Aotea’s picturesque gin distillery – and the once hobby distiller behind it


Co-owner Jason Ross designed the interior of the refurbished bach to reflect the peaceful, natural and simple ethos of life on Aotea Great Barrier. His wife Andi, who is rarely short of things to do, takes a no-doubt brief moment to relax.

From advertising creative to gin distiller, Andi Ross exemplifies the liberating potential of a midlife career change.

Words: Kate Coughlan  Photos: Jackie Meiring

Aotea Great Barrier residents believe the island chooses its people, not vice versa. If this is so, Aotea must have wondered, to the depths of its clear streams, dreamy beaches and forested mountain peaks, what it had chosen with Andi Ross, husband Jason, and two daughters, India (then 3) and Trinity (then 2 months).

In 2004, after spending two years in Singapore, the Australian couple arrived in Auckland for jobs as creatives in an advertising agency. By accepting a post in the City of Sails, they had taken an opportunity to relocate closer to their families in Melbourne.

The Wetland Folly designed by Nicola Herbst of Herbst Architects overlooks the wetlands with a glimpse of the beach. It’s a rustic construction of rough-sawn timber walls and a corrugated roof lined with mānuka branches. An open-fire place makes it a cosy retreat for guests watching the setting sun.

Andi was casting around for somewhere to holiday and spotted a small newspaper advertisement for a “bach on Great Barrier”. She had no idea where Great Barrier was or that it was even an island, nor did she have any idea of what a “bach” was — although she hoped it had less to do with a German composer of the Baroque period named Johann Sebastian and more like what Australians know as a “shack”.

She flew to Great Barrier and only had to see Medlands Beach from the air to be convinced the bach, whatever it was, would be a perfect place for family holidays. And it was. The modest two-bedroom house came with solar panels and a 12-volt battery to power their needs on the electrical grid-less island. There were endlessly glorious beaches with beckoning surf for the girls (who grew increasingly interested and skilled in riding the waves) and plenty of opportunities for Jason to cast his surf line in search of supper.

From their home Andi and Jason have a view across Oruawharo Bay, with Shakespeare Point headland in the distance and Medlands, the beach their daughters learned to surf on, below.

For years, the family revelled in their holidays and even long weekends — girls eagerly arriving straight from the classroom in their school uniforms on Friday afternoons, only to reboard the island’s small aircraft dressed the same on Monday mornings. They loved it, and by 2019, with the girls now living and working in Melbourne, Andi and Jason decided to make Aotea their permanent home.

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Of course, Andi was in the middle of launching a business — as you do — just to keep things busy enough. Just as she was chosen by the island to be one of its 1000 permanent residents (6000 are welcomed in holiday periods), so she was just as serendipitously chosen by a wild lemon tree to be a distiller. She goes with the flow, does Andi.

The wooden shakers, designed by friend Martino Gampe with a bach on the island, are available at Everyday Needs in Ponsonby. Slow Jam, owned by another part-time island resident, Gregory Heap and his daughter Celia, reuses macerated fruit that Andi uses in her gin.

“I started mixing gin and tonic with foraged wild lemons I found at the southern end of the estuary on Medlands Beach, and as everything on the island has to come in by barge or plane and the goal is to be as self-sufficient as possible, I started wondering about making gin.”

She began experimenting with a small alembic copper still and found she had a knack for it, and her friends displayed an enthusiastic taste for it. And that might have been that: Andi, the hobby distiller, bottling just enough for family and friends to enjoy. However, her background as a graduate of Melbourne’s Swinburne University School of Design and a willingness to embrace everything life tosses her way stimulated dreams of what might be if she could harness more island magic than just the power of alcohol and wild lemons.

“It needed something else, and once I found the island’s unique mānuka honey, it proved to be the last and totally perfect component for a gin capturing the Great Barrier Island terroir.”

Even so, it took her three years to develop the recipe to her satisfaction. And then came the challenge of a bottle special enough for such a gin.

And that, like many elements of Andi’s story, evolved from her wholehearted response to something beautiful. She and a friend, walking along a beach on Aotea discussing how Andi might design her gin bottle, spotted a bumpy, misty green-grey kina shell lying on the sand.

“That’s it!” thought Andi. “If I can capture this in a bottle, it will be perfect.” It did turn out that way, but not instantly. A three-year process with Auckand’s Visy Glass resulted in a bottle that exceeds even Andi’s aspirations.

The kina that began Andi’s bottle design journey also inspired her to design a kina-shaped bottle cap opener made in bronze for tonic bottles (the blue “kina” below). “I think of them as future heirlooms as people buy them for 21sts or 50th celebrations or gin lovers.” The matchbox was painted by their friend Mikhail Gherman.

“I went to the bottle manufacturer with my design on a wing and a prayer. I wanted it very Kiwi, and the kina concept was perfect, although the shape didn’t translate well into a bottle. With all design concepts, you jump off a cliff a bit, and I had no idea how to test whether people would like it. Out came such a beautiful object, better than I had imagined, in a unique shade between the brown and green of traditional glass, as 50 per cent of the material is recycled.

