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Helmsfolk – Finding Flinders and the Norfolk Gin (Pt.1)

Helmsfolk – Finding Flinders and the Norfolk Gin (Pt.1)


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The word ‘Gin’ as we know it today comes from the Dutch ‘Jenever’, and the Belgian ‘genièvre’ – both of which come from the Latin ‘juniperus’ meaning Juniper. Juniper is the core botanical ingredient that must be present for a gin to be called, ‘gin’.

Juniper has been used for its healing properties for thousands of years and is documented as far back as 1800-1500BC in Ancient Egypt in medicinal scrolls. Italian monks experimented distilling with botanicals – including juniper – since  the 11th century, and knowledge and processes of distillation slowly grew throughout Europe in the succeeding centuries. Juniper had made its way into distilled wine and spirits for medicinal purposes relatively widely by the 14th century. Various events helped to expedite the popularity of spirits as a drink, including poor grape harvests which affected wine production, and war which forced population movements. 

The rise of gin in Britain is often linked to Dutch-born William III who came to England in the late 1600s and seized the crown. He declared war on France and banned importation of French brandy which was incredibly popular in Britain. He also reduced distilling license restrictions which encouraged an open-slather on spirits production, including gin, which led to decades of national drunkenness and the notorious ‘Gin Craze’ of the 1700s. Gin was cheap to produce from base spirit, but it was not the refined drink we know today and it largely became an ailment of sorts for the poor. As gin’s popularity rose in Britain and Europe, it then made its way across the earth.

Gin has experienced various booms over its hundreds of years of history, though none quite as colourful as the past decade where it seems an exciting new gin crops up daily. In the history of the juniper-led spirit, this might well be its happy hour. The modern-day global gin industry is estimated at over US$14bn (2022) and projected to reach US$20bn annual revenue by 2028. There are many reasons for its prevalence in the market place but one major attribute is the versatility of the drink which has led to wonderful and seemingly endless variations. 

Of the thousands of new varieties of gins that have spilled onto the spirits scene, most have a unique and creative aspect to them and are imbued with the characteristics and botanicals of a place, a theme, area or time. Many are created specifically for a base visitor market segment – a fact that really meant a Norfolk Island inspired gin was only going to be a measure of time.  

Helmsfolk – a new company owned by Robin Nisbet and Trina Shepherd – was created to take up the challenge. Robin and Trina had each spent a large part of their lives on beautiful Norfolk Island and share a love of the island’s people, history, culture – and its stories of centuries of seafaring adventurers, travellers, explorers, convicts and mutineer descendants that journeyed across the oceans to make the island their home. 

Before Helmsfolk, Trina and Robin had known each other and worked well together through Norfolk Island projects for nearly fifteen years and would often jibe about creating a project together ’one of these days’. 

In 2020 that would become a more meaningful series of discussions about Norfolk Island themed gins – an ideal way to put that jibe into action and create the first of a series of unique spirits to celebrate Norfolk Island’s fascinating story and its beautiful botanicals. Robin and Trina weren’t really interested in making a gin for the sake it, and there needed to be something to learn and story to share. They work-shopped what they could do to create a brand and a product with a unique lilt – something that encompassed the beauty and spirit of Norfolk Island, yet shares and celebrates a part of the island’s story and connects Norfolk Island with the visitor and also what lies at the heart of their own journeys.

Robin tells us, “together we talked about our own paths and what led us to Norfolk Island, and what it meant to each of us. We discovered that our shared link is in many ways something that connects most people to a remote destination in the Pacific, and it’s something that we share with visitors too; a ‘spirit of exploration’, a desire to see and experience something new. If we go back far enough that’s really a part of who we all are and it’s something we all share. From that, Helmsfolk was born”.

Helmsfolk honours the Spirit of Exploration and connects to the places, stories and people that have been born out of great ocean voyages. 

The helm of the ship is where great captains and adventurers have navigated and steered their way into history, lore and our lives. Their tales, legacies and legend are soaked in a ‘Spirit of Exploration’ and adventure that lies at the heart of Helmsfolk. The name Helmsfolk is from the Helms of ships and Nor-folk Island, but more than that it’s a celebration of travellers from all continents of the world through time that have crossed this great earth and made the connections that shape who we are today, as folk.

Helmsfolk itself is broad as an overarching brand, and Robin and Trina wanted to find a story and inspiration to be able to bottle the essence of Norfolk Island, the spirit of exploration, and connect their core message in a way that would resonate with their own story, and yours.

Robin had spent a great deal of his career publishing articles about Norfolk Island for this publication. Of all the work he has published, one particular story by Janelle Blucher in Discover Norfolk Volume 1 Issue 1 (2017) stood out. That was the story of the sloop Norfolk built on Norfolk Island in 1798 – An unassuming vessel that connects Norfolk Island to Australia in the most unique of ways, while embodying  everything that Helmsfolk was incorporated to celebrate. 

