Brendan Carter from Applewood Distillery

We talk to Brendan Carter from Applewood Distillery about the Australian Amaro, Økar – why it was created and in what cocktails it works best.

By: Tiff Christie|May 14,2019

As the world’s palettes become a little more bitter, we talk to Brendan Carter from Applewood Distillery about Økar.

While some people may be confused by an Australian Amaro, Carter explains that are native botanicals are well suited for a more bitter taste.

Yet the cocktails that Økar works best with are, surprisingly, on the more Tiki side of the drinks spectrum.



[00:00:45] – Tell us a little about Applewood Distillery
[00:01:23] – Why would an Australian distillery choose to do an Amaro?
[00:04:05] – How close should the spirits that we produce be to the land in which we live?
[00:06:07] – What natural botanicals are in the Økar?
[00:07:01] – Are the Desert Limes you use in Økar like Finger Limes?
[00:12:12] – Were bartenders waiting for an Australian-based Amaro?
[00:14:02] – How is Økar different in taste from a European Amaro?
[00:16:18] – When you were creating Økar, how did you imagine it would be used?
[00:18:31] – What flavours can they mix with it?
[00:20:31] – Are you talking about typical Tiki?
[00:23:40] – What ingredients are in the Galah cocktail?
[00:23:57] – And all the ingredients can be sourced through Australian distilleries?
[00:25:01] – When is Økar Gold set to be released?
[00:25:59] – How do you want people to use Økar?
[00:26:30] – What sort of food pairings does Økar work with?
[00:28:00] – Should an Australian Amaro, that isn’t like an Amaro, still be called Amaro?
[00:29:03] – Brand progression
[00:29:51] – Where does the name come from?
[00:30:50] – Thank you for joining us and where Økar is available …


Read Full Transcript

We are here with Brendan Carter from Applewood Distillery. Tell us a little bit about Applewood

Applewood was a bit of an idea conceptualised by myself and my wife Laura about 5/6 years ago where the concept was to really start to monetise native Australian ingredients and showcase them in more approachable ways on a global scale, across the whole planet to really talk about Australian culture and sights and soils and lifestyle and put native ingredients on a pedestal for a lot of people.

Why would you choose then to do an Amaro which is so commonly associated with French or Italian drinking?
It is interesting for you to say that because with Applewood and with every single thousands of litres of gin that we produce we use around about 50 kilograms of native ingredients. But for every 1,000 litres of Amaro that we produce we use around about 400, so our way of measuring our personal success in this business isn’t necessarily monetary it’s about swallowing up large amounts of native ingredients and monetising them for farmers so they will take a second look at it. So Økar aligns more strongly with that particular performance indicator. In terms of it being a French, Italian sort of style that is something that very recently we are starting to morph and change the direction of Økar into entertaining this concept of Australiana and realising that and I think the positioning of Økar is not necessarily about trying to mimic or replicate Italian culture. Reviewing it very much so, they pretty much created the entire category. But accepting ours we actually see Økar’s applications less so in Italian based cocktails and more actually in Tiki based cocktails. I know that sounds very early but we have been most inspired by a particular cocktail that is quite contentious in bartender circles called the Jungle Bird which was very contentious because it mixed rum with Campari and how dare they. And I am like that is great because we are a massive island nation, bitterness is regarded as being refreshing here and we smash rum like there is no tomorrow so yes, I think that is a more applicable use for Økar as an Australian Amaro. I think we are now looking to blur those lines between Italian and Ireland based culture which I think we could aptly do. Yes, you weren’t expecting that were you. [much laughter]
So yeah it’s been a really fun thing. As I said Økar is about trying to reconnect people back with land at an esoteric standpoint but also just to introduce something completely new that bartenders haven’t been really exposed to before. I really do believe, and I adore Campari for how accurately it reflects the vibrancy and almost delicate sweetness of fresh Italian produce, I mean anyone that travels to Italy just knows that inherently. I spent a lot of time growing up there funnily enough but I think Økar can tell a just as legitimate story but from a different place, from our place.