Andi pours an experimental plum gin in preparation for bottling in early 2024.

“There are a lot of bottles out there, and I know no one buys gin simply because of the bottle shape, but I hope it pleases people when they see it.”

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The design is so beautiful that Andi says she enters her gin in blind-tasting awards to prove that the gin is the winner, not necessarily the bottle. And win it does — a list of awards followed the formal launch of Island Gin in 2019. The brand is now stocked by 170 retailers nationwide and has an e-commerce website.

Andi’s distillery, where she has fitted out two new commercial storage units to house her large copper still, is in Kaitoke about 20 minutes from home. The long central tasting table, of local macrocarpa, was made by island builder Phil Yates. The lights, hanging from a Jason-built bamboo frame, came from a house that was being refurbished. “Jason is getting pretty good at building, and that’s a handy skill on an island five hours by barge from the mainland and especially as I have tried to use as many local objects as possible to give a modern island feel to the distillery.”

There was yet another serendipitous shove from Fate that Andi believes sealed her destiny as Madame Distiller (her island nickname), and it came before she decided to launch into a serious, full-time business as a gin maker.

She saw neighbours on the beach entertaining visitors from the mainland and thought a gin would go down well. Madame Distiller bundled up her bottle, tonic and lemons and wandered down to join the picnic.

The mainland guests loved the gin and were intrigued, asking her many questions. Things were going well, she explained, except she couldn’t source good quality juniper (an import).

The unidentified cigarette smoker in the photograph (artist unknown) also pleases Andi for her relaxed and cool beachy attitude.

Funnily enough, the woman she’d just poured a gin for was a juniper importer — that old universe was at it again. Andi’s fate seemed to include more than being a creative on advertising campaigns for clients from Mack trucks to fashion brands. Gin would be her second career. That’s not to give the hand of fate too much credit; Andi’s preparedness to make a career change towards spirituous liquors that is as much the cause of her success.

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“I am interested in encouraging women to take the leap and change careers midlife if they want to. I want to tell them, ‘Don’t be worried about switching; don’t feel trapped in one way of living.’ It is freeing to change direction.

Jump ship, change career, and leap out of a life you don’t love. We can all be on the mouse wheel; running, keep going, keep going….”

Andi loves her new life, although she does admit to looking out the window at glorious Medlands Beach and wondering why she isn’t down there with a book and her togs. “Before we moved permanently to the island, I wondered why locals seldom were on the beach on weekdays. Now I know that everyone is too busy earning a living.

“Even when the weather is gorgeous, I’m in the salt mine distilling, bottling, labelling and dispatching.”

Winter is Andi’s busiest distilling time. During the dry months, she heads off on sales trips to her 170 retailers nationwide and drums up new ones.

SOAKING UP THE ATMOSPHERE

After Andi and Jason decided to move to live on Great Barrier full time, they renovated their original family bach. The one-bedroom house at the northern end of Medlands Beach (88 steps from the dunes) and its accompanying architectural-prize-winning folly in the wetlands are now available for guests to rent.

“We put in new power and filtration systems, and the Wetland Folly is positioned onwards the setting sun to be used as an additional living area. A massive hardwood table and outdoor fireplace mean guests can watch the wetland’s changing light and birdlife while enjoying meals or a “happy hour”.

While Andi lives on the island full time, Jason continues to have an advertising consultancy and works between Australia and New Zealand. bach@islandgin.com

ISLAND INSIGHTS

Andi and Jason’s hilltop home has striking blue aluminium joinery that Andi says has a kooky 1980s vibe.

As the island is remote, Andi tries to be as self-sufficient as possible, working towards a circular economy. Recycling and upcycling (bottle pallets turned into veggie boxes, for example) are standard ways of life, as is making what’s needed instead of ordering it in. Life on the island isn’t all gin and tonic, however.

“You need to be resilient, and you must like your own company. I am here a lot by myself, and as I am a bit of an introvert, I need that time to recharge the batteries.

“It does seem like a paradise, but it can be challenging when the storms come and you are by yourself and must be prepared for anything. The boat doesn’t always sail in the winter. But the community is incredible, and someone will always help you if needed. They are not always people you might see eye to eye with on other matters, but they always help when someone needs it.

“That is one of the lovely things; people always come. It’s a very special community.”

Feijoa Island Gin Sour

Put 60ml Feijoa Island Gin, 30ml fresh lime juice and 15ml agave syrup or sugar syrup in a cocktail shaker. Add 1 egg white, 30ml aquafaba or bartender’s foam and “dry” shake for 30 secs. Add a large ice cube and reshake (“wet” shake). Strain into your favourite cocktail glass over ice. Makes 1 drink.

Note: Dry shake is shaking a cocktail without ice. Wet shake is shaking a cocktail with ice. Aquafaba is chickpea brine (for a vegan alternative).

Medlands Mule

Put 30ml Island Gin Original and the juice of half a lime into a long glass. Add the skin of the squeezed lime and a large cube of ice. Pour over cold ginger beer and add 2 dashes of chocolate bitters. Garnish with fresh mint. Makes 1 drink.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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