It is no secret that I have a lot of love for Limeburners – musky, powerful and unique Australian whisky which makes the best night cap for me. I was delighted to chat with Mr. Cameron Syme briefly at a Limeburners masterclass ahead of the Whisky Fair 2016 which will be held on 27th August and 28th August. The masterclass featured a couple of new and exciting Limeburners releases: Rye of the Tiger and The Darkest Winter. Here’s the excerpt:
The Director of Limeburners – Mr. Cameron Syme
Tell me about your passion for whisky, what have prompted you to start Limeburners?
Cameron: When my father told me we have some family connections to Scottish distillers, I thought it was great. I grew up on a farm, I ran around bare feet on a farm in the WA wheat belt, and I thought, we have got wheat and good water here, we make great beers and that goes all around the world. Remembering that at that stage Fosters was the main sponsor of Formula one, you can see it selling everywhere and it was successful. We also have great wine here too, so I thought why can’t we make great whisky in Australia?
And that started my 16 year journey of whisky research. In those days I didn’t have the money, technical skills and know-how to do it. I wanted to learn those skills and I certainly thought there was a niche in the Australian market – I thought nobody was making whisky here. So I spent a lot of time reading about it, and then when I was working for a multi-national company, whenever there was a deal in London, I would take extra day offs to pop up to Scotland and visit the distilleries. I have been to the Arran distillery with the original distiller over there. That is probably the first place I learnt distilling, then with Bill Lark after that.
When you first met Bill Lark and he asked you if you are crazy enough to start a distillery, what were you thinking?
Cameron: Back then I didn’t think I have to be crazy, because I love whisky and whisky making is my passion. So I wondered what he was talking about. Now I know it is the stress of running the distillery, they are the worst economic model that you can run, it is hard. The expenditure – not just the capital cost of setting them up, there is also the operating cost of keeping the distillery going. This is now our 11th year of distilling and making whisky, we should be able to break even for the first time this year. It has been a continuous amount of significant investment.
I think the other thing that Bill was referring to is in the early years, there are many people who will simply overlook Australian whisky. Some say “good whiskies can only come from Scotland and Australia can’t make good whisky”. Last week when I was doing something with the media and there was a Scottish woman there who said just that. So I slipped her a bit of my Limeburners Port Cask, and she was like, “Oh my word, this is fantastic!” – For people to realize we can make great whisky in Australia, it is a really nice thing for me.
So why did you pick Albany, the Great Southern region in West Australia as the distillery location?
Cameron: That is actually the result from my 16 years of research. I drove about ten thousand kilometers around the southwest of Western Australia, I have been to a lot of places and looked everywhere. Also, I found two reports commissioned by the WA Agriculture Department and written by Dr. Gladstone in 1968 and 1972, in which the department was reviewing the agriculture and produce potential in the state. His conclusion was the Great Southern region produced the very best food produce in the state – that was one big thing in my mind. Then I looked at other key requirements, a cooler climate, Albany can give me that. The average numbers of days above 41 degrees annually in Albany is 0.1, so one day a decade. It has a nice, cool climate ideal for whisky maturation.
The third important element is a hard water source. This is one point of difference between us and a lot of other Australian distilleries. Many use soft water for brewing, whereas all my research pointed me towards using hard water, our water source comes from limestone aquifers deep beneath our distillery. I think it is all those years of research helped us just to make sure every little step of the distillery is geared towards trying to make the very best whisky and spirits.
Inside Albany Distillery where the magic happens
Can you introduce us the Limeburners releases which will be featuring on Whisky Fair this month?
Cameron: We have the Tiger Snake, which has won the Champion Australian Blended Whiskey in World Whiskies Awards (WWA) this year. We can’t call it a bourbon, because that is a geographic indicator out of the US. It is a grain whisky made from corn, rye, wheat and barley. It is sour mash so we hold some of the pot ale back to adjust the pH of the next brew. It doesn’t have as much corn in the recipe as some of the American bourbons do, because personally, I don’t like a high corn content bourbon, some of them start to get predominate ethyl acetates, and some of the other flavours out of the corn which I’m really not keen on.
WWA Champion Australian Blended Whiskey “Tiger Snake”
For the second tasting time ever, we have a new rye whisky, “Rye of the Tiger”, which is about 60% rye and 40% made up of malted barley and wheat. A rather unique rye whisky. This may not be ready for the Whisky Fair, as we don’t rush release, and I’m still not happy with the packaging.