How close should our products be to the land and also to the nature of what is Australian?
I think intrinsically it has to be very, very close, incredibly close. There is a fine line between replication and reverence and the thing is quite often it is in the Australian psyche to replicate or do rifts on things. I’d very much like to entertain the concept of just creating something entirely, entirely brand new, completely genuine and that would speak about our culture, our land and help even Australians identify their own culture and also be able to share that in a really fun and approachable and non-patriotic way of other cultures. I think we, and it’s always been a bit of a thing in Australia, that we lack definition in our culture. You and I could both write two paragraphs about Australian culture and say completely different things. But we are one of the few cultures in Australia that still has this issue. It’s not because we are young and it’s not because we are multi-cultural because New Zealand has Kia Ora on every single piece of marketing materials that they issue to other cultures. They even say it to themselves and they are a younger country than we are. You look at Singapore which is immensely younger and you try and say to any Singaporean that Malaysian Luxor is superior and they fly off the handle. So a broad acceptance to what it means to be Australian I think should be reflected in the two great tools that we have to be able to develop a culture which is essentially food and booze, they are the two great cultural lubricants. So what is Australian food, what is Australian booze then, they are the esoteric things that we get to have a play with and challenge and push people and break status quos with when it comes to crafting something like Australian gin, what is that, let’s have some fun. Australian Amaro well that's pretty whacked. You know we are playing around with outback Amaro’s looking at honey ants and stuff like this. These are flavours that the rest of the world doesn’t get to appreciate and we get to showcase in really fun and creative ways.

Talking about the native botanicals that you have used in the Økar what are we looking at?
Between Applewood and Økar there is a real dichotomy because it’s sort of the opposite to what we assumed when we first started. You would think to say for example for a gin you would be looking at coastal and fresh and vibrant citrus botanicals. We actually found a lot more success at looking at botanicals for Applewood gin from the desert areas, which is odd, so we are looking at Wattleseed, Peppermint Gumleaf and predominantly Desert Limes. So most of Australia is starting to understand I think the concept of Finger Limes, particularly in the hinterland around Byron Bay, but Desert Limes come from the Flinders Ranges, about 4, 5, 6 hours north of Adelaide, and it also happened to rear their head in northern WA as well, so two odd spots. Citrus glaucha … amazing … one of the rarest citruses on earth.

