The KIS story began in 2002, when Jon and Sarah Lark married and set out to establish Australia’s first dedicated gin distillery, where they wanted to do things properly, the traditional way.
Early on, Jon and Sarah visited Sipsmith in Hammersmith, London. There in the suburbs they saw that Sipsmith had started making a premium gin in a small shed, using a small still. This gave the Larks the confidence to continue the KIS distilling journey with an even smaller still than they were already using in their own shed on KI. They knew they were on the right track.
KIS Core Values and the Personality of KIS Products
One of the appealing things about gin is the use of botanicals – there is a lot you can do with them in the gin making process. Jon and Sarah believe that gin should still be predominantly juniper flavoured – it’s a choice (some of the new ones aren’t). But from there on, there’s a lot of flexibility and you can almost do or add anything you like. And this is where Jon and Sarah have worked their magic to produce the exquisite uniqueness of KIS gins, which underpins Kangaroo Island Spirits’ core values and product personality.
Éric Ripert, a French chef based in New York, likened Jon and Sarah to French sauciers, who skilfully balance the flavours going into a pot so that when the sauce – or in their case, gin – is complete and presented correctly, it is well balanced. This is exactly how KIS gins are made, and this is why consistency and balance are critical KIS core values.
Another important value is the intention that KIS aims only to master their craft industry. For Jon and Sarah, it is not about the size of the business; it is about achieving the best reputation, and allowing the market to dictate to some extent what it wants from KIS spirits.
A huge number of small distilleries have started since KIS was established. Some of these have grown quickly, almost by force and wilful marketing. This is not the KIS model. The KIS team is in it for the character of the KIS lifestyle, the passion for inclusion (which includes sharing ideas) and being creative with botanicals. This hands-on, family approach is what being a “Craft Distillery” means to the KIS team – this is the KIS model.
It is interesting that many of the larger non-craft distillers are now trying to market and develop “craft” products. This is because the consumer realises that the true artisan product is genuinely of higher quality and reputation. The consumer is being rapidly educated about how to think of, and how to drink, gin and other spirits, so that’s where the market is.
The reality is that you have to be hands on in every step of distilling to produce a “crafted” spirit. Words like passion and patience, knowledge and experience, family effort, small and unique, and capturing the dream, all describe how it must be if you are to deliver to the discerning consumer a truly craft gin. The words “business model” are less relevant, as craft is what the true believer and dedicated artisan has the luxury of indulging in.
Why Kangaroo Island?
Jon and Sarah Lark selected Kangaroo Island for a couple of reasons. Sarah describes it as follows: “It’s a beautiful location. It costs a little bit more to get there, but when you are on the Island it feels as if you have turned everything off and you can slow down – that is, of course, until you need to get up at six and turn the still on every morning. We had been living in the desert for a number of years, so a sea change was definitely high on our priority list.”
The Larks recognised that on KI there was an emerging food and wine industry with a tourism base, and nobody else was making spirits – in fact, no one was doing it in South Australia, let alone Kangaroo Island.
And they really liked the passion of the producers who were already on the Island. They weren’t big people trying to market something that isn’t real. KI is the place for genuine artisan, craft and handmade products. It is a place of passionate hard workers when it comes to innovation and effort. Add the beauty of the Island, and you have a really lovely place to engage with. Have a look at the KIS video and you will see a little of the Island’s spirit from the KIS perspective.
Turning An Idea Into Reality
“The word ‘passion’ comes to mind,” says Jon Lark. “Perhaps also stubbornness, in terms of effort and finding a way to climb each gate you come to. A good example is building margins into the product, but only after the Government has taken the excise on each bottle of gin – currently the excise tax on our mainstream gin is about $25; add gst to the retail price, and the total tax on a bottle is $33. In America the same bottle would have about $3 excise. So competing for a place in the beverage market has a high penalty before you start – the Government gets more from a bottle of gin than KIS does. Nevertheless, we persisted. And when somebody recommended the name Kangaroo Island Spirits, we loved it.
Sarah comes from teaching, and Jon had various careers before he came to distilling. They met in Western Australia, at arguably the most remote community in Australia, 700 kilometres from the nearest town – a 12-hour drive. Jon had been out there since the late 80s, on and off. So being remote is in the Larks’ blood, and Kangaroo Island gave the feeling of being remote, but it’s only a few hours away from Adelaide by road, or a 20-minute flight. Sarah is quick to add that: “We do also love to hang out at places like the Adelaide Central Markets – we have the best of both worlds.”
It took some time for the Larks to get the recipe right, although they say they were very lucky because a lot of people volunteered to help with the research!
Inspiration came from the Lark Distillery in Tasmania – a whisky distillery founded by Jon’s brother Bill. Then a small grant from the Food and Beverage Fund allowed Jon and Sarah to travel to Europe, where they spent several weeks in a Swedish distillery, visited Sipsmith and Plymouth distilleries, had a look around the UK, reviewed a still manufacturer in Germany, and played with some liqueurs in Italy.
As Sarah says: “It was all pretty inspiring, especially the notion of peasant-made drinks in Italy, liqueurs that we just loved. We loved their whole food tradition, with slow food and their Nonnas’ recipes – and every Nonna has a different recipe. We loved that process of making things right there in the village, the real way, with a handed down process, in small batches, and using what’s around you.”
“Washed up in paradise”
– Jon Lark
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