“I feel pure pride,” Alarna Doherty told us recently. “I feel chuffed. I feel elated. When I watch people drink it, it brings me great joy.”
One of the great joys of gin is the sense of place and time they exude. Gins from all over the world proudly and boldly celebrate local flora, providing a drinking experience that can only be created from that small patch of land. While physical botanicals provide an obvious connection to location, there’s also ‘cultural’ botanicals that shape these spirits. While intangible, they can arguably be more vital.
The joy that Doherty, co-founder of Tara Distillery, experiences in the proximity of her gin is not a fluke. It’s built into the DNA, it’s alive in every single pour and it was formulating decades before the still on Nowra Hill was fired up for the first time.
Tara Distillery released its namesake gin back in October last year. Founded by Alarna and partner Ben Stephenson, the two met in Galway on the west coast of Ireland, miles away from their hometowns of Sydney and Canberra respectively. Before meeting overseas, both shared a love of Irish culture – particularly its music. What seems a fortuitous meeting is perhaps not so accidental when Stephenson, who was touring the country playing traditional music, found himself living with a friend of Doherty’s who – whilst dancing and drinking her way through the country – went to visit.
The modern history of Ireland is not a particularly pretty or happy one, but there is a reason why their folk music has survived when so many contemporaries have disappeared. Traditional Irish music – and the dances it inspires – is an expression of joy and of community, regardless of the situation.
“Joy” is one of many words we use to describe this duo when they talk about the journey so far. After making the decision that distilling was a path they wanted to take professionally, heading back to Ireland to celebrate those roots was next. The four-year journey to this point involved working with distilleries in Ireland like Mildleton (home to Redbreast and Jameson) and Sliabh Liag (where they learnt to distil seaweed.) It also involved a lot of the famed Irish white spirit poitín.
“Our point of difference is that we wanted a gin, and a whisky, that represented us and where we’re from and our cultural spheres,” Alarna tells us. “So in our gin we’ve got both Australian and Irish botanicals.”
If there’s a lot of Irish influence culturally, the distillery itself is distinctly Australian. Tara Distillery is situated in Nowra Hill in Shoalhaven. The area was one which Ben and Tara had enjoyed as a holiday destination on repeat visits previously. The town has one foot in the world of beaches, beauty and tourism and the other in the toil and resilience of farming and agricultural work.
Tara’s stills were built by Mark Burns in Griffith, who, as well as being a star on the Australian distilling scene, could also be described as the third member of the team based on how closely they worked together to create the final design. He was also responsible for the fermenters and wash-backs, which are being used for Tara’s own poitín and whiskey production. The only piece of production kit built outside of New South Wales is their boiler, which was made in Queensland.
You can’t talk about Shoalhaven and the south coast without touching upon the horrific fires that tore through the region a little over 12 months ago. Tara Distillery was fortunate, with the Rural Fire Service in close proximity they emerged from the horror with their buildings – and their lives – intact. Close friends were not so lucky. There are parts of the country so scorched that they will not grow back for years and the memories of the experience is not something that those engulfed by it will ever forget.
Nothing binds a community like being faced with bushfires of apocalyptic and devastating fury and although relatively early into their relocation, the Tara Distillery has been quickly embraced by the region. It’s a gin locals are proud to call their own and boast about to new visitors.
It makes us think that through all of it, perhaps a small part of that spirit of Irish song and dance, where community ties are strengthened in the face of adversity, has found its way into this gin. Not as a physical botanical, but as a cultural one. You pray disasters don’t happen, but they do. If there was a gin that epitomises the spirit of that recovery, we reckon it would taste and look something like Tara.
Tara Distillery: What’s In A Name?
The Hill Of Tara, or Teamhair or Cnoc na Teamhrach in the local tongue, is an ancient burial ground and hill in Meath that features in much Irish mythology and many tourists’ itineraries. In this case it is a nod to Ireland without shamrocks and leprechauns. It also happens to be Alarna’s middle name.
“The name Tara is a nod to the Irish culture,” Alarna tells us. “It’s also short and memorable. It is my middle name, but I didn’t set out to name a distillery after myself.”
“So you say,” Ben interrupts. “I reckon the ‘Ben Distillery’ has a nice ring to it.”
Despite her Irish-influence upbringing, Doherty only met one Tara throughout her childhood.
“Now they’ve come out of the woodwork.”