Castlemaine in Five Drinks

4 February 2020. Words by Pat Underwood.

Pat Underwood, the winemaker behind the Little Reddie label, and founding member of the Boomtown Wine cooperative in the old Castlemaine Woolen Mill, gives us the inside running to the people and places of Castlemaine. As always, it’s a tale told through the lens of five favourite drinks.

My parents moved into a house in Campbell’s Creek in March. I was born in April, 1991. Campbell’s Creek is a small town to the south that isn’t truly disconnected from Castlemaine. There were many young families moving to Castlemaine around the same time as my folks did, quite a few of them more left wing and creative than the born and breds.

Since then, the town has grown, in population and in reputation, and developed a sort of pseudo-metropolitan culture. I say pseudo because it’s near impossible to get a drink after midnight, but it’s a lot easier to come across a decent coffee in Castlemaine than most comparable towns.

In 2014, two friends, Tim Sproal and Jarad Curwood, dragged me back home from working between Gembrook Hill in the Yarra Valley and the City Wine Shop on Spring Street. Together, we set up a shared winery at The Mill in the town itself. Boomtown Wine became a fairly wild adventure in winemaking – learning, and some partying too. We shared equipment and ideas and a lot of hard work. After five years at Boomtown, I’m now moving on to the next thing and focusing on my label, Little Reddie.

Moments happen in Castlemaine that feel very real and can be very fun. Here are five drinks and some people who are most likely to bring on these experiences.

Pat Underwood at work.

Maidenii Dry Vermouth (RRP $45)

Maidenii is a well-known project from bartender Shaun Byrne and Castlemaine icon Gilles Lapalus. For me, the dry vermouth is one of the classiest Australian drinks. I have it over ice with a dash of soda and a slice of orange. Botanicals include wormwood, strawberry gum, wattle seed, river mint, sea parsley, kaffir lime leaf, nigella seed, Japanese gentian root. It’s so fresh and balanced. If you want to extend yourself, head to the Theatre Royal and ask Loudon for a Tuxedo Spritz featuring the Maidenii Dry.

Henry of Harcourt ‘Kingston Black’ (RRP $20)

Harcourt is just north of Castlemaine and lies at the base of Mount Alexander. There are a few cider projects going on in Harcourt, but Drew Henry was undisputedly the visionary. He was also a gently helpful figure in the valley. Drew passed recently following an accident on the farm, and so it’s even more important to pay a visit to the family’s beautiful cellar door. I love to stop at Henry of Harcourt, taste through their ciders and choose a bottle to take up the mountain. Pack a cup, relax on the granite. Time and place here big time. I choose the Kingston Black. It’s a vintage cider made from one of the most sought-after English cider apples, the Kingston Black. It’s a very savoury drink, with cut grass aromatics, a dry, honeyed palate, and a woody texture finishing tart and moreish. Current release is 2014. It’s a bargain.

The bar at the Red Hill Hotel

2018 Minim Vermentino (RRP $38)

Tim Sproal is a very good bloke. His wine label Minim has grown slowly over nearly a decade. The wines are now, in my mind, some of the most consistently delicious and interesting in Victoria. My favourite wine of Tim’s is the 2018 Vermentino, which comes from Redesdale, a little further north of Mt Alexander. The wine experiences a long gentle ferment on skins and a long oxygen-heavy élevage. The wine is textured and nuanced. It has lovely savoury fruit and a quartz-like minerality. Very satisfying umami here. You can enjoy this wine at the winery itself; the cellar door is simple and cool. Drink there or head across the road to the botanical gardens – the guys will lend you some glasses.

Speed King ($10)

For many years, Coffee Basics Kaffeehaus (main photo at top of page) was the central attraction of a repurposed hospital on the far side of town. Their coffee was roasted in the ‘crema-torium’. Seriously. The once-used-to-burn-body-parts crematorium was home to the coffee roaster for a number of years. Wild stuff. Elna Schaerf-Trauner gave me my first job. Elna very patiently taught me some ropes and put up with my rubbish. She taught me about passion too. Her frustration over a bad espresso is like a dark mirror for her joy of a good one. The café has grown into Das Kaffeehaus. Das Kaffeehaus is amazing. It’s outrageous and over the top and beautiful. It’s little Vienna on steroids. The chimney is no longer a former crematorium – now a former wool mill smokestack just next door to Boomtown. Have a coffee. But, here’s the tip: the Speed King. Elna says she invented this drink in Vienna in the 80s. It is a seriously invigorating blend of lemon juice, vodka and red bull over crushed ice. It’s not a vodka red bull, so don’t try and say it is. It is so good. It’s off menu, so ask politely and enjoy.

Old Slang ‘Fresh as a Daisy’ Pale Ale ($6.50 a pot, 285ml)

The Red Hill is the best pub to eat at in Castlemaine. It’s a beautiful old building a little out of town in Chewton. The food is fresh and well seasoned, the drinks list interesting and accessible, and the service enthusiastic and friendly. Drink an Old Slang at the bar, a brewed-for-purpose ale that’s heaps better than drinking CUB. The bevvy’s maker Sam Wills is often hanging around the bar and beams with pride when one’s being poured.

Sunset over the Red Hill Hotel.

Pat Underwood’s motivation for working shifts in a pub in his native Castlemaine was to save some money to study music in Melbourne. But a friendship with Jarad Curwood (Chapter Wines), the bar manager at the time, led to a life-long (so far) detour into wine. That first foray into hospitality led to a long stint at the City Wine Shop in Melbourne, as well as plenty of vintage work. When Curwood and Tim Sproal (Minim Wine) lured Underwood back to be part of the Boomtown Wine cooperative in the old Castlemaine Woolen Mill, his fate was sealed. Today, Underwood focuses his attention on his own label, Little Reddie.