North Queenslander Mark Watkins could never have imagined his love of distilling would lead to global domination as he began honing his talents in a backyard cubby house in Cairns as a 16-year-old.
Now, with more than two decades of experience in producing gin with a distinctive Australian flavour, Watkins and his Mt Uncle Distillery in the Atherton Tablelands are part of a new breed of producers who have positioned domestic distillers among the best in the world.
Mt Uncle's Botanic Australis Navy Strength Gin has just received top honours at the 2021 London Spirits Competition.
The distiller took home the Gin of the Year and the Best in Show by Country awards, in addition to gold medals for the company's Botanic Australis Northern Gem Gin and its FNQ Rum Co Iridium Rum.
The honours come on the heels of Mt Uncle winning gold in the Best Pot Still category for the FNQ Rum Co Iridium Rum at the 2021 World Rum Awards. It was the third year running that the company took out this award.
Watkins, who cut his teeth in the industry in Wagga Wagga where he earned a wine science degree, says the wins are testament to the strength of the Australian craft distillery sector and signify a shift in the staid traditions once found in the world of gin production.
"Australian gins are really starting to get recognised on the global scene," says Watkins.
"The palate of traditional gin drinkers has been quite polarised since the craft gin movement began over 30 years ago and prior to that it was even more limited."
Watkins credits the injection of new flavours from Australian botanicals for the rise of the industry domestically.
"From the start we never wanted to replicate anything from the old world - we wanted to make a new world gin," he says.
"I founded Mt Uncle Distillery in 2001, and 20 years later we continue to distil a multitude of liqueurs on our menu, sourcing ingredients and fruits from Mt Uncle farm itself and other local farmlands on the Atherton Tablelands."
Mt Uncle Distillery is located on an 800-acre property set amid a banana plantation and next to the local sugar mill.
Watkins says the London Spirits Competition win is most prized because it is awarded for drinkability rather than the technical competence in of the distilling process of other awards.
While the past year has been challenging for Watkins and his team, the Mt Uncle Distillery business still managed to grow.
"We are a small concern and we were hit when we had to physically close our tasting room for three months during COVID," says Watkins.
"Through JobKeeper we were able to keep our staff on board and, now that domestic tourism has kicked in, this has compensated some of the losses from the bar and restaurant trade. In fact, there has been a slight increase for us.
"We have had strong growth for a few years now and at the moment we are growing exponentially."
Like many distillers, Mt Uncle is battling the weight of the government's alcohol excise regime on profit margins, but Watkins says winning global awards lessens the load in terms of marketing the brand.
"The awards have helped because it's such a competitive market - I still pay myself off the smell of an oily rag.
"I was quite happy to win the award although our gin has been ranking very highly in many competitions. It's no surprise that we make some of the best gins in the world, if not the best."
Over the past couple of years, Mt Uncle Distillery has started penetrating international markets after gaining a foothold in the likes of retail majors such as Dan Murphy's. Some of this has been led by the recognition of its gin and rum products through various award wins.
The international push began with Singapore and more recently it had plans to launch into the UK by November last year. COVID put a temporary halt to that but the UK is now being targeted for November this year as conditions become more normalised there.
Watkins says he is currently preparing to send a pallet of gin to the Czech Republic next week to fill the first order for that market.
He is hoping for an even better year ahead.
"It was steady during COVID, but everyone seems to be back on the phone and sending emails again," he says.
After initially looking to start a career as an environmental scientist, Watkins is pleased he decided to move back from Wagga Wagga to Cairns to follow his love for distilling in his home town.
"We work tirelessly to produce the best spirits in Australia, which we have known for a long time, and the international acclaim is phenomenal," he says.
Business News Australia
Get our daily business news
Sign up to our free email news updates.