Cocktail Island Festival at Cockatoo Island

The first ever Cocktail Island festival was held on the historic Cockatoo Island, a former convict precinct which was transformed into a plethora of cocktail stands and tasting rooms. The inaugural event saw the weekend crowd explore a range of cocktails and spirit brands over two days, with the third day exclusively open for trade.

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“Welcome to Cocktail Island” coupled with a lei on arrival near the Think Spirits Beach Bar had you thinking you stepped into a cocktail-infused fantasy on a patch of dry land you’d never want to leave.

Cocktail Island is a concept by Marco Faraone, the award-winning bartender behind bars such as Lotus and now The Island Bar which is also located on Cockatoo Island. The aim of the event is to educate consumers about cocktails and various brands of spirits through a series of masterclasses and product tastings.

Each stand was beaming with energy as bartenders were shaking, mixing, pouring and attending to the thirsty crowd. Many brands showcased their products through cocktails as well as neat tastings of their spirits. Drinks were priced between $2 to $10 island dollars (equivalent to Australian dollars) which were available from the Cocktail Island Bank.

Ketel One Vodka

Ketel One Vodka is a smooth spirit made from wheat with hints of aniseed and pepper. Part of the Reserve Brand, it has been owned by the Nolet family since 1691. Handcrafted in Holland in small batches, Ketel One Vodka makes a very good Martini with a couple of drops of dry Vermouth, Lillet Blanc or orange bitters. Known as a vodka that bartenders promote, it is one that we have enjoyed frequently at Eau-de-Vie bar.

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On taste, the Pure Ketel One is a more textural vodka. It has character with a silky mouthfeel and a hint of spice. The Nolet Garden Cocktail made with Ketel One Vodka, elderflower cordial, muddled cucumber, apple juice and tonic water is light and refreshing and highlights the flavour of the spirit.

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Mitch West and Robb Sloan at Ketel One Vodka stand

Wild Turkey American Honey

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Wild Turkey American Honey is a Bourbon-based honey liqueur that has been available in Australia for the last four years.

With 35% alcohol, it is exceptionally smooth, very sweet and good over ice.  It can also be served cold from the fridge or freezer with lime juice and mint and fares very well in cocktails such as the Honey Storm, made with fresh lime and mint and topped with ginger beer. Ginger and lime  work well as cocktail ingredients to balance the higher sugar content of the drink.

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Joel Smith with American Honey

West Winds Gin

Cocktail Island“Gin under 40% is for Grandma’s and Ho’s”

West Winds Gin is an Australian gin from Western Australia which is made with native botanicals such as wattle seed, bush tomato and using the waters of Margaret River. This highly prized gin won Gold and Double Gold medals at the 2011 San Francisco World Spirits Competition only four weeks after its release.

The West Winds Sabre sits at entry level with 40% ABV, an aromatic gin with two types of coriander (coriander seed and coriander root) with juniper and wattle seed. It has a textured mouthfeel from the dry juniper roots and wattle seed, and fares well in a traditional Gin and Tonic with lemon or cucumber to cut through a little of the sugar content.

The Cutlass Gin moves up a notch with 50% ABV, a hand crafted gin made in small batches.  This has a more savoury style due to the use of the bush tomatoes which are dried to raisin size and give an intense flavour that is sweet and salty. A more textured and highly aromatic gin, the Cutlass would make a good Martini.

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Jason Chan and Jeremy Spencer at the West Winds Gin stand

666 Tasmanian Vodka

666 Tasmanian Vodka came on the market one year ago and is the first Australian vodka to win a gold medal at the 2011 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Made with Tasmanian malted barley, it is distilled in copper pot stills in a triple distillation process.

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Named after the Tasmanian devil, and branded as “pure evil”, 666 Vodka is made in small batch production and is very smooth.

666 was very popular at Cocktail Island and came served in 666 branded young coconuts with coconut juice.

Calle 23 Tequila

At the Calle 23 Tequila stand, it was about bold bright statement such as “Tequila Makes You Smarter” and “Tequila is Jesus Choice”. Created by French-born Sophie Decobecq with degrees in biochemistry and engineering, the product is a result of application of modern science and traditional techniques.

