Andi Ross’s love affair with Great Barrier Island has spanned two decades and led to the creation of Island Gin.
It was late 1999 and Melbourne-born advertising creatives Andi and Jason Ross were working in Singapore when they were offered the chance to relocate to Auckland. They grabbed the opportunity to be closer to their homeland and made the move with their young daughters, India (now 23) and two-month-old Trinity (now 19), in tow.
What’s A Bach?
After settling into Auckland life, Andi spied a tiny ad in the paper for a bach on Medlands Beach, Great Barrier Island. It piqued her interest and sparked the questions: ‘Where is Great Barrier Island?’ and ‘What is a bach?’ She soon discovered Great Barrier is a remote, off-the-grid, 285-square-kilometre island in the Hauraki Gulf, 100 kilometres northeast of central Auckland; and a bach is the Kiwi word for holiday shack.
Intrigued, she boarded a small plane to go and check it out. “When I arrived I had a feeling of belonging,” remembers Andi. “I cajoled Jason into coming over and a couple of weeks later it was ours. A close friend had recently passed away which was the impetus to ‘seize the day’ I think. There’s something about Great Barrier Island that gets under your skin.” That little bach became the family’s part-time base.
The Art of Distilling
With the girls grown, Andi began experimenting with her go-to G&T. “There’s an old lemon grove at the southern end of the estuary – there are wonderful stories about it emerging from a shipwreck – and I’d chop the lemons and add them to my gin and tonic,” she says. “Then, I tried adding a couple of teaspoons of local honey to see how it reacted. I purchased a small still from Alembics on Waiheke Island and experimented in my tiny kitchen. I also did some workshops with various distilleries in Melbourne and in Tasmania. There are several female distillers in Australia so I joined the Australian Women in Distilling Association (AWDA), and I’m now a foundation member of the recently established Distilled Spirits Aotearoa.”
Andi designed a recipe she was happy with but needed to scale up. “I worked with a company in Melbourne who could help and brought back some bottles in 2017. Tiddles, the owner of The Rocks Bottle Store in Claris on Great Barrier, said she’d be happy to sell it and it sold out.”
Making It Happen
“That’s when I thought, ‘Right, I’m going to do this, and why can’t it be done on the island?’ In some ways it’s more difficult and I needed to upgrade my still and jump through a lot of hoops but I was up for it,” says Andi. It took 18 months to get customs approval, work through the logistics with Auckland City Council, and upgrade her still.
Struggling to find a site for the distillery Andi was on her way to catch the plane back to Auckland when a local suggested she look at some new premises in Kaitoke. “Talk about serendipity,” she says. “I popped in en route to Barrier Air and discovered a perfect space.”
Most of Island Gin’s ingredients are provided by the island but Andi needed to find juniper. Juniper’s a key ingredient in gin and it’s not grown in New Zealand. Taking some cocktails to a friend with some mates she saw on the beach to try, the juniper situation came up and one of the mates in question turned out to be the head of a company that could bring juniper in. “That’s how I sourced my certified organic Macedonian juniper,” smiles Andi.
The Recycled Glass Bottle
When Andi’s old friend from Melbourne, Tanja Ledwich, came over for a girls’ weekend, the pair took inspiration from the kīna (also known as sea urchin) and came up with the design of the bottle. “But I didn’t know if it could be done,” she says.
Tracking down O-I New Zealand, whose sustainability ethos aligns with her own, Andi spoke to them to see if her bottle was possible. “They do big runs for some of the big beer and water brands — something like my bottle isn’t done in New Zealand — but they said, ‘You know what, we’ll give it a go.’ My bottle wouldn’t be in existence without them,” says Andi.
Originally wanting clear glass known as flint, Andi was offered another innovative solution. “They explored packing glass in between colour changes, in my case from sea green to arctic blue,” says Andi. “We worked with O-I using the available glass. I think part of the success of the bottles is the colour because it’s relatable to the kīna. It’s my hope that people will re-use the Island Gin bottles for water, olive oil or use them as a vase, but regardless glass is infinitely recyclable.”
Ruth Allen – Glassblower
Andi’s friend and exceptionally talented glassblower, Ruth Allen, provides another repurposing option. Ruth also divides her time between Great Barrier and Melbourne and is taking the empty Island Gin bottles to transform them into carafes in a 900-degree ‘glory hole’ in her hot shop in Melbourne.
“Everything we’ve done has been with the island as a priority; with a population of about 1,000 people this place is like a microcosm of society, and very rare I think,” says Andi. “We use triple-filtered rain harvested water, which comes across from the Pacific Ocean and our honey, lemons and other botanicals are grown here. The result is a slightly stronger gin. Most varieties are around 40/41% ABV (alcohol by volume), Island Gin is 43.2%. I recommend adding a fresh sprig of rosemary and tonic to it. I’m planning to experiment over summer and I’ve got my eye on some local seasonal tree blossoms I’d like to capture in a bottle to make a black label version.
“I feel very lucky and very grateful. There have been many crazy, miraculous moments and so much incredible support from the community and everyone involved in the development of Island Gin.”