Traditionally a clear spirit, gin has been given a colorful new twist by some pioneering distillers Down Under. In fact, the Ink & Tonic is currently Australia’s best-selling cocktail. It’s secret? The delicate flower petals of the butterfly pea bush, which imbue the gin with shades of indigo blue that morph to blush pink to deep violet, depending on the pH level of other liquids or botanicals added to it.
In 2015, in the Tweed Valley, on the east coast of Australia in New South Wales (near the country’s top surfing beaches), Paul Messenger of Husk Plantation Distillery began making Ink Gin®. He spent three years experimenting with the color-changing properties of the butterfly pea (Clitoria ternatea), a flowering plant native to Southeast Asia. He obtained the optimum result by combining butterfly pea pedals with a dozen different botanicals, including a variety of Australian bush tucker (defined as any food used by the Aboriginals, such as nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables) to his gin. The ingredients simmer in a hand-beaten copper pot still, along with 100 percent Australian grain spirit and water from rain that’s been filtered through the island’s plentiful volcanic rock.
Perfume, body, and balance are the keys to making premier gin. In keeping with Australia’s gin-making tradition, juniper berries make up the majority of the Ink Gin® components; botanicals are secondary and include lemon myrtle leaf, coriander seed, Tasmanian pepper berry, and sundried sweet orange peel. Pinches of other ingredients tossed into the pot often include elderflower, cinnamon, cardamom, angelica root, oris root, licorice root, and lemon peel.
Finally, butterfly pea flower petals are steeped in the still for 24 hours post-distillation to create the defining color and character of Ink Gin® — and to add its subtle green tea-like astringency, giving it a crisp, clean palate. No chemicals or preservatives are ever added, but the delicate flower petals are ultrasensitive to pH, which explains why the addition of a low pH liquid like tonic water and/or lime can change the gin from its distinctive blue to blush pink. In America, butterfly pea tea, considered the new matcha, is widely available online.
Husk Distillery’s Ink Gin® has received several major industry awards, including Best Innovation in Spirits in 2016 at the Australian Drinks Industry Awards – the first craft brand to ever win that category.
McHenry Butterfly Gin™
On the island state of Tasmania, due south of Australia, the family-owned McHenry Distillery produces its own azure version called McHenry Butterfly Gin™. The distillery’s location on the side of 4,000 foot Mount Arthur near the Tasman Sea provides a wealth of pure spring water, as well as a cool, maritime environment that offers prime conditions for the spirits as they’re maturing in barrels.
William F. McHenry was in talks with a U.S. importer about bringing his family’s aesthetically unique gin to America when the global pandemic hit; he’s hopeful about continuing those talks in the near future.
The inspiration to produce Butterfly Gin™ struck McHenry while on a trip to Japan. “I first saw the pea flower used in a tea… and wondered if it would work in our spirits here.”
He returned to Tasmania and began to experiment. “We tried a malt spirit and a gin spirit and settled on the gin spirit and called it Butterfly Gin™, named after the butterfly pea flower. We make the gin a bit differently from other colour-changing gins by varying the parts of the plant used, steeping time, and concentration of the alcohol — and we think it provides a superior quality product.”
How to change the color of the butterfly gin isn’t magic; it’s science. Just add standard issue tonic water, ice, and a slice of lemon to change the gin’s acidity level — and voila! You’ll achieve a floral variant of the Classic Dry Gin. Sour cocktails with citrus work superbly with McHenry Butterfly Gin™, as does adding it to a glass of sparkling wine.
“This is a gin to experiment with and push the boundaries,” says McHenry, who shares his tasting notes below:
Nose: Floral heavy, with slight notes of aniseed. Juniper berry is once again the star, but the floral notes of the butterfly pea flower accentuate it to create a beautiful floral bouquet.
Palate: The floral notes are foremost followed by a rich amount of aniseed and cardamom. The citrus only plays a minor role on the palate and binds the spices together. It loses the creaminess from the base spirit but picks up the floral notes, which complement the original botanicals.
Finish: Short, but lovely. Spicy aniseed and licorice notes can be found, and the flowery notes develop on the back palate. A hint of citrus emerges right at the end. As a summer drink, its crisp floral finish is welcoming.
Ink™ Sloe & Berry
Four years after the release of Ink Gin®, Head Distiller Quentin Brival at Husk Distillers launched yet another version of gin to the spirit scene. In 2019, Brival introduced a small batch (1,800 bottles) of a new gin that sold out online in less than five minutes. It was reviewed with overwhelming positivity.
Ink™ Sloe & Berry is his personal take on the classic English gin recipe, with an Australian bush tucker twist. Its gin base is similar to the original recipe of Ink Gin®, but with the addition of the native sloe berry, a fruit that macerates in the gin for several weeks and imparts both tart and sweet flavors.
The final and not-so-secret ingredient is the rosella flower, a variety of wild hibiscus found in the tropical northern regions of Australia. The rosella is vibrant in color and its taste has a crisp, rhubarb-like tartness. Brival deems this flower the perfect companion to balance the sweeter botanical counterparts in Sloe & Berry. This gin is notably lower in alcohol — 26% v. 43% in the original — so you can enjoy an extra glass… or two.
Ink™ Sloe Fizz
- 2 oz. Ink Sloe & Berry Gin
- 1 oz. fresh lemon juice (about half a big, juicy lemon)
- ½ oz. simple syrup (dissolve equal parts sugar in water)
Pour ingredients in an ice filled wine glass, top with a splash of club soda and garnish with a grapefruit slice.