Sidenote: I had a quick tasting of the Rye of the Tiger. Loved it. Beautiful sweet pear notes highlighting a delicious rye core, good oomph at 61% ABV, nice transition to a drier, spicy finish. Looking forward to it.
Then we have two cask strength versions, the sherry cask and the port cask, our bread and butter which many should be familiar with. I have also brought along the lightly peated Limeburners, in terms of style, it is more like a Lagavulin 16 rather than an Ardbeg 10 or a Laphroaig Quarter Cask – with a much less punchy level of phenols. It is designed to be an everyday, go-to whisky, for me it should be lighter with less punch-you-in-the-face peatiness going on in it.
Finally I brought along another whisky which is yet to be released. Limeburners “The Darkest Winter” is a pre-release and is a little bit of love coming back from Limeburners to the Oak Barrel. As an Australian distiller we appreciate the support that this intuition has given us. Darkest Winter is a bottling (also available at our cellar door) which will be released in time to feature on the Oak Barrel Whisky Fair. It is a single cask, cask strength whisky which the phenol level sits between our heavily peated and the lightly peated bottlings.
What are your plans with Limeburners? I know you have just opened a second distillery in Margaret River last year November.
Cameron: Margaret River is a magical place and it has a very large tourism industry there. They are planning an upgrade to accommodate international flights, I believe it will attract a lot of international tourist over time, and as a small business you need to drive some of the business via cellar door.
Other than Albany and Margaret River distillery, we are working on a third site to allow us to expand production to be able to compete globally. I can’t say too much about that at the moment, but it’s exciting.
The plan is Limeburners single malt whisky will be made in Albany, and some journalists have said the location of the Albany distillery reminds them of Islay; Tiger Snake will move to a different location; Gin, Vodkas, Rye whiskey and other specialty spirits will be made in our Margaret River Distillery. I feel we are very fortunate to potentially have the three distilleries in different iconic locations for us to base in Australia. With the three distilleries I think in 10 years’ time we are able to be compete on the international level, to actually make enough whiskies, which is the biggest problem for us at the moment – to get out there and keep up with the demand.
At the door step of Margaret River Distillery
Team Limeburners and the Margaret River Still
How do you see the now and the future of Limeburners?
Cameron: Our goal is to try and make the best whisky in the world. It’s a lofty goal, but that’s it. We are always chasing and benchmarking ourselves against other Australian distilleries and international distilleries. For me, the Japanese whisky scene is phenomenal, they make magnificent whiskies and have great whisky production setups, so has Scotland, there is great skill and knowledge in Japan and hopefully we can build towards that caliber of whisky production.
I would love to see Limeburners and Tiger Snake actually take up a place in the world stage. At the moment I think when people talk about Australian whisky, they will still go to Tasmania, they will probably say Lark and Sullivans Cove. I would really like to see us up there internationally – as a recognised whisky powerhouse.
The Limeburners Single Malt Whisky line up
To a greater extent, how do you see development of the Aussie whisky industry?
Cameron: Limeburners was the fifth whisky distillery in the country, now I hear there are 58 distilleries operating and over a hundred including those in planning. I think a lot of those might get set up but I can’t imagine many of them will last 10 years because it is a hard business, and it’s also hard to be uncompromising on quality because of the cost. What I expect will happen: there will be a bunch of new distilleries come online, then there will be a rationalisation, unfortunately some of them will go broke because they cannot afford to hold the stocks of whisky that’s required to build a brand. Probably within two decades, we maybe end up with half a dozen or so distilleries, which are sustainable, enjoying a good reputation and have enough stock maturing. Globally, there are lots of new people coming online and drinking whiskies, the middle class especially – so I think the future is very bright.
Being the owner of a distillery running for over ten years in Australia, do you have any words to the young and budding Aussie distilleries?
Cameron: I think I will ask the same question as Bill Lark asked me – are you crazy enough to do it? It is a tough game, but I also think it is the best job in the world if you have the passion. Also, be collaborative – Bill Lark, Patrick McGuire, Spike Dessert and I are the four original founders of the Australian Distillers Association. We all started that on a basis of collaboration, on sharing and helping each other out. Also, don’t cut corners and don’t compromise on quality, because when you get a bad product, everyone will know it. It is something that should be avoided at all cost.
Limeburners will be participating the Oak Barrel Whisky Fair 2016 on 27 – 28 August 2016. Photo credit to Great Southern Distilling Co. Also, a special thanks to Mr. Scott Fitzsimons and the Oak Barrel to make this interview possible.