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Snake Oil a worthy tonic for SA gin

The Forager

With just one week left of his crowdfunding campaign, will the son of South Australia’s first gin producer be able to find the money to produce commercial quantities of the state’s first tonic syrup?

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Lindon Lark is the 21-year-old son of Jon Lark, founder of Kangaroo Island Spirits, South Australia’s original craft distillery and producer of award-winning gin, vodka and liqueurs.

He is studying architecture at UniSA and will complete his course at the end of the year – just as he hopes to have his first commercial batch of Liru’s Snake Oil tonic syrup ready for the commercial market and summer gin and tonic drinking.

“Not a lot of people understand what tonic syrup is,” says Lindon.

“Back in the 1800s, when the British army were running military campaigns in India, the soldiers were made to take a tonic made from the bark of the cinchona tree that contained the anti-malarial medication quinine, which comes from the bark of the tree. The soldiers also had a gin ration, so they mixed the tonic together with the gin and some lime, water and sugar, marking the start of what has become a classic drink.”

Until recently, gin was typically drunk with a sweet carbonated mixer known as tonic water, made by large soft-drink companies. With the rise of boutique gin distilleries, there has been increasing interest in alternative mixers, such as the original tonic syrup.

“Ideally, every gin maker wants the perfect tonic to go with their gin,” says Lindon.

“Five years ago, when Dad started making KIS Wild Gin, he found a recipe for tonic syrup that he played around with and perfected.

“He made a few batches which he sold at the cellar door and to Adelaide gin bar Howling Owl, but over the last three years his business has been in a massive state of growth so he gave the recipe to me. He agreed to let me take over production of Liru’s Snake Oil, providing I can get the funding to set up a commercial production kitchen.”

Why the name “Liru’s Snake Oil”?

“Snake oil is a vernacular term for a health tonic portrayed as a cure-all for illnesses yet [which] has dubious medicinal properties,” says Lindon. “While I make no claim that Snake Oil Tonic Syrup will cure all your ailments, it is, arguably, the perfect remedy for a premium gin that is lacking a worthy tonic.

“Liru was the name given to my father when he worked in an Aboriginal community in Western Australia many years ago. In that community, when someone passes away, it’s no longer permitted to say their name, so anyone who shares the deceased person’s name is given a new one. My father became Liru because another person named Jon unfortunately passed away.”

Snake Oil 2

Lindon Lark at Kangaroo Island Spirits with his pet Australian coastal carpet python. Photo: supplied

Of the $10,000 Lindon hopes to raise via a Pozible campaign to fund the plant and equipment needed to produce commercial quantities of Liru’s Snake Oil, so far he has been pledged only $1445 in support.

“I need the money to rent an approved commercial kitchen space and set it up with 200-litre pots, gas fittings and a gas burner and filtration equipment. To make tonic syrup in such large quantities you need a lot of cinchona bark, which creates a sediment in the syrup that needs to be carefully filtered out,” he says.

“In the week that’s left I don’t think my Pozible campaign is going to reach the $10K mark, but it’s almost raised $2K and people are talking about it, which is important because I’m also using the campaign to gauge consumer interest. People are excited for it.”

Lindon says tonic syrup is made in a similar way to gin, with a collection of botanicals that are steeped in purified water. The resulting tonic is sweetened and preserved with sugar and citric acid, then filtered to produce a clear liquid.

“The cinchona bark comes from New Zealand; the citrus, lemongrass and spices such as pimento berries come from the Adelaide Central Market, and I’ll use as many botanicals as possible from the Kangaroo Island Spirits gin garden that was planted a few years back with English lavender, roses and geranium.”

The Larks aren’t the only business to venture into tonic syrup production. A few years ago, a tonic syrup called Blood Moon Tonic was being made in Victoria, but production has ceased. And a New Zealand product called Sin-Ko-Nah has recently also begun production in South Australia. SA beverage manufacturer Bickford’s now produces a carbonated tonic water, similar to the premium UK Fever-Tree mixers.

“I would love to make a carbonated tonic,” says Lindon.

And it sounds like he will. Even if he doesn’t reach his crowdfunding target, he intends to to ahead with his tonic syrup production plan.

“I can start with $3K and with the support I’m getting from other local gin distillers. In South Australia we have a really good base. At Tasting Australia we had a SA gin tasting tent – it was a collaborative event.

“Next I will speak to the guys at SARDI (South Australian Research and Development Institute) about shelf-life testing and sterilising methods. When uni finishes I will create a few batches on Kangaroo Island, then take it to small bars to play around with and start networking on that level. It will be perfect timing for summer.”

In the meantime, you can read more about Lindon’s tonic syrup project at his Pozible campaign site and taste Liro’s Snake Oil at Adelaide bar The Howling Owl – although it runs the risk of a shortage on World Gin Day this Saturday, June 11.

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