Green Ant Gin and Native Grain Whiskey with Adelaide Hills Distillery’s Sacha La Forgia: Season Three, Episode Six

Founded by Sacha La Forgia, Adelaide Hills Distillery has released a raft of innovative products celebrating native Australian foods, such as its Green Ant Gin.

More recently, the company’s Native Grain Whiskey has pioneered the use of native cereal grain wattleseed to make a truly Australian whisky.

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I’m joined this episode by Sacha, a winemaker who travelled the world for over six years working wine vintages and exploring the world of distilling.

His travels inspired him to launch a distillery of his own on his return to Australia.

Sacha La Forgia of Adelaide Hills Distillery
Sacha La Forgia of Adelaide Hills Distillery

Help us fund Season Three of Drinks Adventures by purchasing your limited edition drink coasters here.

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Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Rudists.

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JAMES ATKINSON: Sacha La Forgia, thanks for joining me on the Drinks Adventures podcast.

SACHA LA FORGIA: Thanks for having me, James.

JAMES ATKINSON: I was reading on your website the story of Adelaide Hills Distillery and the story goes that you met some mysterious person called the Italian, on your travels during Europe who convinced you to come home and start up a distillery. Maybe you could tell me about that.

SACHA LA FORGIA: Yeah, that’s right, Bruno, lovely man. So I guess my distilling journey or adventure started in the laundry. We’d always made wine with the family. I’ve got some Italian heritage, so it was kind of in our blood. It’s interesting when you run out of things to ferment, all this left to do is distill them and for me that happened when I was 17. So I spent a summer locked in the laundry distilling at home and the lessons that I’ve carried with me ever since. Back then, there were very few craft distilleries in Australia, probably none. So for a young kid in the laundry who figured out they really enjoy distillation, there was no clear pathway into the industry, so I just went into wine making. Adelaide is a treasure trove of wineries and vineyards and nearly everyone is connected to the wine industry somehow. So it was quite easy to fall into that.

SACHA LA FORGIA: And the distilling industry in Australia used to be really prevalent and very strong. So the wine industry being what it is, it holds on to heritage and tradition, so they kept teaching distillation at university. So in my studies I learnt a little bit more about distillation and then I went traveling, chasing wine vintages all over the world. Internationally, there’s a really strong distillation industry connected with wine regions. So while I was traveling, learning about wine, I could visit distilleries, taste, ask questions, build my knowledge, build my palate until I ended up with Bruno in Fraioli during grappa season. One day he pulled me aside and said, “Why haven’t you started your own distillery at home in Australia?” And I couldn’t answer him. So I came home and started Adelaide Hills distillery.

JAMES ATKINSON: And when you started out, what was the plan, to be a gin distillery or you’ve had vermouth and bitters from fairly early on as well. So what were you most passionate about making?

SACHA LA FORGIA: I guess I’m passionate about flavour. So I really love playing with flavours and distillation generally. So the way I like to describe it is we’re not a craft gin distillery. We’re not a craft whisky distillery. We’re just a craft distillery. So we do everything, but we do it all well. If we can’t do something with quality at the forefront, we won’t do it. But we will try and do everything.

JAMES ATKINSON: Now to get set up, how did you go about getting backers and getting the money together to set up the still?

SACHA LA FORGIA: So I was working full time as a winemaker, the guy that owned that winery, let me set up in an unused room. So that didn’t cost very much money. Couldn’t afford to buy a still so we just built it, we used recycled copper and stainless steel and operated for about a year by myself on a shoe string.

JAMES ATKINSON: And what were the early products that you’re making?

SACHA LA FORGIA: So 78 Degrees was first.

JAMES ATKINSON: Your flagship gin.

SACHA LA FORGIA: Exactly. I was doing that for about 12 months. And then I partnered with Steve and Toby from the Hills Cider company and that brought obviously more experience in the alcohol industry than what I had, in managing business and managing growth and a little bit of working capital to put a bit more investment into distribution and marketing and R and D for new products.

JAMES ATKINSON: You seem to from the outset have been passionate about wanting to use native ingredients. Was that already the case with your first gin as well?

