The origins of KIS
in 2002 Jon & Sarah lark got married and this is the beginning of the KIS story – It led to them setting out to establish Australia’s first dedicated gin distillery, to do things properly, the traditional way’.
Not long after they started, Jon & Sarah visited Sipsmith in London. Sipsmith started in a small shed in the suburb of Hammersmith making a premium gin out of a small still in the suburbs. This gave the Larks the confidence to acquire a small Stil – and so began the KIS distilling journey. Very similar to what kis were already doing in a small shed on KI. With an even smaller still, they knew they were on the right track.
The business core values and the personality of KIS products.
One of the appealing factors about gin is that when you’re making gin, there’s a lot you can do with botanicals. Jon & Sarah could almost be called old-fashioned, because they think gin should still be predominantly juniper flavoured - it’s a choice (some of the new ones aren’t). From there it is very flexible & almost do or add anything you like. It is this taste challenge & exquisite uniqueness of KIS gins that underpins its core values and product personality.
Éric Ripert a French chef based in New York, once described Jon & Sarah as being like French sauciers, people who balanced flavours going into a pot so that when the ‘sauce’ (metaphor for gin) was complete & presented in the right way it was well balanced. This means consistency and balance are critical to core values.
Another important value is that KIS intentionally does not want to become something other than the master of the craft industry – it is not about size of business, it is about achieving the best reputation and to let the market to some extent dictate what it wants from KIS spirits.
A huge number of small distilleries have started since KIS was established, and some have grown quickly – almost by force & wilful marketing. This is not the KIS model; the KIS team is in it for the character of the KIS lifestyle, the passion of inclusion – for instance sharing ideas and being creative in terms of botanicals – this hands on, family approach is what the word Craft Distillery means to the KIS team – this is the KIS model.
How interesting it is that many of the larger non-craft distillers are now trying to ‘market’ and develop ‘Craft’ products – this is because the consumer realises that craft – the true artisan product – is genuinely of higher quality and reputation (a consumer that is being rapidly educated about how to think of, and how to drink, gin and 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 & patience, knowledge & experience, family effort, small & unique and capturing the dream, all describe how it must be to deliver to the discerning consumer a truly craft gin – the words like ‘business model’ are less necessary as craft is what the true believer & dedicated artisan has the luxury of indulging in.
Revisit the beginning of the KIS - the story – why KIS why a distillery etc
Jon & 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 get there 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. Remember that we literally lived in the desert for a lot 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. Nobody else was making spirits – in fact no one was doing it in South Australia, let alone Kangaroo Island.
Additionally, the larks really liked the passion of the producers that were already on the Island. They weren’t big people trying to market something that isn’t real. KI is the genuine place for artisan , craft and hand made products, it is a place of passionate hard workers when it comes to innovation and effort – add the beauty of the place and it a really lovely place to engage with – if you have not seen the KIS company video, have a look on the new KIS web site and you will experience the Island and its spirit from the KIS perspective.
Turning an idea into reality
Jon Lark describes it as follows, “The word ‘Passion’ comes to mind. 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 on retail price ~$8 brings total tax to $33/bottle; the same bottle in America would have about $3 excise on it. In other words, 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 to us the name Kangaroo Island Spirits, we loved it, because from a marketing perspective you can do so much with it”.
Jon’s had various careers throughout his lifetime …whereas Sarah comes from teaching. They met at a community in Western Australia which is arguably the most remote community in Australia. Seven hundred kilometres from the nearest town, twelve hours drive, and Jon had been out there since the late 80s on and off. So to them, Kangaroo Island gave the feeling of being remote, when really its only four hours away from Adelaide, or twenty minutes on a plane. Being remote is in the Lark’s blood - however, Sarah comments that “we love to hang out at places like the Central Markets as well. We’ve got the best of both worlds really”.
It took some time for the Larks to get the recipe right. They argue they were very lucky because a lot of people volunteered to help with the research.
With the funds from a small grant from the Food and Beverage Fund the Larks first went to Europe and spent several weeks in a Swedish distillery; They visited Sipsmith’s and Plymouth distilleries and had a look around the UK; reviewed a stil manufacturer in Germany; and played with some liqueurs in Italy.
As Sarah lark says “ it was all pretty inspiring. The notion of peasant-made drinks in Italy- liqueurs we just loved. I mean, their whole food tradition; their whole slow food tradition, and their Nonnas’ recipes; and every Nonna has a different recipe. We loved that - that village kind of process of making things the real way with a handed down process, in small batches, and using what’s around you”.
Further inspiration for the Larks came from the Lark Distillery in Tasmania – a whisky distillery founded by Jon’s brother Bill.