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On taste is Calle 23 Tequila Blanco, made from 100% agave and created with 2 specific yeasts to allow the agave flavour to develop to its optimum. The agave are sourced close to the distillery in Los Altos region of Jalisco, and distilled to approximately 54% alcohol before being cut with distillery well water to 40% then bottled.

Calle 23 Tequila Blanco has a lot of character and good spice on the nose. A tequila to enjoy in a shot glass or in a fine Margarita, it is used in bars such as Eau-de-Vie Bar, Low 302, Emmilou Tapas Bar and Corner House.

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Mitchell Bushell and Dione Nassibian at Calle 23 Tequila Stand

Hendrick’s Gin – The Balvenie – Monkey Shoulder

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Monkey Shoulder, first tasted at the Sydney Whisky Fair, is a blend of three single malt whiskies that go down well in cocktails and mixed drinks such as with apple juice, little soda, and mint, making it a light and fresh drink.

The Balvenie 12 Year Old has been on a “must try” list since the opportunity was missed at the Sydney Whisky Fair. This single malt is matured in two woods, first in traditional oak whisky casks which soften and give it character then in oak sherry casks which give it a depth of flavour.There are mild honey and vanilla notes with a smooth and almost nutty sweetness and a touch of spice from the sherry.

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Fresh off the Adenturists Afternoon Tea Party with Jon Muir, the Hendrick’s Gin stand had a whimsical levitating cake and a cucumber pot that begged to come home. One can’t ever say no to a Hendrick’s Gin & Tonic. Light, aromatic and refreshing, it is deemed to be the healthiest cocktail since it comes served with a sliced green vegetable.

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Mark Little and Hugh Payten Smith

Other brands on taste were the Tullamore DewGlenfiddich and Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum.

Johnnie Walker

The largest if not the most impressive stand at Cocktail Island belonged to Johnnie Walker. From the stylish outdoor area with faux grass, a white picket fence and black umbrellas, one moved to the vast interior tasting room with a Johnnie Walker timeline against one wall and the more intimate Johnnie Walker Blue tasting room.

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Inside, it was a tasting experience that celebrated the Johnnie Walker journey.

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The tasting journey began with the Johnnie Walker Black Label, the most iconic expression of the brand and what John Walker envisaged a whisky should be. Described as “Scotland in a glass”, the taste embodies different whisky producing parts of the country, with orange, apricot, mild herbaceous notes and slight smokiness.

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David Beatty from Behind Bars

Next came the Johnnie Walker Double Black Label which was recently launched in Australia. A step up from Johnnie Walker Black in flavour and intensity and a good entry into the world of smoky blends.

The Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve is a true celebration of whisky. Initially released as a centenary blend, it proved to be so popular that it was relabelled as Gold Reserve. Best served chilled which gives it a more syrupy texture, it is a little sweet due to the aging in sherry casks. For an unforgettable taste sensation, experience it cold with a good dark chocolate that has a slight bitterness to it.

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Luke Redington

The Johnnie Walker Blue Label, previously tasted at the Sydney Whisky Fair is a premium blend made from the rarest casks and carries no age statement. taste it after sipping on chilled water to numb the palate then hold it in the mouth until it is slightly warming and it releases the flavours of nuts, vanilla, dried fruit and a trace of smoke.

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David Beatty, Robbie Acres, Luke Redington

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Michael Cookson, David Beatty, Laurene Bourges

The Green Fairy Absinth – Koruna Bohemian Absinth

You couldn’t go past the Southtrade International stand without stopping by the lovely Green Fairy, initially spotted at the Time Out Bar Awards when she fluttered her wings.

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Green Fairy Absinth is a Czech Absinth and the first one to make it into Australia since the ban was lifted. With 60% abv, it has star anise as the main ingredient, and unlike the French green anise, it does not turn cloudy with water which makes it suitable for cocktails.

Their signature drink is the Wicked Party Punch, first tasted at the Time Out Bar Awards. Made with Green Fairy Absinth, cloudy apple juice, orange juice, elderflower cordial and seltzer charged with dry ice, it is an addictive drink that you can’t put down.