SACHA LA FORGIA: It was in the back of my mind. At the time we were the second craft gin in South Australia. So just making a gin was really weird. I remember taking 78 Degrees to bars in town and saying, “Hey, do you want to try this gin? Maybe you can buy it.” And they’d say, “Where’s this from?” I go, “Oh, I make it up in the Hills.” And they’d nearly pass out from shock. So when I made the gin, it was more of looking at what’s come before, looking at a London Dry and sort of reinventing it in the craft context in Australia. And then it didn’t take long for the gin industry in Australia to just explode. And once that happened, people were used to us and used to Australian gin and then we could start to introduce different flavours and wacky, interesting characters. And that’s when we started to introduce Australian native foods.

JAMES ATKINSON: And so tell me about the native botanicals that you’re using in the gin.

SACHA LA FORGIA: The first one we did that was a really purely Australian native gin, was our Green Ant Gin. That’s a collaboration with Something Wild. It’s an indigenous owned native food company run by the Motlops and that’s really nice because the gin is all native Australian foods and green ants which have really beautiful lime and coriander flavour. But the key is, it retains the characteristics of gin. So if you put your nose in the glass or taste it, it’s obvious that it’s gin, but it’s made with botanicals that have never been used before.

Green Ant Gin by Adelaide Hills Distillery and Something Wild
Green Ant Gin by Adelaide Hills Distillery and Something Wild

JAMES ATKINSON: Does it have juniper in it though?

SACHA LA FORGIA: It does, yeah. A tiny little bit with a view for export. So in European countries, gin is defined as having juniper, but we don’t have that legislation in Australia. In Australia, the key bit of wording is, retains the characteristics commonly associated with the spirit. So the characteristics commonly associated with gin in Australia is juniper or that pine and resin character. So if you can recreate those characters but not necessarily by using juniper, then you’ve still made gin. And that is kind of the balancing act that we are now trying to play is how do we make gin with the foods that grow around us in a normal environment without just taking a London Dry recipe and distilling juniper and citrus.

JAMES ATKINSON: So what are the botanicals, what are the native ingredients that give you that juniper character? Is that the green ants?

SACHA LA FORGIA: Yeah, part of it for sure. Yeah. And then strawberry gum and lemon myrtle are two fairly dominant flavours in that gin and they’re distilled from leaves. So you get the strawberry and the lemon characters, but also that green eucalyptusy herbaceous character, which is very similar to the pine and resident of Juniper.

SACHA LA FORGIA: You chuck in a little bit of lemon and a little bit of other leaves and herbs and you can really quickly recreate the flavours that you associate with Juniper. The main compound in Juniper is pinene, then there’s a lot of limonene and other flavours and these aren’t exclusive to Juniper. You can find those compounds in all foods, it’s just selecting the right ones and distilling them in the right way.

JAMES ATKINSON: Have you had any interesting debates with other people in the industry about this?

SACHA LA FORGIA: Yeah. It’s one of the ones where people start yelling. In Europe and the UK, it’s very clear if you don’t have juniper in the recipe, it’s not gin. In Australia, we’re given more freedom. It doesn’t have to include juniper by law, but it has to retain the characteristics. There’s a lot of misinformation out there and there’s been a few marketing campaigns really pushing the juniper point of view.

SACHA LA FORGIA: And I guess if I was a traditional gin distiller, and I could see a new industry kicking off, that was completely different to the traditional one, and I could be a bit threatened by that. So I’d start to really push Juniper because that’s what I make. But the reality is in Australia it’s just not the case. So we can be really innovative, really progressive and really start to push the boundaries and define what Australian gin is. Some people just aren’t aware of that and it’s really hard to read the legislation, to get to that one phrase that makes all the difference. But now people are realising that we do have the freedom here, we can do what we want, as long as we stay in the realms of gin.

JAMES ATKINSON: When did you add the vermouths and the bitters? Were they products that you kind of got a bit of inspiration to do, From your time in Europe?

SACHA LA FORGIA: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. So the bitters was previously known as the Italian. It was named after Bruno, not the country. So I nicknamed him ‘the Italian’. And it’s actually his family recipe and he was kind enough to give it to me. So I came home with it and again, because everything we do is number one, quality, quality first and foremost. Secondly, evolution not revolution. So we look at the things that have come before and try and bring them into the Australian craft industry. So with Amaro, taking Bruno’s fifth generation recipe and then making it a bit Australian. And we did that by just taking out some European herbs and fruits from the recipe and replacing it with Australian natives. And we’re really lucky in Australia, nearly every food that grows here is low in sugar, high in acid and a little bit bitter, so we could make really, really nice Amaro with Australia foods.