Are they like finger limes in the flavour?
You will get to try some actually. You can eat them, they are fantastic. They are completely different to finger lines, they are very savoury citrus and they don’t have those really powerful vesicles of juice that you can manhandle, they are almost like a berry. Very, very small but absolutely delicious. You can literally just plough through them. Again they are bitter things so you have to love the bitterness. I am yet to find an overtly sweet native ingredient from Australia to be honest and that was one of those when life gives you lemons moments when it came to Økar. So when Australia gives you the greatest wealth of bitter botanicals in the world then make bitters and we actually originally made Økar as a bit of a joke, as a bit of oh let’s give this a shot and we didn’t realise parochial bartenders were waiting for a product for this all Australian Negroni which we didn’t necessarily push initially. We were just trying to make an Amaro that was the broader goal but Økar we actually bound as a bitter Amaro we found solace in native ingredients from the coastal areas of Australia, the coastal rainforest areas so we were looking predominantly at rye berries, Davidson plums, finger limes, strawberry gum leaf from the tablelands of NSW so these sort of more brighter high toned aromatic things or high acid things that did remarkably well so yes it was a real sort of, once we had fine-tuned those two recipes we took an A20 look at both our sort of key products between Applewood and Økar and yes Applewood’s ingredients were from areas of less than 300mls of rainfall and all the stuff for Økar was from areas north of the metre of rainfall. Very strange, it was just an oddity, we didn’t plan on that.
If you look at bitter Amaro it’s not actually from anything coastal. Like Campari is close to all alpine botanical, gentian root, predominantly liquorice root, angelica root, they all come from mountainous areas inside Italy. But as you move down Italy and this is the really key thing about Amaro for us was that with gin we don’t have juniper in Australia. We have a native juniper, Myoporum insulare, it’s really nothing like Juniperus officialas, it’s really completely distinct from it but the ability of being able to swallow up and use those native ingredients in a format as approachable as gin is incredibly thrilling. When it comes to Amaro you think about how Amaro has evolved historically or traditionally and it’s around those areas that have a rich vibrancy of different botanicals but they don’t want to be utilising, or they also might make wine in that area or make other things in that area, but they won’t try and craft a beverage, a drink that is reflective of the botanical nature of that specific area. That is why Campari is very much around live say Padua, like well north of Italy and as you move down Italy and I am choosing Italy as a key example of this because they probably do it better than anyone else in my opinion, but if you go right down and have a look in Sicily, for example, Averno, I would not necessarily call Averno a very bitter thing even though Averno literally means bitter in Italian. It’s quite sweet and it’s got coffee in it and heavy amounts of citrus in it and you kind of look at where it is made, in Sicily where there is lots of coffee and heavy amount of citrus and sweetness makes sense and they don’t really have a wealth of bitter things there. They have got a few and they put them in there as well and Averno is an expression therefore of Sicilian culture. You see this all the way, you see it in Apulia and Campania, Lamarca and Tuscany, as you continue up the country the spread of the botanicals that they use in their locality completely changes. Cynar for example, artichokes, or there is a really great one from Campania which name escapes me at the moment, it will come to me, that is based on rocket. A fricking rocket Amara and it is delicious, it’s awesome. I spent a lot of time in Campania growing up and I taste it and I say I taste Campania, I get it. I totally get it. Quite often when we show Økar to people around the world who have travelled to Australia before and they have done the whole outback thing, they go wow I taste Australia and for me I am like great, we have nailed it, we have absolutely nailed that. We just want people to be able to connect with our land.
It’s really interesting showcasing Økar to places like India where they have such a connection to high toned aromatic spices and I am yet to see another culture extract such flavour out of vegetables like folk in India or Indian predominant nations can and when they taste Økar it’s like this eye-opening thing and we didn’t expect this because there is such a fascination with flavour, especially botanically derived flavour. They are tasting things that they have no past standard for and it’s a just complete utter fascination, not like eww that’s not for me, it’s like wow how did you achieve that. I think that is a really great and positive way to be able to share a culture isn’t it? It’s like well I can show you how we achieve that, I would like to share that with you. I think that is the powerful tool that we can do with something that is botanically based.

You said before that bartenders were waiting for an Australian based Amaro, tell me about that
Obviously the distillation and craft distillation industry in Australia has really flourished in the last couple of years and keep in mind that we released Økar and Red Økar had two products; one that was more like an aperitif and one that was more designed as a bitter Amaro style I believe we were the first to do that and a lot of bartenders were seeing like a lot of firsts during that time, oh wow, first, awesome whisky I tried from Starwood, wow a whole bunch of new Aussie gins, there wasn’t just Four Pillars and Archie Rosa, there was us and NBC and West Winds at the time and then now it has gone full crazy and there are hundreds available so bartenders were searching and waiting for oh well what is going to be next and we have seen this probably by one of my favourite producers in Marionette where they have gone well everyone is doing gin, we are going to cater for people that actually use Curacao Cassis or Apricot Brandy actually taste like and bartenders have gone oh wow that is something new again. We do love the new but we also love the local thing. We didn’t know the bartenders were waiting, our mentality when it comes to crafting spirits is and probably to our detriment a lot of the times not related to how to build a strong brand. It is purely how to utilise native ingredients in the best way possible. That is our 110% motivation. Suddenly we find these things out generally after the fact, that’s luck I think perhaps.

