When you think of absinthe, it's usually in a fancy glass with a sugar cube, being sipped by some frail French writer at the turn of the century — perhaps in the confines of a dingy underground den.
It's definitely not a morning drink, but here I am on a bright and sunny day on Tamborine Mountain, downing a shot of the ultra-alcoholic green stuff just a little before 11am.
Closer to the Gold Coast than where I started in Brisbane, we've driven for quite some time in the Vino Bus to get to this moment. The buildings of the city fade into sparse farmland along the way, before we begin our ascent to the mountain.
Despite the name of the tour, we're hitting the hard stuff first at the award-winning Tamborine Mountain Distillery.
Michael Ward — or "Unkle Michael" as he's also known — is the face of the place and he's what you'd describe as a "real character". He's on their Facebook page dressed as an Easter bunny, in a fetching frock for Mother's Day and as most appropriately, as Santa Claus — with his white hair and flowing beard, how could he not?
In the shop he's a bundle of energy, greeting visitors with jokes and hugs and lots and lots of samples of the distillery's uniquely flavoured vodkas and liqueurs.
Originally from England, Michael's wife Alla is from Russia — and she's the brainchild behind the products. When the couple moved to Australia, they originally lived in Tasmania before moving to a warmer climate for the sake of Alla's health.
It was in their new location in the lush Gold Coast hinterlands that she was inspired to create small batches of spirits using the offerings from the many fruit trees on the property, along with native Australian bush herbs. One of the first was a citrus flavoured vodka using grapefruits, oranges and lemons — appropriately named "The Bells of St Clemens". The resulting bottles were meticulously handpainted by Alla, in the traditional Russian designs.
After giving a few bottles to neighbours and friends, demand grew and the distillery took off.
The decorated bottles are a tradition that's continued to this day — every bottle of spirits is just as beautiful to look at as it is to drink. And there's an incredibly variety of it behind the counter, which Michael takes us through — with plenty of samples, of course. One of the highlights is the very popular wattle toffee liqueur, a delicious caramel drop that tastes fantastic on vanilla ice cream.
After a few too many samples, I'm building myself up to ask about one particularly interesting looking bottle — Moulin Roos absinthe, which features a very art deco looking kangaroo reclining languidly with a glass of the green fairy in one paw and a bottle in her pouch. Who could resist that?
I'm unsure whether I should be trying this famously hallucinogenic drink before lunchtime, but Michael insists I give it a hoon — a girl in my group is keen to knock one back as well, so at least I'm in good company.
It goes down much smoother than I expected, the aniseed taste lingering on my lips. It doesn't feel that long since I ate breakfast, but a shot of absinthe certainly awakes the senses — and makes the rest of the tour just a little bit hazy.
There's all sorts of other interesting and unusual ephemera around the place to look at before we leave — the other absinthe drinker and I have a good giggle over the set of Russian nesting dolls featuring notable Australian prime ministers. There's not an Abbott or Gillard in sight, but big John Howard graces the outside layer. Buying it for a drunken lark is out of the question though — at $187, these things don't come cheap. But we both purchase a bottle of the Moulin Roos.
Before long, it's time to get on to what the tour is all about. Queensland isn't generally what you'd think of as a wine-growing destination — the wine expert I'd met the night before was slightly surprised to hear about it — but at this elevation, the weather is milder and more conducive to grape growing. Our next stop, Witches Falls Winery is proof.
After the stinking heat of Brisbane, it's refreshing to be sitting at a shaded picnic table with rows of grape vines behind us and birdsong in the air — especially a when a cheese platter and multiple glasses of wine start arriving. The owner of Witches Falls, Jon Heslop, started his winemaking career in the Barossa Valley, before moving to Hunter Valley in NSW. However, his plan was always to move back to his home state of Queensland and make wine — against the advice of many.
The last spot is a sweet one — and also an opportunity to soak up some of the alcohol. At Cedar Creek Estate, one of the signature offerings is a chocolate port and we all enjoy a taste. But it's also time to soak it all up with a meal on the deck of the estate's restaurant, nicely complemented by a beautiful view over wetlands and bush. Unsurprisingly, it's a popular wedding venue.
While you might assume the name Tamborine refers to the instrument, you'd be mistaken. It's actually an anglicised version of an Aboriginal word, jambreen — which refers to a wild lime found in the area. But on that sleepy drive back, you will spot one musical instrument — in the form of a rock painted like a piano, a stalwart of the area for more than 50 years.
With steak in my belly washed down by Cedar Creek's fruity rose, I'm ready to doze off for most of the drive back to Brisbane.
flies daily from Auckland to Brisbane.
Further details: See tamborinemountaindistillery.com