What’s the first thing you think of when it comes to Margaret River?

Sarah McPhee
(Australian Associated Press)

What’s the first thing you think of when it comes to Margaret River?

Chances are, it’s wine.

A total of 220 wine producers call the Western Australian pocket home, and they turn out more than a quarter of Australia’s premium drops.

The region is so renowned for its wines that viticulture – the science, production and study of grapes – is taught at the local high school.

But away from the countless vineyards on the rolling green hills, something is brewing. And it tastes nothing like shiraz.

Located a three-hour drive south of Perth, Margaret River has long been a bucket list destination for foodies and wine connoisseurs, but rarely one for those who prefer spirits or beer.

The Margaret River Gourmet Escape festival, held every year for the past five years, attracts the best of the best in cooking across the globe to celebrate the region’s food and drinks.

It was crowned the country’s Best Tourism Event at the Australian Event Awards in September.

Nigella Lawson, Rick Stein and two of the world’s best female chefs – Dominique Crenn and Ana Ros – all turned up in 2016.

Adam Liaw, Guy Grossi and Guillaume Brahimi pulled up a seat too, while executive chefs Aaron Carr (Vasse Felix), Seth James (Wills Domain) and Dany Angove (Leeuwin Estate) waved the Margaret River flag.

But much to my surprise as I wandered around the festival’s main attraction – the Gourmet Village, nestled in the grounds of Leeuwin Estate – I noticed revellers weren’t queuing for wine.

I joined them, shoulder-to-shoulder, outside Limeburners’ pop-up stall, as the Margaret River distillery sold countless bottles of its single malt whisky before completely running out of its official event gin.

Billy Phillips, who manages Morries bar in the centre of town with executive chef Tony Howell, says the business jumped at the chance to fulfil this customer craving.

“After a day of wine tasting, a lot of people are pretty ready for something else,” the 33-year-old says.

“The wines definitely put Margaret River on the map but Limeburners is just making outstanding whisky, and I think it is one of the tightest areas for breweries in the country.”

Phillips, crowned WA Barman of the Year in 2015 and a WA finalist in this year’s The Perfect Blend national contest, says Morries reopened early last year as a darker, smaller cocktail bar after four years as a dawn-till-dusk cafe.

“We went for breakfast, lunch, dinner, cocktails, wine bar, coffee shack,” Phillips says.

“That was kind of what the town could’ve used back then, but a lot of other businesses opened up and places got more specialised.

“It’s hard to sell cocktails at 8am. We’re all doing what we’re passionate about now.”

The local institution is packed every night of the week, with tasty small plates of masterstock pork belly, twice-cooked Japanese chicken, “drunken” whitebait and venison carpaccio adorning the menu.

“It’s been going great. They added the two cocktail taps when we did the change,” Phillips says.

“The plan was to really create an alternative to the wineries in town.”

He says the idea of batching cocktails and producing drinks in bulk has made him think “more with a chef’s brain”.

And it’s paying off.

“That was kind of one of the biggest things that opened my eyes. What can we get finished in the drink before the customer even walks in the door?” he says.

“I just kind of see what trends are going on everywhere and I’m always learning new techniques, using nitrogen, shrubs, making my own bitters.

“I guess it’s also about having a local approach, trying to use what we have here wherever and whenever possible.”

The cocktails at Morries range from old classics such as espresso martinis to seasonal specials, including this summer’s “Fat Coconut” – a combination of coconut fat-washed rum, lychee, homemade pomegranate syrup and kaffir lime leaf.

But despite Phillips’ inventive concoctions, old habits die hard.

“The Rum Boat Float has been on the list since day one,” Phillips says.

It’s a combination of lemon, lime demerara sugar and passionfruit, shaken vigorously with Matusalem classico rum and a dash of maraschino liqueur then strained over ice into a jar.

“There are people that don’t even look at the menu,” Phillips says.

“They come in and say ‘Rum Boat Float’ and they stay on them all night.”

He says he dreams of one day offering a completely local and organic cocktail menu.

“It’d be pretty cool if we could do that,” Phillips says.

“And I think Margaret River is the kind of place where you could.”

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Margaret River is a three-hour (270km) drive from Perth. Qantas and Virgin Australia fly to Perth from all Australian state and territory capital cities, including Hobart via Melbourne. Jetstar covers departures from most capitals, plus Cairns. Tigerair operates flights to Perth from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Regional Express runs to Perth from Albany and Esperance. Air New Zealand currently offers direct flights to Perth from Christchurch and Auckland.

STAYING THERE: The 4.5 star Eight Willows Retreat, formerly Willy Bay Resort, is a 20-minute drive from Margaret River town and offers 24 luxury self-catering chalets with complimentary breakfast baskets and the option for gourmet platters, picnic baskets and warm croissants. For more, visit eightwillowsretreat.com.au

PLAYING THERE: The sixth annual Margaret River Gourmet Escape will be held from November 17-19, 2017. Early bookings for transfers and accommodation are advised. For more, visit gourmetescape.com.au

Morries is open from midday till late daily, located at 2/149 Bussell Hwy, Margaret River. Visit morries.com.au

* The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism WA.

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