JAMES ATKINSON: What are the ingredients then that you used in that one?

SACHA LA FORGIA: The European things that Bruno uses are dialled down and then quandong, rye berries, native thyme, oranges from the Riverland.

JAMES ATKINSON: Those ingredients that you just mentioned, they’re not household name ingredients for everyone. Is it easy to get your hands on that stuff?

SACHA LA FORGIA: It’s getting easier and easier. So hopefully they will become household names and we expect them to do so. Again, everything we buy, we buy through Something Wild and they will harvest it when it’s ripe and store it for us. And we can take it as we need it.

JAMES ATKINSON: And is it actually farmed by them or is it foraged by them?

SACHA LA FORGIA: Most of it is foraged under permit, but there are more and more farms popping up. As we consume more demand will go up and then supply will go up and the price will come down, which generates even more interest in the category. And slowly the landscape of food in Australia will change and we’ll move from being really inspired by Europe and trying to recreate the dishes that they have, to taking the flavours that grow around us and making our own cuisine and then hopefully we’ll be exporting that to the rest of the world.

JAMES ATKINSON: You’re obviously very passionate about using these ingredients. What was it that sort of inspired you and got you thinking about the potential for that?

SACHA LA FORGIA: I guess for someone that’s interested in flavours, when you start delving into the world of Australian foods, you can just get lost forever. We have thousands and thousands of different things that are exactly the way they were forever. They’ve evolved over millions of years in our environment, with no one really crossbreeding or selecting or stuffing with them. They’re high in nutrition, incredible flavours, really, really high flavour content, so great for distillation and then they kind of pop up for five or six weeks of the year and go away again till next year. So it’s just a really interesting thing to explore but also quite challenging, so you can do it forever and not get bored.

JAMES ATKINSON: And is it hard to get consistency of supply to have a year round product then, given what you were just saying?

SACHA LA FORGIA: Yeah, yeah. That’s the challenge. More and more they’re harvested, frozen and it’s available year round. Something Wild will do that for us, so we’ll work with them. Every time I go visit Daniel, I leave with armfuls of wacky foods and then it’s just a matter of tasting and seeing what’s good, doing little distillations and deciding if we want to use them or not and then we’ll work together to ensure that there’s a supply chain.

JAMES ATKINSON: Moving onto the whiskey. When did you come up with the idea of this Native Grain Whiskey?

SACHA LA FORGIA: Shortly after we launched the gin. So I started working on the project back in 2015. Again, we started with the view of being a craft distillery, not craft gin or craft whiskey. So straight away we were thinking about how we’re going to do our whiskey program. And when I started thinking about it, it was probably five years or so until I get to market. Where’s the market going to be in five years? Where’s it going to be in 10 years? Where’s it going to be in 20 years? And pretty quickly we thought it’s going to be with Australian native grains rather than replicating the European examples of whiskey. And then if you look back through history pre colonial settlement, there was a massive grain belt through the centre of Australia that was cared for by the Aboriginal people. And they actually found a stone mill that was dated to 35,000 years up in the NT.

SACHA LA FORGIA: So there’s evidence of the Aboriginal people were growing grain and milling grain to create flour. And if that’s the case, it’s likely that they were making bread. If they were making bread, they’re the first culture on the planet to make bread. So for us it was like, okay, we want to make whiskey that’s Australian. We want to make whiskey that is ahead of the pack and leading what will become a more saturated market. So we had to use native Australian grains and then it was just a case of what used to grow here. And we found kangaroo grass was very common, but it’s very hard to farm, really hard to collect the seeds. The seeds are very small and they grow in a little pod that has a tail hanging off it. And most of the pods are dummies, they don’t have a seed inside.

