The streets of the Little Lon area of Melbourne’s CBD have seen some pretty strange things over the years. A former slum and red-light area of the Victorian capital, Little Lon has been home to prostitutes, pretty criminals and larrikins.
Where once it would have witnessed debauchery on a high scale, these days, the action is a little more like a scene from Breaking Bad. Sure, no hazmat suits are involved, but it’s all a little industrially suspicious, none-the-less.
“We reverse the van down here and fling the doors open, then the hoses come out,” said Brad Wilson, owner and distiller for Little Lon Distillery, the only distillery located within the bounds of Melbourne’s CBD. “We make our own wash off-site and then pump it into our fermenting tanks in the small room. We have two 300 litre tanks, so it’s small scale.
Located in the last single-storey building in Melbourne city, the distillery is surrounded by skyscrapers, which dwarf the building which formerly housed a brother and sly grog shop. 17 Casselden Place may be tiny but Wilson has made the space work as a distillery without an inch to spare. In fact, Wilson has also installed a fully functional, albeit small, bar area and describes the building as “possibly the most precious building in Melbourne”.
“The small size requires a lot more work, a lot more time, probably a lot more cost. It may not make great business sense at this stage, but people are enjoying the difference in the spirit and, the fact we’re doing it the old way, which ties into the history. It’s passion and love.”
Wilson certainly does have a passion for the history of the area, as well as the building itself. He has named all of the distilleries expressions after local historical characters, most of whom neatly tie into the botanicals and fruits that are locally available.
“So the first character we came across when we were developing our first gin was Ginger Mick. If you Google Little Lon, what comes up will be Ginger Mick who was a fictional character by CJ Dennis who was meant to have lived in the area, so the history is there.
The Moods of Ginger Mick has sold over 70,000 copies and tells the story of a violent larrikin who goes to war for his country, is wounded behind enemy lines and becomes a decorated hero. It was made into a silent film directed by Raymond Longford in 1920 as a sequel to The Sentimental Bloke (1919) and is considered a lost film.
Next in line was the Little Miss Yoko, a lychee gin that follows the story of Tiecom Ah Chung, aka Yokohama, who lived and worked out of 17 Casselden Place back in the 1920s. “She was quite unique. She was probably one of the very few Chinese females who lived in the area.
“She thought that women should be looking after themselves and not having male pimps. So she started this combine for women to start looking after each other and running their own businesses that way.
“We were trying to do something a little bit different, a little bit exotic and we started looking at what was available just down in the road in our supermarket and we knew lychees could give it that bit of sweetness and it seemed like an interesting experiment. So we popped our little lychees in our little gin basket and drew a couple of expressions of that and then thought we’d try a little bit of lemongrass.”
Proudfoot is their traditional London Dry expression, which is a robust gin to match the stature of the man for whom it’s named. “Constable Proudfoot was a real-life Little Lon plainclothes police constable. He’d pop into this cottage and the other homes and businesses in the area; he kept an eye on everything.
“I’ve seen some of the police reports from the time and just the simplicity of approach to working with people and being an arm of the law was amazing. He made sure everyone did what they were supposed to do and even though it was prostitution was illegal, they turned a blind eye if there were no issues and it didn’t cause any trouble.
“Rosemary would’ve grown in the front yard of these little cottages, with citrus trees probably in the backyards. Combine that with the robust flavours and the double juniper and we figured the providence is nice and close and goes with the story”.
Dutchy Thomas is their fourth gin, which is more of a modern genever. “We started making that probably before we started making gin, just through experimenting and learning. so it’s become more of a cleaner style of gin.
“I spent five months in Amsterdam and I loved going to all the distilleries. I was over there for advertising work but I used it for research while I was over there. I spent a lot of time checking out all the jenever distilleries. I think it’s such an underused spirit that has a lot of potential.
“Our version gets more malty on the nose, more complex, more grain quality. It’s still got the citrus but it’s crazy how different they are if you have a taste”.
Although Little Lon was one of the poorest parts of Melbourne with disease, slums and melting pot of immigration, Wilson is fascinated by the history and the characters that the area has produced. “It would’ve been an amazing time to be alive, it would’ve been rough, but it would’ve been extraordinary. Women hustling for jobs, men doing what they could for jobs, a lot of crime. Squidgy Taylor lived down the road just down here in one of the buildings.”
Although the distillery started five years ago, Wilson admits it took them a little while to find a home. It seems the wait was worth it as Casselden Place has provided Wilson with a chance to connect to the lost history of the city he loves. And it’s nice to imagine that the characters he has tried to bring to life with his expressions, may just be imbuing a little of their spirit into the spirits that the brand creates.
For more information or to be able to buy a bottle or participate in a masterclass, go to littlelondistillingco.com