Spirits of the Tropics: Cairns’ inventive distillers and brewers
Cairns has the weather for it – and now the distilleries, too. Photo: Wolf Lane Distillery
Cairns brings us tropical weather that’s perfectly complemented by a refreshing, locally made drink: a gin or a beer or even a spirit unique to the area.
“Our aim is to make outstanding gin using local botanicals. We’re not making gin to win awards but for people to enjoy,” Sam Kennis says, of Wolf Lane Distillery.
He pauses, then adds, “We’ve also won several awards.”
Fair enough. As usual in Cairns it’s a warm afternoon, but that’s not going to stop me sampling gin along with fellow members of the Cairns Breweries & Distilleries Tour.
After a beer and a burger at a waterside bar – the food providing ballast for the forthcoming alcohol – we’ll be visiting local distilleries with our cheerful guide, Konrad.
We start at Wolf Lane with a sip of its Tropical Gin, which contains thirteen botanicals including lemon myrtle, pepperberry and macadamia.
This is succeeded by the Navy Strength gin, at 58 per cent alcohol a robust spirit and perfect for a gin and tonic, Sam said.
Pouring a delightful cocktail at Wolf Lane.
But my heart is won by the Davidson Plum Gin. Created by steeping the native fruit in Tropical Gin for three months, it has an appealing rosy hue.
It would work well in cocktails, including the Davidson Plum Gin Sour suggested on the supplied tasting notes, but it has such a delightful flavour I’d be happy to sip it straight over ice.
Tracks to the north
Next stop is the Macalister Brewing Company, in a big industrial shed with a view over former sugar cane fields.
Here we each enjoy a paddle of three beers, and I choose the IPA, XPA and the Valentina Red Ale.
This last one is the most interesting, having an aftertaste resembling coffee – a product of the roasted amber malt, owner Rob Callin said.
Then it’s time for an unscheduled stop, as Konrad has arranged a last-minute visit to Narrow Tracks, a new distillery that’s yet to officially launch.
Taking its name from the local sugar cane railway, whose tracks are only 610 millimetres apart, this is another no-nonsense industrial space with a timber bar faced with corrugated iron.
Narrow Tracks is one of the newcomers to Cairns’ blossoming booze scene.
The sugar cane train allusion is no accident, co-owner Bec Zammit explained.
“We use sugar cane for our spirits as we’re surrounded by it,” she said.
“Everything is done onsite, both the fermenting and the distilling.”
So far the distillery has produced a 42 per cent “juniper-forward” gin, Bec said, and a pink gin flavoured with strawberries. I like the taste of the latter very much, as it’s smooth and faintly sweet.
There’s more to come as the distillery develops.
“We’re dreamers,” Bec said.
“We’re aiming at a liqueur range, then spiced rums.”
Beer with a hint of the sea
Our next brewery is Barrier Reef Brewing Co, with an attractive sea turtle logo. The bar here has a cellar door feel, with timber tables and brick walls.
While I order an excellent IPA followed by a double-shot coffee amber beer – there’s that coffee flavour again – my fellow tour members nip to the food truck outside to secure crocodile spring rolls to go with their beer.
Our final stop is the taproom of the Coral Sea Brewing Co, down an alleyway in Cairn’s CBD. Decorated in a South Seas vibe with a dried-grass canopy over the bar, it serves beer brewed in the building behind.
The laidback atmosphere is accentuated by the pinkish beverage served to me by barman and co-owner Fred Paddock: a seasonal special, the mango and hibiscus sour. Somehow that combo seems very Cairns.
Drinking with the croc
After the tour I make a visit to yet another distillery: FNQ Spirits.
Owner Troy Read has gone for a broad Aussie sense of humour in his brand, with the distillery’s logo a humanoid crocodile in Aussie flag boardshorts.
Its flagship product is called – wait for it – Croc Piss, and there’s a preserved crocodile head on the front counter. All this underlines the fact that the distillery’s output is intensely local.
Only in Cairns…
“Everything in every bottle comes from Far North Queensland,” Troy said.
“Other than the yeast.”
Croc Piss is a rum-like spirit (it’s not aged long enough to be officially called rum). It has great body and taste, and is joined in the distillery’s repertoire by Croc Coffee (coffee liqueur), Croc Vodka, and schnapps made from papaya and passionfruit.
Croc Piss may not have a genteel name, but it certainly has bite.
The Cairns Breweries & Distilleries Tour costs $150. See brewerytourscairns.com.au
Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort has a lively poolside bar and comfortable rooms. See novotelcairnsresort.com.au
Oaks Cairns Hotel is centrally located, with a rooftop bar with sea views. See oakshotels.com
Tim Richards was hosted by Tourism Tropical North Queensland.