SACHA LA FORGIA: So you can collect heaps and heaps of pods but not really get any seed. And as a result of that, if you want to buy it, it’s about $1,000 a kilo, where malt is $1.25. So our first mash, if we’d use kangaroo grass, our first mash would’ve bankrupted us, let alone the three years of sticking it in a barrel. Then we kept looking at what else is there and wattle seed was another big one. And wattle seed is really interesting. I went on a little holiday to Broken Hill to visit some friends and Broken Hill is the desert and the first night we’re there, the guys said, “Tonight we’ll go out into the desert with some swags, land of the stars and drink whiskey.” I thought, perfect, what gets me better than that? And we got out into the desert and we’re surrounded by wattle seed and I thought well if it grows here with no rain and no inputs, why aren’t we farming this stuff?

SACHA LA FORGIA: So we quickly jumped on wattle seed as our grain because it shows so much potential. And wattle seed’s interesting because it can be toxic but the Aboriginal people would roast it in the fire, which would break down the toxins and make it edible. And the fire would also roast it and give it nice chocolatey and nutty flavours. So these days it’s roasted in a coffee machine and then ground. But those really nice chocolatey, nutty characters lend itself really well to whiskey.

JAMES ATKINSON: Is it a grass like barley is or how does it actually grow?

SACHA LA FORGIA: Grows in a seed pod and then the pod opens in the seeds drop, so it’s a little bit difficult to collect. There’s a lot of guys that have it figured out now and I mean if you imagine barley used to be grass and grass seeds and with millions and millions of dollars of investment and hundreds of years of cross breeding and selection to select the plant where the head stands up, the seeds are plump and it’s resistant to pests and diseases. We sort of apply that to a wattle seed, with time we can start to make something that grows nicely, is easy to harvest, easy to collect and then we can do it in volume and get the price down.

SACHA LA FORGIA: We’ll still need to roast and grind it more than likely, but we can make something that’s really intensely flavoured and really delicious. It’s also very like high end starch, so it ticks that box and can be really, really high in protein. So there’s some strains of wattle seed that are as much as 30% protein, which if you think about it is more than a steak, which is insane.

SACHA LA FORGIA: There’s actually a really clever guy on the East coast, probably 10 maybe 15 years ago, took wattle seed to Africa, and he’s planting it in Africa because it’ll grow if it doesn’t really rain and it’s a great starch and protein source. So it’s the ideal crop if there’s any famine. Straight away, starch, protein, done.

JAMES ATKINSON: And what’s actually involved in using that for the whiskey. And you talked about how expensive the kangaroo grass was, how expensive is it to work with wattle seed.

SACHA LA FORGIA: Wattle seed is still very expensive, compared to barley malt, but it’s more achievable. Sorry, I think we paid back then three years ago, 85 bucks a kilo. But the advantage of wattle seed is it’s really intensely flavoured. So we can work it into a barley malt mash and get that Australian tinge and start to push our whiskeys in that direction without going bankrupt. So obviously it puts the price up a lot, but it’s still achievable. Yeah.

JAMES ATKINSON: So what sort of percentage of the of the mash is the wattle seed?

SACHA LA FORGIA: It was still majority barley malt. We use the wattle seed like a specialty malt. So for the brewers that are listening, you just add a little bit to increase your flavours or to change your flavours. So we put it in the mash and then the enzymes on board the barley malt convert the starch of the wattle seed into glucose. And then the yeast will ferment it to create alcohol and then we distill it to extract it.

JAMES ATKINSON: Have you had any pushback from people sort of saying, “Oh that’s not whisky. How can you call that whisky?” Because when I first heard about this, it just sort of turned all my preconceptions about what whisky is on their head and really kind of got me reading about what a cereal grain is, all this kind of stuff. So what’s been the reaction in the market?

SACHA LA FORGIA: Nearly everyone that’s spoken to me about it has been overwhelmingly positive. We’re all in the same boat, all the whisky producers in Australia. I think everyone is realising or has realised that we’re not the only country having a whisky boom or a craft distilling boom. And then seeing what’s happening in the gin industry, it’s very evident that our strength in Australia is the foods around us and the flavours that we have right here because nobody else in the world has access to them. So I think everyone’s realising that while we can have our market in Australia with traditional style whiskies, if we want the industry to mature, become mainstream and export globally, then we need to start looking at how to differentiate. And the clear way to do that is using our foods. Like Australian spirits made with Australian foods and that’s going to be a much easier sell internationally.