So if somebody is tasting the Økar for the first time and if they are familiar with a range of Amaros, how will they find it different, what will they taste?
Herbaciousness is going to be one of the key things. We are really trying to capture the esoteric term but more ethereal nature of the Australian landscape and outback. That said everything does hail from the coastal rain forest so you would generally going to be picking up on things like clove, you will be picking up on the strawberry gum leaf which is, I would probably not describe it more so as a strawberry but more a passionfruit flavour, almost like a guava flavour but there is a definite herbaciousness there that isn’t really present in a lot of other Amaros. Quite often when people smell Økar they’ll have this reminiscence of Fernet, due to that menthol eucalyptol effect that Fernet has and they achieve that by using immense amounts of saffron but we are achieving it through using a very little tiny, tiny amounts of eucalyptus and I do think that is one of the things that people do quite often remark about. It’s sort of like if you have ever been camping as a kid, walking through essentially undergrowth on a foggy or a humid day you end up getting these very nostalgic aromas. For those that obviously are used to tasting Bitter Amaros you will probably find Økar has a little bit more lingering bitterness but not lesser sweetness. We have gone through derivations of Økar, we have gone from something that was very much experimental to something that was intentional which was to increase bitterness and make it more present but it was less Bitter Amaro but became a Fernet style very quickly and since then in the last 8, 9 months since the latest batch has been released its very much more along those lines of usability in cocktails I think was a big thing. I mean how often do people walk into a bar and just go yes give me two shots of that on ice, very little and then again our way of measuring success is tied to using those botanicals but also communicating about Australia culture. If we can do that in a cocktail sense then we are going to be elevating what we are doing, even further enricher, yes stronger.

When you were constructing it how did you imagine it was going to be used?
We didn’t think it was going to be used, it was sort of launched as a bit of a joke but we had to learn how people have responded to it. We started off looking at what Amari does, what does every cocktail bar does in the world that doesn’t have a competitor seemingly and that was Campari and that was a bit of a mistake because I have an admiration for Italian culture and Campari speaks very strongly about that, there is no way in hell that we are ever going to be able to speak to that culture or speak about that culture as strongly as Campari can and the one culture we can speak about is Australian culture. That is something that no one else can speak about and someone is going to start so we decided to make that start and really tried to fine-tune about 12 months ago about what we were doing with Økar and that really influenced the latest blend and it’s really influencing a lot with what we are talking to with bartenders. We didn’t imagine that they would for example during Negroni Week do like an Aussie versus traditional or Aussie versus classic which was pretty endearing. I was very humbled by that but we affectionately call it either the Negroonie or the Notgronie when it is used with Økar because I do believe a lot of respect needs to be paid to brands like Campari that have managed to craft an immensely I would say minimalist cocktail in an absolutely incredible way and be able to communicate that on a global scale. We would never be able to take that away from them but I do believe that we have the ability to offer something new to bartends and I think bartenders are very appreciative of when we are trying to find something completely new to give them and also their customers as well really appreciate that as well. I mean that’s the key thing, not for focusing, oddly enough we tend not to focus so much on bartenders as we do focus on their customers. I think that has been a hallmark to our relative success.

So when someone takes a bottle of it home what flavours can they look to try and mix with it?
I would generally go towards citruses because Australia’s native botanicals seem to handle citrus really well and Australia well has probably the greatest wealth of rare citruses that we don’t know about and don’t identify with, say something like as basic as apple with gin when people go what do I garnish it with and I am like just lime. Just bring it back to something normal. And if you want to do it really well, if the best garnish for things like Økar and Applewood the actually best is just a lemon myrtle leaf. That is all it needs. If you are looking to mix it with anything I would be looking towards lighter, some more mild tonics, bitter lemon awesome really would be really good. Soda is a basic thing but again that is a bit of a riff but the greatest success that I have seen with Økar has been with rum. Or even tequila, that was a bit of an interesting one. That is like, again another riff, was like obviously like Mezcal Negroni but Mezcal with Økar as well, worked really well, that was cool. But we are seeing the lines being blurred with Økar between what would be considered Italian beverages and Tiki beverages and that is actually where we even go out as a team and we see other way more creative bartenders than we are playing around with Økar that’s where we have these massive lightbulb moments is when basically Tiki starts to take over. I know that sounds really odd but if you actually consider for a second being you know we are the largest island nation, we identify with being an island nation, and straight away we are seeing something being elevated beyond what we ever thought you could do with like a singular beverage when it’s being mixed and reorganised and chopped and changed.

