Opinion: The Earnestness of Humble Beginnings

We are just over three years removed from Sullivans Cove’s historic win at WWA in 2014.  The next 12 months will see a great influx of casks ready to be bottled as traditional houses in Tasmania will gradually have recouped their depleted supplies and the first crop of new distilleries post-French Oak will be unveiling their expressions.

Producers such as Joadja and Corowa have been diligently filling barrels in the past couple of years and it appears as though they will release multiple casks in their debut season, giving the whisky fans plenty to think about next time they visit a bottle shop.

It is unclear how the market will react to the inflow of supply after being deprived for so long, yet that hasn’t stopped aspiring distillers from entering into the scene, especially on the mainland.

In particular, Adelaide seems to be the current hub for young distilleries.  Distilleries such as Fleurieu and Tin Shed have already made a name for themselves while McLaren Vale was recently awarded for being innovative.

So, taking opportunity of being there over the weekend, I managed to visit Never Never and 5 Nines, a couple of distilleries that have just started powering their stills this year.

When I first walked into Never Never, I was frankly surprised with the size of the place.  But moreover, I was in awe at how despite the limited space they have been able to make gins that have become the talk of the town.  Mr. Sean Baxter, an old friend who moved from Sydney to Adelaide earlier this year to start Never Never, admitted that this is all a design to save costs.

“We didn’t want to take out a 2 million dollar loan.” said Sean.

In fact, everything at the distillery seems so cost-effective.  The production area has been packed efficiently to take advantage of the vertical space, and by sharing the warehouse lot with another business, their rent would have been manageable as opposed to some other distilleries that have taken out costly leases.

It occurs to me that Never Never may turn a profit sooner rather than later.  As a seasoned veteran in the spirit industry, Sean has already managed to put their clean and true triple juniper gin on bar backs at popular establishments.

Those who have known Sean since his Diageo days would know that he is one of the most passionate whisky ambassadors in Australia and indeed his ultimate goal is for Never Never to produce whiskies.

I was looking for the pot still when Sean pointed towards a cargo box.  Turns out they have decided not to make whiskies this early into their developmental stage.

That was perhaps the most impressive thing about Never Never.  The whisky market looks set for a readjustment and as an industry insider for so many years, Sean must have a profound understanding of how a surge in production costs and a change in consumer preferences can hamper a distillery immensely (see the closures of Scottish distilleries in the 1980s).

Why throw in early investment when the gin sales could eventually sustain the entire operation?

This is the type of patience rarely seen in the Australian whisky industry, and I deeply admire Never Never for it.  After all, making whiskies is not a two year project.

On the other hand, the guys at 5 Nines couldn’t wait to start producing whiskies.  With some help of their friends, Mr. David Pearse and Mr. Steven Griguol were able to hammer out their own copper pot still in three months, instead of waiting two years for a still that closely resembles what half the local industry is using.  They have also re-purposed a milk tank into a mash tun with wheels.

Operating solely inside a two car garage, they have already put away more than 20 20 litre casks and almost 10 100 litre casks at their bonded warehouse out back since commencing distillation earlier this year, utilising local barley and peat sourced from South Australia. I have tried a couple of samples straight from the casks and the WIPs do possess an identity unlike the general Australian whiskies.

Again, the decision to locate the production area in a garage was motivated by cost, and also convenience.  David has a day job in the IT industry that requires extensive travelling and Steven is a builder, cabinetmaker and metal sculptor by trade.  They are spending their off time quietly smoking malt and distilling in the weekends in preparation of the distillery’s plan of eventually opening a cellar door along the Adelaide Hills wine trail.

To think that David and Steven have only contributed about $80,000 each so far and that they have only been distilling part-time, that’s quite an achievement.

Perhaps trying to be the biggest kid at the schoolyard is not the answer.  The current consumer behaviour suggests that the market for Australian whiskies chiefly revolves around single cask releases, not blends or general releases like the Scotch or Japanese whisky markets.  Australia’s climate is also limiting as to how long casks can mature.  All that means that it’s imperative for a distillery to develop a realistic understanding with respect to its output.  How many casks should an independent Australian craft distillery release per year?

In the last couple of years, us consumers have gained incredible insights into the industry as more Australian distillers have become social media savvy.  It seems like there’re lots of hard yards involved in running a prosperous operation.  I’m afraid it’s not a job for everyone, but here’s what I believe..  if you go into the whisky making game with a sound business model, proper techniques and a little bit of luck, your distillery might just make it..

Thank you Mr. Baxter, Mr. Pearse and Mr. Griguol for showing me around your distilleries and thank you for your inputs into this article.

-Nicholas