Norfolk was the first ocean going vessel built from the local Norfolk Island Pine during the island’s colonial periods, built under the order of Lieutenant-Governor John Townson. Townson wanted to build a vessel to increase communication links between Norfolk Island and Port Jackson, despite orders from Governor John Hunter – of HMS Sirius fame –  to the contrary. Hunter had himself spent several months on Norfolk after the 1790 wrecking of his ship on Norfolk’s reef and he knew only too well the burden of isolation on Norfolk Island without a vessel, yet he still confiscated Norfolk after its maiden voyage to Port Jackson and had it re-purposed for the Government. 

Hunter had Norfolk fitted out to complete a circumnavigation of Van Diemen’s Land to prove it was an island after Lieutenant Matthew Flinders and surgeon George Bass had suspected as much on their earlier survey voyages. Together Flinders and Bass managed to circumnavigate Van Diemen’s Land in the sloop Norfolk, and returned to report their findings to Hunter in Port Jackson in January of 1799. Flinders recommended the stretch of water be named for his surgeon and explorer companion, and in 1800 Governor Hunter named it Bass’s Straits (which later became Bass Strait). Shortly afterwards – and in reference to other articles in this issue (link here) – the HMS Lady Nelson would become the first ship to sail from Portsmouth to Port Jackson via Bass’s Strait, arriving in December 1800.

Matthew Flinders would sail again in Norfolk travelling up the east coast of Australia to survey the Moreton Island area and up as far as Hervey Bay in 1799, however Norfolk’s story doesn’t go much further. The following year Norfolk was commissioned to transport goods from Port Jackson to the inland Windsor area North of Sydney via the Hawkesbury River. There it was it was taken by fifteen convicts who intended to sail off into the sunset, though only a few weeks later Norfolk was wrecked on the Northern banks of the Hunter River entrance at Pirate Point, an area now known as Stockton. Interestingly, of the fifteen convicts that seized Norfolk, several were caught and tried, and those that were spared a death sentence were sent to serve time on Norfolk Island 

Flinders further secured his legacy in a much larger ship, the HMS Investigator by circumnavigating and surveying the coast of Australia (then referred to as Terra Australis) between 1801 and 1803. He became the first person to map the entire coastline of the country, and in doing so ensured his name, and vessels – including his sloop Norfolk – were etched into maritime history.


Rob Mundle, maritime biographer credits Flinders as being one of the great navigators. In his 2012 biography, ‘Flinders – the man who mapped Australia’, Mundle writes, “he became such a successful seafarer, explorer and cartographer that history would see him as part of an illustrious triumvirate, the other two members being Captain James Cook and Captain William Bligh”.

Cook, Bligh and Flinders were linked in time and era, and also through patron Joseph Banks, who was instrumental in the Bounty breadfruit voyages. Banks sailed with Cook (1768–1771), Cook with Bligh (1776–1779), and Bligh with Flinders on his second breadfruit voyage  (1791-1793). 

It felt fitting that the story of Flinders and Norfolk was so closely linked to Norfolk Island, as are Cook’s voyages of Discovery in the Pacific (Cook having Discovered Norfolk Island in 1774 on HMS Resolution), and Bligh’s Breadfruit voyages – the first of which led to the infamous Mutiny on the Bounty. 

Creating unique products that share these stories is an exciting challenge for Helmsfolk. Of course a story is one thing, but encapsulating a story into a unique and charismatic gin is another. Work began researching botanicals and flavour profiles, and a peppery link between Norfolk’s shores and Tasmania, as well as walking through the process of product development and liquor licensing and all of the challenges it presents. Trina and Robin contracted Lord Howe Island Distilling Co for the project. Lord Howe Island Distilling Co are no strangers to the unique challenges faced in distilling for a small island destination and they helped to nurture Helmsfolk’s vision and journey. They worked with Helmsfolk to formulate an exciting recipe which is now at the heart of their hand crafted, small batch distilled, ‘The Norfolk Gin’. The product development process and story from botanical to bottle is th focus for part two of this article available later in 2023.

Trina says, “the spirit of exploration is something we all feel at some point. Today we do that in a very controlled and safe environment mostly, but the fundamental desire to experience and discover is definitely still a large part of who we are. Helmsfolk and The Norfolk Gin is our way of paying tribute to that, as well as celebrating Norfolk Island and Flinder’s achievements.”

Through Flinders and the sloop Norfolk, Helmsfolk found their inspiration for a new and exciting gin to link Norfolk Island and Australia, and tell a special maritime story – the first of many that Helmsfolk plan to celebrate and share.

Today with all of our technology and connectivity, and our knowledge of the earth, we can only feel a modicum of the spirit of exploration that the Flinders, Cooks and Blighs of history and their crews felt, but we can still feel it. And we can certainly celebrate it.


To read more about Helmsfolk and The Norfolk Gin, visit:   Age restricted site.


Image Credit: Background image from Pixabay. Helmsfolk Bottles by Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 06 Issue 01, 2023. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.

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