When you are talking about Tiki are you looking at the typical Orgeat, Pineapple Juice, those sort of things?
Exactly right, in fact so the key cocktail that is known where they started to mix was the Jungle Bird, that contentious, lovely thing between Campari and rum so here in Australia riffs and that have gradually evolved and evolved to be not really reminiscent with the original Jungle Bird, even how it’s served as changed, everything has changed and it’s also changed its name to the Galah and its actually starting to adorn on a variety of different bartenders cocktail lists. Or even again derivations of that. I always have and I think the way bartending is going is really following fine dining where you used to go out and you used to get a dish and the dish was like our crudo, this is our pasta, this is our pizza, we have these names for things, sort of like going out and getting this is our martini, this is our old-fashioned etc. Now we are starting to see the rise of fine dining where they are not even giving you the name of the dish, they are just telling you the ingredients that are in it, like this is kale chips, croquets and etc etc on a plate and they plate it up in a different way and that is the meal or the dish and we are starting to see this in places like Maybe May and we are seeing this in Bulletin Place for example and a lot of what I would say the more creative cocktail areas.
Culinary-influenced cocktail bars?
Culinary, yes for sure, technique influenced certainly for sure, that is a really good way to put it where they go here’s a name and the name has nothing to do with anything apart from their esoteric vision of the cocktail and here’s the ingredients and that’s it. They don’t tell you how it is prepared, they don’t tell you anything like this and you put your trust in the bartender to deliver you a drink. And it’s interesting that moment of confusion causes, just like in fine dining. You look at this and it’s like you know what I don’t know what any of this is because it doesn’t say spaghetti, doesn’t say these words that are a dish, it just says what’s in it so the first thing you do is you ask the waiter or waitress, talk me through the menu. It’s the same thing that you suddenly open this thing and it’s not like ok yes, bartender give me a gimlet, yes sweet, cool. You are actually going look do you mind just talking us through these things and you will get that sort of back and forth with that bartender so you are having this amazing element of service being applied to more modern cocktail bar lists which I think is really quite important because I think bartenders for a long time have been silent out of necessity but now we are giving them a voice and a full creative freedom to be able to introduce new into the world. I am a big proponent of bringing new stuff to the world. If we bring in the new classics, like what is the next big cocktail, what’s the next, what’s the Australian cocktail because we know the Italian and French ones, we know the American ones, what is the Australian cocktail. What story can we tell the rest of the world.

Speaking of that and you mentioned the Galah, what are the ingredients in that?
Orgeat Syrup, Pineapple Juice, Lime Juice, Økar of course and dark Rum. Pretty much all shaken together and served in a cocktail glass or a Coupette glass.

And every one of those can be sourced through an Australian producer
They can absolutely and we would encourage that as well a) because of the parochialism b) because of just sheer quality, you are always going to get high quality from Australian based products because they are local, travelled less and fresher typically but the other one we have been playing on is a twist on the Italian Dandy called the Australian Poppy which has been utilising a, oh this is a first, you are the first person to hear about this outside of our internal service, we are working on like a vintage release for Økar called Økar Gold which is a bit of a riff and is a riff because we were playing around with a few different botanicals that we just couldn’t get to work but with Strager(?) or Yellow Chartreuse where we are planning around with another fun thing and just as a very small release.

When is that looking to come out?
I believe in about a month and it will be a small run of about 1,000 500 mil bottles as well but the branding is looking very good and fun at the moment.
So hit your website in about a month to see …
Of course website and obviously parochial independent bars and bottle shops will tend to stock it as well. We are having a bit more fun these days. I would love to be able to do like an aromatic bitters, like an Australian aromatic bitters, how good would that be. Imagine going into, my ultimate measure of success is to walk into a pub and be like I will just have a lemon, line and bitters thanks and they are using Økar bitters. I mean how sick would that me. We have managed to become so mainstream that Joe Public, Mr Blue Collar can walk into their country rural pub and just get lemon, lime and bitters and it is an Aussie bitters, that is really cool you know.

