Artisans distil spirits’ true essence

06/06/2017 - 14:31

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SPECIAL REPORT: WA distillers are poised at the forefront of the next big movement in boutique beverages.

Artisans distil spirits’ true essence
Howard Cearns (left) and head distiller Lex Poulsen at Hippocampus Metropolitan Distillery in West Perth. Photo: Attila Csaszar

For as long as most of us can remember, tourists have been flocking to the South West to experience the region’s fine food and wines.

In more recent years across a broader swath of Western Australia, those chasing a different kind of experience turned their attention to beer, with the state’s brewers establishing a reputation among the world’s best.

In 2017, a new wave of boutique beverages is emerging from the west, courtesy of the state’s craft distillers.

Just last month, Limeburners’ Heavily Peated Darkest Winter whisky, produced at the Great Southern Distilling Company in Albany, was named the best whisky in the world by the American Distilling Institute.

The award was one of 20 won by Limeburners in the past two months. And Great Southern Distilling is not alone in its success.

At the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, also held last month, Swan Valley distillery Old Young’s took home the title of best international vodka.

Old Young’s was also extremely successful at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards, sharing the champion Australian distiller accolade with Hoochery Distillery in the Kimberley.

Despite his awards success, Old Young’s founder James Young said understanding of the product was a key issue in WA’s emerging craft distilling sector.

However, Mr Young said the biggest impediment to growth was the strict regulatory environment around liquor excise.

Mr Young said a recently-signed distribution deal with Dan Murphy’s had almost been derailed by the high amounts of excise he had to pay on his products.

“(Dan Murphy’s) originally wanted to range me nationally, but that can be anywhere up to a couple of thousand bottles up front,” Mr Young told Business News.

“The issue with that is not so much production, but the brutal excise we have to live with.

“Let’s say for argument’s sake it’s a nice round number of $24 per bottle.

“For Dan Murphy’s, if they order two runs of 2,000 bottles, you’re talking $100,000 that you need to pay within 30 days to the ATO, but Dan Murphy’s won’t pay you for 60 days.

“So you’re carrying $100,000 in debt for a great order – that can be a big constraint on growth.”

Craft beverages industry stalwart Howard Cearns, who has also experienced international success with Hippocampus Metropolitan Distillery’s gin, said the awards won by WA players were reflective of the passion and skillsets being displayed in the industry.

However, Mr Cearns said the success was also indicative of a wider consumer-led movement towards craft spirits.

“We’ve seen people get really interested in wine, cheese and coffee, while craft beer has been incredible in the last 15 to 20 years, in what’s evolved in that market,” Mr Cearns told Business News.

“Distilling is an extension of that. People are interested in flavour and they’re interested in how things are made.”

Mr Cearns, who was one of the founding directors of one of Perth’s most successful brewing operations, Little Creatures Brewing, said the plethora of award-winning distilleries in WA had only helped Hippocampus cement its reputation for quality spirits.

“In the craft space, what you are looking for are drinkers to consider something other than the big brands, and consider something that’s a little more handmade with a bit of personality,” he said.

“If there is only one of us out there, that isn’t enough of a movement to get the consumer to shift in thinking, and also the trade to look at stocking a range of gins and not just one.”

Jimmy McKeown says consumer interest is growing in Whipper Snapper’s non-traditional whiskeys.

Whipper Snapper director of production, Jimmy McKeown, said he was initially sceptical of the importance of awards, until his company won some.

Earlier this year, Whipper Snapper’s Australian Corn Whiskey was named the best international whiskey of its type at the American Distiller’s Industry Awards, the latest in a long line of accolades for the East Perth-based distiller.

“When you win best corn whiskey and things like that, it helps the broader retail side of things, but for the niche drinkers it doesn’t really do much,” Mr McKeown told Business News.

“But as we expand, and get into that mainstream, it’s going to help a lot.

“It also gives us as distillers a bit of recognition as well, a bit of confidence that what we’re making does taste quite nice.”

Mr McKeown said Whipper Snapper placed a big focus on educating the public about whiskey, through tours of the facility and tastings.

Whipper Snapper’s first product was its Crazy Uncle Moonshine, which he said was not traditional-style moonshine in the sense that it was light and approachable.

All of Whipper Snapper’s range of spirits, which includes a barrel-aged moonshine, a wheat whiskey and a whiskey made from quinoa, are made from local produce.

However, in the beginning, Mr McKeown said there wasn’t much understanding in the market about what moonshine actually was.

To build awareness of the spirit, Mr McKeown said he tapped into Perth’s rapidly evolving small bar scene.

“We focused on cocktails and got a lot of local bartenders from high-end bars, who designed some great cocktails for it,” he said.

“That’s how we started pushing it, and it’s doing really well.

“Bartenders are our ambassadors, they are the ones who are going to really help us to educate the consumer around whiskey.

“Without them we would struggle, they are our voice out there in that small bar scene.”

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