It’s one of those glorious, on-the-cusp-of-winter, sunshiny days when I visit Sunshine & Sons at Woombye. I round the corner of the massive industrial shed and come across a bucolic scene. Visitors chink cocktails made with house spirits and graze on local Woombye cheese and crackers as the long shadow of the late afternoon stretches over the courtyard and the grassy green paddock below.
The sight inside the shed is just as impressive – there sits Maria and Sarah in all their resplendent glory – giant copper pot stills holding 6000 and 2500 litres of spirits in the making.
What happens when a fine-cuisine chef with a science degree (chemistry major), Michael Conrad, and a passionate winemaker of 35-years, Adam Chapman, and an airline entrepreneur who dreamt of making an Australian rum equal to the world’s best, Matt Hobson, put their creative heads together?
They concoct 13 original ‘top shelf’ vodkas, gins and rums, each infused with the history and spirit of the Sunshine Coast. And they’re lined up ready to taste. As I take a sip of aged vodka, Michael asks me what I’m tasting. I’m not an aficionado of spirits, so I tentatively offer: “Butterscotch”.
The vodka was aged for four months in small oak barrels, which were originally red wine barrels that were then sherry-soaked before housing the vodka. There is no right or wrong answer as everyone’s palate is different, but I was relieved when Michael enthused: “It has a little bit of that butterscotch spiciness but also a very, very light whiskey”.
“If you jump back 120 years, stainless steel wasn’t in production and glass was terribly expensive, so spirits were shipped all around the world in timber barrels and only bottled at the destination,” Michael says.
“All vodkas would’ve had flavour, they weren’t just a neutral spirit, but they probably weren’t as heavily influenced as ours.”
I then move on to the barrel-aged gin, which Michael gleefully suggests I try three different ways. First, I sip it neat and it nearly knocks my socks off. While it has the same alcohol content as a London dry gin, it tastes so much richer and stronger after it’s been aged in the barrel for six months.
Michael adds tonic water to the aged gin and surprisingly it tastes like fruitcake. The alchemist then dispenses three to four drops of preserved orange from local providore Silver Tongue Foods into my aged gin and tonic and my response says it all:
“Oh wow! That’s very nice.”
The preserved orange had been pickled with sugar, salt, vinegar, pepper, cardamom and star anise. Michael claims it has umami, which translates as “essence of deliciousness” in Japanese.
“It’s sweet and sour, salty and spicy all at once and when it hits your tastebuds you don’t know which one is the dominant flavour.”
The next logical progression is a botanical rum. I wouldn’t have thought of myself as a rum drinker, but I find it easy to imbibe. All of the rums sister-branded as Nil Desperandum (modern translation ‘no worries’) have the same certified organic molasses from Bundaberg as their base. Sugar cane or wheat is typically used for making ethanol in Australia but Michael says they’re both very “hot”. Instead, their ethanol is made from grape spirit from Barossa Valley grapes – it’s cool, light and fresh.
On any given day, one of the distillery’s production team is available to take visitors through a tasting and rather than overwhelming each guest with all 13 spirits, they tailor the tastings to what they intuitively feel people will like.
“My theory is I don’t expect everyone to walk in here and love every product that we make. If there are a few in the mix that people really love, then I feel incredibly clever. If there is nothing that you like then I feel incredibly sad. I don’t get sad very often,” Michael laughs.
My three favourites are the Pineapple Parfait Gin, Original Cane and the 1871 Spiced with Nil Desperandum Rum.
My first choice is a contemporary dry gin, which means it’s been made in a pot still, much like making a cup of English tea as all the botanicals are infused in the one pot. It has all the ingredients of the famous pineapple parfait dessert of my childhood distilled into a bottle of gin: pineapple, passionfruit, mango, strawberry, coconut and vanilla. On its own, I can taste all those flavours but mix it with tonic water and the flavours deliciously explode.
The Original Cane, a spirit made from distilled sugar cane from the Maroochy River region, is the surprising standout. It’s the only spirit that’s not tasted neat. Instead, it’s poured over ice and lime juice to make the world’s most simple yet refreshing cocktail. I react with mock horror, though, when Michael tells me they almost didn’t make a spiced rum. “Why?” I demand.
“Our rum is pure. The spirit literally comes off the still, goes into a barrel and the only other thing that ever goes in it is water to bring it down to drinking temperature. No sugar is added.We’re purists, however, we know Australian’s love a spiced rum so we made 1871 Spiced, which uses Nil Desperandum, Australia’s first and only certified organic rum.”
Sipping it is like taking your tastebuds on a voyage of discovery to the West Indies and the Spice Islands of Indonesia. Added to the rum is vanilla bean, cinnamon, Jamaican pepper (or all spice), cardamom, ginger, star anise, fennel seed, clove, nutmeg, a little bit of black tea and it’s lightly sweetened with honey and sugar. Like me, you might wonder what the best way to enjoy Sunshine & Sons delicious offerings is?
According to Michael, the gins and vodkas are very much suited to your cheese and crackers or antipasto and the darker spirits can be enjoyed as an aperitif or after dinner.
I’ll certainly toast to that.