Grant Collins is the owner of The Powder Keg, a gin bar in Kings Cross stocked with 150 gins. He says navy strength gin is an important part of his arsenal because higher alcohol levels further open up the botanicals that give different gins their signature flavour.
"All those beautiful flavours and citrus notes and spices that you get in a lot of gins become more pronounced," he says. "One of my favourites is Plymouth, because of its long historical links to the British Navy. The distillery was actually located on the dock so they could load it straight onto the ships."
The West Winds' The Broadside was originally released to mark World Gin Day last year. It went on to pick up a double gold medal in New York. "We think we're probably the only gin in the world to have ocean water in there, so it delivers a salty, umami flavour," says Spencer. "I spent a fair bit of time as a pretty average surfer and swallowing a lot of sea water, so it made perfect sense to me."
Other ingredients include sea parsley, cinnamon myrtle, lemon myrtle and orris root.
But even The Broadside is a veritable wimp compared to The West Winds' next creation; The Captain's Cut, a monster of a gin that will be released in time for spring. At 63 per cent ABV (126 proof) the Captain's Cut will be the nation's strongest gin and incorporate native sage and native thyme to give it an extra spicy kick.
Pillar of strength
Yarra Valley-based distillery Four Pillars released its 58.8 Navy Strength in late 2014, but until now has mainly been selling to bartenders and online to gin aficionados.
"Our Navy Strength has been one of the great secrets of the bartending trade," says Stuart Gregor, part owner of Four Pillars and President of the Australian Distillers Association. "We're going to make it more widely available to celebrate World Gin Day."
The Four Pillars Navy Strength's botanical basket features native finger limes, as well as ginger and turmeric. The result contrasts limey citrus notes with earthiness from the roots of the ginger and turmeric.
Gregor says the big advantage of navy strength is it enables you to make a mixed drink, while still allowing the gin to be prominent. "If you make a Negroni, for example, you are adding sweet vermouth and Campari to the gin and it can often be overpowered. That doesn't happen with a navy strength."
He says the navy strength also works well in one of the original gin cocktails; the gimlet (gin, lime juice and sugar syrup).
As for getting into a pitched naval battle with his mates at The West Winds for navy strength bragging rights, Gregor stops short of firing a shot over the West Australian distller's bows. "I think we'll stick to producing a 58.8 per cent," Gregor says. "At some stage you've got to say enough is enough."
If you're in Melbourne on World Gin Day (Saturday June 13), Four Pillars will farewell its existing distillery space behind Rob Dolan Wines in South Warrandyte before moving to a new home in Healesville. The distillery door will be open from 10.30am–4.30pm with gins on sale, tastings, tours and cocktail classes.