Czech and Coke may sound like an odd combination but the addition of Coca Cola, fresh lime, served tall with ice brings out the flavours of the anise much more than the punch.

Koruna Bohemian Absinth is another Czech Absinth that is a lot more rustic and complex. The anise flavours burn on the front palate but what follows is a bitterness of the herbs that sit at the bottom of the bottle and ends surprisingly with a mild sweet finish. It does not turn cloudy when mixed with water and at 73% abv, you’d want to try it the traditional way, with a sugar cube.

The Patron Tequila range was also on taste.

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Tony Lau at the Southtrade International stand

anCnoc Whisky – Hine Cognac – Angostura Bitters

Continuing the quest for single malts not tasted before, AnCnoc comes in as a smooth and mellow whisky with honey and floral notes. Versatile over ice and in cocktails, it’s easy drinking at 40% abv with flavours that blend well in cocktails such as the Whisky Bang, made with anCnoc 12 year old, apple cider, honey and Angostura Bitters.

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Hine Cognac Rare VSOP is a blend of over 25 Grand and Petite Champagne cognacs and comes from 6 regions where Hine own the grape fields and every step of the process is made on their own vineyards. which makes a a good base spirit for cocktails such as the Hine Summit with Hine Rare VSOP, Angostura Orange Bitters, fresh ginger, lime zest, cucumber and lemonade.

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Peter Stevens, Steve Cipriani, Joe Sinagra at island2island Beverages stand

Über Bar Tools

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Über Bar Tools produce quality bar tools which are designed in house in Australia and manufactured abroad under strict quality controls which checks the materials against the standards specified. Primarily designed for use by professional bartender, Michael Silvers, CEO and Founder of the company, explains that this is the first time his company has been involved in a consumer event and the interest has been encouraging. With food and cocktail culture spreading to the home, consumers have shown remarkable interest in taking home entertaining to the next level.

History and Tradition of Italian Aperitifs and Digestives

Several masterclasses, tasting sessions and talks were held at Cocktail Island, some of which included international speakers. The History and Tradition of Italian Aperitifs and Digestives with Francesco Lafranconi was a veritable journey through Italy starting with the origins of the aperitif and moving on to the benefits of digestives.

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Aperitivo comes from “aperire”, to open and stimulate the appetite. “The aperitivo in Italy is a lifestyle”, Francesco explained, a celebration of drink accompanied by food between the hours of 6 and 9 pm.

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The taste journey included an array of flavours, bitter and sweet and tastings included Cynar, made from artichokes, Antica Formula Vermouth Pregiato, Montenegro, Averna and Chartreuse.

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Francesco Lafranconi 

ABSOLUT – Jameson – Havana Club

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Pernod Ricard: Ben Davidson and Grace McGlynn, Dusty Rose and Berry Sour cocktails, the Jameson Irish Whisky and Havana Club stand

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Ben McFarlane and the Pernod Ricard bar

Cocktail Island was held over two days on Saturday 19 and Sunday 20 November 2011 with a trade day on the following Monday. Cockatoo Island is reached by ferry from Circular Quay.

Gourmantic attended the event as media guests. Many thanks to all the bartenders, brand ambassadors and exhibitors for their time over the days we attended.

For a photo gallery of the event, visit Gourmantic on Facebook where you can “Like” the page and tag your friends.

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About the author

Corinne Mossati

Corinne Mossati is a drinks writer, author of GROW YOUR OWN COCKTAIL GARDEN, SHRUBS & BOTANICAL SODAS and founder/editor of Gourmantic, Cocktails & Bars and The Gourmantic Garden. She has been writing extensively about spirits, cocktails, bars and cocktail gardening in more recent years. She is a spirits and cocktail competition judge, Icons of Whisky Australia nominee, contributor to Diageo Bar Academy, cocktail developer and is named in Australian Bartender Magazine's Top 100 Most Influential List. Her cocktail garden was featured on ABC TV’s Gardening Australia and has won several awards. She is a contributor to Real World Gardener radio program and is featured in several publications including Pip Magazine, Organic Gardener, Australian Bartender and Breathe (UK). Read the full bio here.