12/02/2021 - 11:11

Distilling points of difference in WA craft spirits

12/02/2021 - 11:11

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Republic of Fremantle is betting a commitment to its location and the finer points of distilling will set it apart in a crowded market.

Distilling points of difference in WA craft spirits
Republic of Fremantle's master distiller Oliver Kitson (left, with founders Matt Giudice, Jason Townes and John McVeigh

It took some convincing to get Jason Townes on a plane to London to discuss a new business opportunity.

That was about five years ago when he, alongside friends John McVeigh and Matt Giudice, had taken a keen interest in the art of distilling.

Their interest was a natural progression for three builders-cum-publicans, whose business interests span two high-profile Fremantle outlets: cocktail bar Strange Company and Ronnie Nights (in homage to the British gangster).

(click to view a PDF version of this special report)

Mr Townes was slow to warm to Messrs McVeigh and Giudice’s new interest, however.

For one, gin had amassed remarkable popularity in the 2010s owing to its low cost of production, but Mr Townes had concerns about long-term viability.

More than half a dozen distilleries had opened in Western Australia in the first half of the decade, accounting for close to 20 per cent of all distilleries and spirit producers in the state, according to Business News’s Data & Insights.

While many local outlets boasted institutional knowledge – such as Margaret River Distilling Company’s founder, award-winning distiller Cameron Syme – the low barrier to entry meant anyone could conceivably buy some ethanol and juniper and start their own distillery.

If the likes of Pernod Ricard or Diageo could simply ramp up production and crowd out the market, what was the point of starting up another gin joint?

“I was a little cynical before we went,” Mr Townes told Business News.

“There’s such growth in craft spirits; how long can that be sustained?

“To me, a lot of the brands were not of any substance; they were marketing exercises, spirits made by third-party distillers.

“When you looked behind the curtain of some of these distilleries there wasn’t much substance there.”

Mr Townes had reason for skepticism.

Unlike dark liquors or bourbon, gin distilling is not closely monitored or regulated, and the product does not require ageing before being bottled or served.

These distilleries are subsequently more attractive from a commercial standpoint as they can provide immediate profit and return on investment.

The consequence of this has been more Australians drinking more gin. Research from Roy Morgan published in March 2020 indicated nearly one in 10 Australians drank gin in a single month, with the growth in popularity concentrated among those aged 50 to 64.

Add to that a bevy of distilleries already in WA’s market – 20 distilleries have opened across the state since 2015, according to Data & Insights – and Mr Townes’ concerns of market saturation appeared well founded.

The trip to London merely confirmed this view.

One visit to Thames Distillers, located about six kilometres south of the capital, left the men in awe of an operation that manufactured hundreds of gins under licence that were then stored in drums and sent off in batches.

Rather than putting a dent in their plans, however, the London experience led to an epiphany of sorts, whereby the men realised an oversaturated market could prove a blessing if they focused on an artisanal experience.

“What insulates you from falling off?” Mr Townes asked.

“If only the best is going to survive, what is that?”

To this end – creating a high-quality, unique product that stands above the competition – Messrs Townes, McVeigh and Giudice launched Republic of Fremantle.

Based out of the port city’s west end, the venue is premised on the embrace of craft in all aspects of operations. Instead of engaging wholesalers, the trio has instead sought out partnerships with artisanal manufacturers and producers to retain complete control of production.

That has entailed everything from the design of the bottles, which was inspired by UK-based Silent Pool Distillers, through to the still itself, which was built on commission through international engineering outfit Seymourpowell.

So close has the operation’s attention to detail been that the group hired Oli Kitson, formerly of UK-based outfits Dorset Brewing Company and Sipsmith, to serve as master distiller.

Mr Kitson, who holds a bachelor’s degree in pharmacology from the University of Edinburgh and studied brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt University, oversees a process that extends to the manufacturing of ethanol used in the end product.

“If you truly are about the craft, then you need to be in control of the process from beginning to end,” Mr Townes said.

“Most gin distilling happens by going and buying industrial spirit from an industrial manufacturer, bringing it to the distillery, putting it into a small gin still, putting the botanicals in there, and bang, off comes the gin.

If you truly are about the craft, then you need to be in control of the process from beginning to end - Jason Townes

“It is basic and easy … all the hard work is done because the base spirit is the important thing.

“What is much harder but more interesting to do is to make the base spirit; to make the ethanol ourselves.

“We figured being in control of that aspect gives us true credibility in the craft area.”

Republic of Fremantle’s still, which backs out onto the venue’s dining space, is a visibly imposing reminder of the group’s ethos.

With that decision comes greater cost to the business’s bottom line, given the return on dining is generally marginal, but it is one Mr Townes said the trio had thought was worth bearing.

“It shows the integrity of the product, that it’s not happening behind closed doors,” he said.

“We’re completely open and transparent about what’s happening here.

“I think that’s much more interesting for our patrons.”

Maintaining that point of difference will be instrumental to Republic of Fremantle, given it is one of six distilleries to open in WA since 2019.

Some, such as Esperance Distillery Co, have embraced the small business ethos that comes with operating a 30-litre still in a town of 10,000 people.

Others, such as Running with Thieves, have diversified their offering and embraced whiskey distilling, purchasing hundreds of oak barrels in aid of the longterm process.

And while half of the distilleries that have opened in WA over the past two years have been within a 15-minute drive of Fremantle’s city centre – a reflection of falling vacancies and increased retail presence - Republic of Fremantle has embraced the locale as a fundamental part of its identity.

Its name, a play on the city’s separateness from greater metropolitan Perth, has served as a clever marketing tactic, with pre-purchasers receiving their bottles alongside a letter conferring citizenship upon them from the so-called republic.

The venue, meanwhile, tucked away on Packenham Street near The University of Notre Dame and Fremantle Ports’ sheds and ferry terminal, is intentionally removed from popular thoroughfares to attract discerning patrons.

None of which should underplay the ambitions of Mr Townes and co; their distillery was built to be scalable, and their ambition is to eventually open an offsite facility to help produce up to 400,000 bottles per annum.

Still, for these Fremantle locals, their fondness for their city and a good drink remains paramount.

“We didn’t have anywhere where we really liked drinking in Freo,” Mr Townes said.

“The strip’s become a little bit more for the visitor to Fremantle, so it was natural we wanted to build something on the back strips that suited our needs and that of the residents.

“We do get people coming from the western suburbs, but I’d say most patrons are discerning locals after a little bit better experience and something they can call their own.”

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