When Larrakia man Daniel Motlop was growing up in Darwin, the months before Christmas were memorable for many reasons. Hordes of green tree frogs would come out to sing for prospective mates and native plums would ripen on the trees. In the bush surrounding town, the onset of the rainy season meant colourful bell-shaped flowers would emerge at the end of long vines that led to native yams waiting to be dug out of the soft ground.
“They’re just like a regular potato but a bit coconutty and really small, about the size of a 20-cent piece,” the ex-AFL footballer says. “When you see one, you pick it up and put it straight on the fire so the skin peels off easily.”
Though they are a staple for Top End communities, native yams haven’t been commercialised in the same way that many other native plants have, primarily because they don’t transport well. Where citrus can be frozen and spices dried or preserved, the potatoes are best eaten fresh. It’s why Motlop doesn’t sell them through his food business Something Wild.
Instead, he’s found a use for them through his other business, Seven Seasons. The new drinks label is almost halfway through its mission of making a spirit with a hero ingredient that reflects each of the seven traditional Larrakia seasons. Motlop says this is the first time anyone has used native yams in an alcoholic drink. Because of their mild flavour, he’s used the native yams in a vodka rather than a gin.
When asked if it’s harder to make a vodka than a gin he simply grins. “I think it is,” he says with a laugh, “and usually with vodka you’re cleaning it up but we’re actually adding stuff in. But I wanted to make something that would get people interested in vodka again. I grew up drinking vodka so I wanted to make it classy again.”
Native yam is the only botanical present, and after trialling three varieties, Motlop decided to use two of them: the one he grew up with and another from the area around Maningrida in Arnhem Land. He describes the flavour as “turnippy or even a bit of wasabi” and adds that it’s often eaten raw.
Both varieties were macerated in the vodka to add flavour, which meant harvesting 600 kilograms in total – no mean feat when you consider they’re all wild harvested and an entire day might yield just 50 yams. “It’s hot out there,” Motlop says, “and in Darwin alone we had 12 people out harvesting for four weeks to make sure we had enough.”
But he’s thrilled with the resulting drink, a warm, creamy vodka with a hint of nuttiness. “It’s got an earthy sort of flavour,” says Motlop, “which is a nice way of saying dirty. But it's a beautiful earthy flavour with notes of wasabi ... I love that it represents the earth where it's dug up and where I'm from.”