JAMES ATKINSON: And have you already had that reaction to your gins?

SACHA LA FORGIA: Yeah, yeah. Especially the Green Ant Gin.

JAMES ATKINSON: You’re exporting several of your gins or just the Green Ant Gin?

SACHA LA FORGIA: We export everything that we make. At the moment, majority of our stuff is sold in Australia, but we are gearing up to really focus on export over the next 12 months. And we’re going to be Australian food led, in new markets. There’s no point going to the UK with a London dry gin and saying, “Would you like to buy this Australian London dry gin? It’s had to cross the earth so it’s more expensive and we’re just trying to make it the same as what you have here.” People aren’t going to be that receptive to that. But if I go to that bar and say, “Check out my Green Ant Gin, it’s got ants in it.” That starts a conversation, that gets people excited are they’re going to want to put that on a cocktail. They’re going to want to start buying green ants to use as a garnish or lemon myrtle or strawberry gum, that’s definitely our strength in export.

JAMES ATKINSON: How do you actually work with the ants in distilling the Green Ant Gin?

SACHA LA FORGIA: We just treat them like any other botanical.

JAMES ATKINSON: Are they dried when you get them?

SACHA LA FORGIA: They come frozen. So they grow in the Northern half of Australia. Ours will come from around Darwin. So Something Wild have a permit to collect green ants in an area, they can take a certain amount of the ants per square kilometre in a region. They grow in the nest, they take the ants out of the nest, put the queen back in the nest and return it so it can regenerate. And then they put the ants into the freezer and they go to sleep and then they get packed into tubs and sent to us.

SACHA LA FORGIA: If you put the ants in the fridge, they will go to sleep, but they’ll wake up. So we were in Darwin a few months ago, and Daniel, we had a green ant nest in the fridge to take out as our little stage show, got halfway through the presentation and the ants started waking up. So Daniel shook the nest on my neck and covered me in green ants. I had to do the rest of the show covered in green ants.

JAMES ATKINSON: Presumably they don’t sting.

SACHA LA FORGIA: They do. Yeah.

JAMES ATKINSON: Oh shit.

SACHA LA FORGIA: Yeah shit is correct. Yeah.

JAMES ATKINSON: Yeah. Oh well I’m sure our vegan listeners will think that that’s just instant karma.

SACHA LA FORGIA: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Insects are actually a really clean protein source, so most of the vegans that we’ve come across have sort of said to us, “I don’t want to drink that because I don’t eat insects or animals, but we’re happy that you’re promoting the use of insects instead of cattle or sheep as a protein source.” Which has been an interesting learning. We we’re a little bit worried to start with, how the reaction was going to be, but it was pretty positive.

JAMES ATKINSON: What’s the plan for the whiskey moving forward? You’re not going to be just making this Native Grain Whiskey, you’ll be making a more traditional product. Maybe you could talk about that and what the plan is for the next couple of decades.

SACHA LA FORGIA: Yeah, so the native grain will always be our kind of iconic whisky. That’s very much a project that we’ve started now, with a view to finish in 15 or 20 years. So the idea is that 20 years from now we will be making 100% native Australian grain whiskies. And that’s entirely possible. We have our own cereal grains here that grow, it just requires investment in R and D to bring them to a point where they can be farmed and once they are farmed the price will come down and then we can use them commercially. And I feel quite lucky because I have about 34 years left until retirement age. And I know the first 20 years of my career are going to be building up to getting 100% native Australian grain whiskies and the second 20 years of my career should be pretty exciting. I just need to get there.

JAMES ATKINSON: Good stuff. Well, thanks for having me here at Lot 100 today, Sacha.

SACHA LA FORGIA: Thanks for coming.

JAMES ATKINSON: Best of luck with Native Grain Whiskey, Green Ant Gin and all these other projects you’ve got.

SACHA LA FORGIA: Thank you. Yeah, it’s an exciting time to be a drinker.

More:
Whisky podcast episodes on Drinks Adventures
Australian wine podcast episodes on Drinks Adventures

Author: James Atkinson

Journalist specialising in the food, drink, travel and hospitality arenas. Australian International Beer Awards 2017 Media Award Winner and Certified Cicerone®.

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