A series of local and global accolades has helped craft export opportunities for Great Southern Distilling Company.
It has been almost 15 years since Cameron Syme left his career with a multinational energy company to establish a whisky distillery in the state’s south.
Enthused by family tales of far-flung Scottish relatives, who (it’s claimed) once reported the location of their illicit distillery to the authorities in order to use the reward money to fund a new one, Mr Syme spent several years researching the business before starting his venture in 2004.
In a short timeframe from a whisky point of view, he has gone from trials in a 150 square metre space as part of an incubator program at the Albany Business Centre, to owning and operating two distilleries (with a third on the way) that produce internationally acclaimed whisky, gin and liqueurs.
To be sure, Great Southern Distilling Company has come of age, and is among the most celebrated spirits producers in Australia.
Two weeks ago, the company was named Telstra Western Australian Business of the year, and will compete for the national title next month.
The latest honour is just one of more than a dozen accolades the company has received in the past 18 months; it was crowned champion Australian distillery in 2016, its flagship brand Limeburners received the 2017 title for best Australian grain whisky at the World Whiskies Awards, and was named the best international whisky at the American Distilling Institute, among others.
“The awards resulted in a lot of attention and people coming to us wanting to take our whisky overseas,” Mr Syme told Business News.
“Our key focus has been to make quality whisky, and now that we’ve ticked that box we’re looking at increasing production and exporting it.”
The Margaret River Distilling Company, which produces gin, is a second Great Southern facility, while Mr Syme said a third outlet (the group’s largest to date), the Tiger Snake Whisky distillery, would open against the backdrop of the Porongurups in a few weeks.
The WA-produced spirits can be found in more than 390 liquor outlets and bars across the country, as well as duty free markets.
“Our biggest issue to date is that we probably haven’t made enough really to look at mass exporting,” Mr Syme said.
“We can barely set aside a demand within Australia, but now with our third distillery coming online we can increase our volume significantly, from around 12,000 cases a year to about 130,000.”
He said the company was starting to scratch the surface of the Asian market, and had already exported to China, Singapore and Malaysia.
The US, UK and Mauritius had also been export destinations.
“Globally the spirits industry is worth about $85 billion a year, so it’s a huge industry and Australia exports very little,” Mr Syme said
“We have Hoochery in Kununurra, which is the four-time Australian champion for rum, and Whipper Snappers in East Perth is winning medals in international competitions as well.
“We’re placed really well as an industry to provide employment and export dollars for WA, and Australia.”
However, Mr Syme said export tariffs were an ongoing impediment to the industry.
“There have been a lot of free trade agreements negotiated and the government just tends to leave spirits off the list,” he said.
“We still get taxed at one of the highest rates in the OECD, which makes it tough to compete with the multinationals; in their home market they have very low rates.
“We can’t compete on a basis of volume with the big multinational players, but we can certainly compete on the basis of quality.”
WA’s abundance of unique premium botanical materials, such as the Walpole peat used to smoke some of its whiskies, was one factor Mr Syme attributed to the company’s success.
“It’s an incredibly intense process to manufacture spirits, financially and economically,” he said.
“The average breakeven for a distillery is 18 years, so that’s a long time to be funding before you get anything back. We’re 14 years in and starting to break even.
“But I like doing things that are difficult. When people tell me I can’t do something it’s a motivator to say ‘let’s give it a crack’.
“Now we’re making some of the world’s best whisky.”