Mark Chipperfield talks to Jon and Sarah Lark, owners of Australia's first gin focussed distillery Kangaroo Island Spirits.
By Mark Chipperfield
Changing careers in your 40s is something many of us dream about, but few have the courage to attempt – especially if the new venture involves moving to an island off South Australia and building a gin distillery from scratch.
But that’s exactly what Jon and Sarah Lark did in 2006 with the launch of Kangaroo Island Spirits, a micro distillery which makes small-batch artisan gins using wild botanicals like coastal daisy bush, samphire, wild rosemary, lemon myrtle and native juniper (Myoporum Insulare).
“My wife Sarah and I first thought about running our own distillery at our wedding in 2000,” Jon, now 53, recalls.
“There were a lot of whisky guys around at that time, including my brother Bill in Tasmania, but we’d already begun to pick up on the incredible resurgence in gin-making that was coming out of Europe at the time.”
Just some of the botanicals which are used in blending Kangaroo Island Spirits.
Brother of Tasmania’s whisky godfather
Unlike his older brother Bill Lark, now widely acknowledged as the godfather of Tasmania’s celebrated artisan whisky industry, Jon Lark was convinced that that Kangaroo Island (112km southeast of Adelaide) would be the perfect spot to create bespoke Aussie gins.
“We were very keen to develop Australia’s very first gin focussed distillery using traditional methods but in a contemporary Australian way,” he says.
“We sometimes describe them as slow gins – they are very much an expression of South Australia and, in this case, Kangaroo Island.”
Despite its modest gin making capacity (the 80-litre copper pot can only produce 100 bottles per day) Kangaroo Island Spirits has gone on to win several major international gin competitions, including those in London, Hong Kong, New York and San Francisco, and has also become one of the must-do foodie experiences on the island.
In addition the company’s artisan gins, visitors to the farmhouse-style cellar door can also taste a number of exotic liqueurs and vodkas, including its Honey and Walnut Liqueur made from roasted walnuts and Ligurian honey and its delicious KIS Lemoncello, featuring organic lemons.
“Kangaroo Island has fantastic honey, nuts and organic fruits and herbs,” says Jon.
“We like to use as many of this fantastic produce as we can.”
Where the wild things are for young family
As relative newcomers to Kangaroo Island, the Larks are still discovering new things about their island home and particularly enjoy the local food and wine scene – and the scope for outdoor adventure, both on land and sea.
“We’ve got two small boys so we get out and do a bit of fishing, sailing and walking on the island,” says Jon.
“One of the great things about Kangaroo Island is that you can always find an empty beach, but many people come here with the preconceived idea that it’s a small place – but, of course, it’s Australia’s third largest island.
I believe you need at least three days to get around and see the island properly.’’
After almost a decade of living on Kangaroo Island, the couple are still relishing the local culinary scene which is constantly changing – they are currently enjoying the new pop-up restaurant (Hannaford & Sachs) at Snellings Beach and the new-look menu at Kangaroo Island Lodge, overlooking American River.
“The new chef there is doing some really interesting things,” says Jon.
Reducing carbon footprint of Kangaroo Island gin
Armed with a science degree and a background as a professional chef Lark admits that he was initially uncertain about how the husband-and-wife company would balance the competing, demands of distilling and running a busy tasting room.
“We actually moved here to set up a gin distillery because there was an emerging food and wine industry already on the island,” he says.
“We’ve discovered that tourism and gin making is a match made in heaven.”
Although Kangaroo Island Spirits has remained true to its artisan beginnings, the Larks are always looking for new ways to improve and develop the distillery – a second copper still has been installed and the company now wants to reduce its carbon footprint.
“We’d like to become Australia’s first solar powered distillery – and one of very few in the world,” says Lark, who recently planted 150 European juniper bushes on the property, helping to reduce the company’s dependence on imported berries.
A tonic for Asian buyers
Having created a profitable and sustainable small enterprise on what is a fairly remote island, the couple are now looking to develop their export trade, especially to China and southeast Asia.
“We have always resisted the pressure to grow,” explains Lark.
“We’ve always compared ourselves to some of the more interesting boutique wineries out there – to the type of people who are passionate about what they produce and somehow struggle to make a living from what they do.”
As the master distiller explains, one of the advantages of being small is that Kangaroo Island Spirits has been able to control its own distribution, building up a loyal following among independent bars across Australia and finding its way onto the drinks list of many prestigious restaurants in South Australia and beyond.
“We often say the best thing about Kangaroo Island is its remoteness and the worst thing about Kangaroo Island is its remoteness,” he laughs.
“We wouldn’t be what we are without being on the island but it has its disadvantages, such as cost, but you just need to factor that in.
One day I’d like Kangaroo Island to be like Islay [in Scottish Hebrides] and have 10 craft distilleries here.”
Rum problem as big boys move in
One of the unintended consequences of the growing popularity of artisan spirits such as gin, vodka, tequila and sake has been the determination of the big multi-nationals to claw back some of this market – either by launching their own brands or acquiring successful, family owned distilleries.
Despite this competition from the big boys, Jon Lark is confident that micro distillers can weather the storm and emerge even stronger in the future.
“The thing that no one can replicate about us is that we are so small,” he says.
“We switch the equipment on in the morning. When someone comes here they are speaking to the person who actually makes the gin, vodkas and liqueurs. Sure, the big companies are trying to emulate what we do, but consumers are smart enough to work out what makes us different and special.”