Now if somebody buys a bottle of Økar and takes it home, how do you want them to use it, experience it.
It’s a tough one because everyone needs a cocktail kit at home to be able to really experience it to its fullest. The easiest way of course is to go on the established more minimalist cocktails like Italian riffs. Of course everyone is already mixing Negronis at home so give it a go with that. Try to vary amounts to vary sweetness but my simplest, simplest go to is just Økar and soda, straight up.

And what sort of food pairings?
That’s a really good one, you will like this, dessert. I know, let’s screw the Aperitivo, let’s just go Digestivo with this, seriously. I have a big love of affinity with Økar and sorbets, cheeses … absolutely, big big fan. It’s actually really interesting because desserts like fruit, absolutely. Again we tried pairing this up with Aperitivo hour, we tried pairing this up with Salami and olives and stuff like that and have just like a quick little tapas style bites or even spicy things like endura(?) No, it didn’t work. When we started smashing pineapple fruit bowls, when we started looking at fruit tarts, pastries, it worked really well and the flavours were aligning and things were working in cohesion, people were having a good time, people were smiling, laughing, giggling. Like we were clearly on to something and that’s just continued to fuel this, and even me talking about it sounds very weird saying Økar is more a Tiki drink but if you have seen what I have seen it is actually quite easy to make the connection.

Being an Australian product should it be not working necessarily the way a traditional Amaro would perhaps work, should it still be called an Amaro?
That’s a really good one, yes totally, probably not. We have toyed with the idea of just calling it Australian Bitter because to be honest in Australia people don’t even get what Amaro is. It is not derogatory but when I go to the States Amaro is normal, like cool go and get a bottle of Amaro … Italian culture is very pervasive there. It should be very pervasive here but we have never been educated on Amaro, we have been educated on brands, so when we talk about oh yes it’s an Amaro they go what’s an Amaro? Have you heard of Campari, yes, well that is probably one of the world’s most famous ones. Then we work down a list, have you heard of Montenegro, Cynar, Averno, Braulio, you know these other things to try and find the link to get people to there but I think that makes a really good point and we have been toying with this quite recently.

Are you hoping that eventually Økar will become so synonymous with what it is, that just having that word and dropping the Amaro will be how the brand progresses
We had this very pie in the sky idea ages ago, we were trying to encourage other brands to release an Økar and actually either license the name where 100% from the license fees goes to like an indigenous community or some sort of foundation that would foster better growth of these ingredients and actually establish an appellation of what an Økar is because that would be really cool because you have got Fernets, Amaros, aperitifs, so why can’t we just have Økars, it’s a very easy thing to pronounce in all cultures.

Where does the name come from?
The colour of the soil, ochre and the spelling of it and we often get asked about the little dash that goes through the Ø which is actually quite intentional because the way Australians say the word O is actually quite unique. So the way that we say ‘no’ the ‘o’ is very round, we almost draw it out, instead of if you are Scottish it is Nor. We actually have a very distinct way of pronouncing the word O, so we decided to do this as a bit of a cool thing, let’s do it phonetically, how an Australian would pronouce the word Økar … that’s a bit of trivia. A lot of people are like are you guys Danish or something like that and we go no, we are just idiots.

Thank you for joining us, and Økar is available nationwide through specialty liquor stores
Yes a few Dan Murphy’s depending on the state you are in, particularly the flagship stores, the really nice pretty ones. But we are starting to get it out more and more as people are standing to understand and figure it out pretty much. Internationally it is available in Hong Kong, Sweden, New Zealand and soon to be the States which will be very exciting.

When would the States be coming up, in the next sort of 6 months?
Yes definitely when the FDA decides to understand what the hell is a wattle seed, that’s a tough thing getting it through FDA approval, what’s a rye berry, what is a wattle seed but I would definitely anticipate in the next six months for sure.

To buy a bottle of Økar, for more info on Økar or to be updated on the release of Økar Gold go to

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