How have the last few months been?
The last 12 months has been hectic. We’ve doubled our single malt whisky production schedule from the previous 12 months. We’ve also continued to improve our wood policy, and have secured great relationships with two coopers, under which we are accessing barrels with known provenance. The finishing barrels we use have a traceable history of being bourbon barrels in the US in the 1920s and 1930s, after which they’ve been shipped to Australia and have housed port or sherry in them for the next 70 or 80 years before coming to us to use for maturing our Limeburners Single Malt Whisky.
We’ve also imported our first container loads of ex-bourbon barrels and new fill barrels from the US. On internal production - we also secured our own local peat supply, and constructed our own peat smoker, and we are now peating our own barley using Western Australian peat. A truly unique product.
We also refined our brewing process, to result in a clearer wort, with less protein coming through from the mash tun. The spirit coming off this is fantastic, and bodes well for years to come.
What are your main products and have there been any recent launches?
Our main products are Limeburners Single Malt Whisky. We also produce Limeburners Honey Whisky Liqueur which is a 30% ABV liqueur of our Limeburners single malt whisky mixed with local Karri Honey – unique to the south west of WA.
In 2012 we’ve also launched “Tiger Snake” which is a ‘sour mash’ mixed grain whiskey, influenced by the great Kentucky and Tennessee whiskies. As far as we can tell, this is the first ‘bourbon style whisky ’ produced in Australia. Except that it’s not a bourbon, as it’s an Australian sour mash whisky. We think we’re also the only people to be using ‘set back’ in the production of our Tiger Snake. We use Corn from Kununurra in WA’s north, and Barley and Rye from the South Coast.
While not Whisky – which is where my passion is - we have also been lucky in that we are located in a super premium wine region, and we do get some access to very fine wine to distil down to brandy in our spare time.
What styles of whisky do you make?
For Limeburners, we only release single barrel releases as either unpeated 43%, peated at 48%, or unpeated cask strength at 61%. We produce whisky expressions matured in bourbon, sherry and port barrels, with occasional wine cask expressions. Each release is hand stamped and numbered, with releases limited to between 100 and around 330 bottles depending on the cask size. We make these in small 1,200-1,300 litre batches which we hand distil according to old traditional techniques, and we do not chill filter nor do we ever ad any distillers caramel.
For our Tiger Snake Whiskey we release ‘batches’, again all of these are hand stamped and numbered. We release Tiger Snake at 43% ABV. We exclusively use either refill bourbon, or unused bourbon barrels for Tiger Snake Sour Mash Whiskey. You may note that I spell Limeburners Whisky without the ‘e’ and Tiger Snake with the ‘e’. This is to help distinguish the difference between these whiskies.
Is there a style of whisky naturally suited to the region you produce in?
Yes, single malt whisky is naturally suited to the region we are in. Why? Well we have some of the world’s best malting barley produced in the region, as well as some of the best water for whisky brewing, and soft, soft, filtered rain water for production (dilution) water. We have an ideal climate for whisky maturation, with relatively low evaporation rates and good humidity levels. Our distillery is powered by between 75% and 100% renewable wind energy. If you were to look at parallels, I’d say that we’re closer to Speyside whiskies than any other region in Scotland. However, again, we’re not looking to reproduce or copy a scotch over here, we’re looking to make unique Australian Whisky.=, one that reflects the grains and ‘terrior’ (to borrow the wine term) of our distillery.
Roughly how many litres of spirit are you producing?
We expanded production last year, by almost double, and in 2012 we produced about 12,000 litres of spirit a year (about 2 barrels of spirit a week). We plan to expand production to about 16,000 litres in 2013, and 25,000 litres by 2016. We have a 4,500 litre column still that we expect to have in use by 2015 or 2016 to produce our Tiger Snake Sour Mash Whiskey. This will allow us to produce 8 barrels a day of our sour mash (Bourdon). We are a family company and expansion happens slowly.
Where are your main markets? Are these growing and do you have new ones in sight?
Our main markets are internal to Australia. These are growing at a healthy level, and we will continue to expand these in the coming years as we have more product available. Really it is only now after eight years of distilling that we have sufficient stocks to consider expanding our current distribution – and even then, there’s a big risk we could easily run out of stock – it’s difficult to produce enough to grow the barrel stock as well as satisfy demand for our products, but we are managing to do that year on year.
Looking ahead, we are developing strategies for China, South East Asia, Europe and some select markets within the US.
Much has been made of the distilleries of Tasmania - what are the challenges for an Australian distillery on the mainland and operating independently?
It is true that much of the focus has been on Tasmanian distilleries – and rightly so as they produce great whiskies and have been doing so for 20 years. We have received some great support from the Tasmanian Distillers, and I count all of them as friends, and a number like Bill Lark, Patrick Maguire and Casey Overeem as confidants and mentors.
It is also true that being a new world whisky it’s difficult overcoming some consumers’ inherent prejudice to a new entry to the established whisky markets. That prejudice doesn’t last long, and we have many national and international visitors converted and leaving our distillery as raving ambassadors for Limeburners. No doubt, that is helped by the quality of our whisky, which is confirmed by us picking up a number of awards nationally and internationally each year for the last five years, including scoring very well in competitions against our Australian cousins. So we’re confident that we can stand on our own, making our own unique Western Australian whisky which performs well at the highest international levels.
Tasmanian whiskies are accepted as great. While they might be reluctant to admit it, Australian’s all know that the best of everything comes from the great State of Western Australia, and we believe there’s no reason for it to be any different with whisky. Our Tasmanian counterparts have 20 years’ experience and history, we have eight. Give us a chance, and in time we believe that Limeburners will be the premium Australian Single Malt Whisky. Leaving State pride aside, all Australian Whiskies are great, and I’d encourage people to try them all.
How is Australian whisky now viewed, particularly within Australia itself?
The consistent feedback from whisky fairs we attended during 2012 is that people are loving Australian Whisky. That applies to the Australian market as well as international markets. The currently producing distillers in the Australian Whisky industry are now accepted collectively as a serious industry over here in our own right.
The founding fathers of the Australian Whisky industry are without a doubt a select group comprising Bill Lark, Patrick Maguire, David Baker, Cameron Syme and Casey Overeem – all of us are committed to “quality over quantity”. Gone are the comments we used to hear of being the poor cousins to Scotland and the US.
People are excited to taste our new releases and to see how our whisky continues to develop. Even more impressive, is that people are identifying areas of Tasmania and Limeburners’ over here in WA as discrete Australian ‘whisky regions’.
While things are 95 per cent great, as an Australian Industry we still have some difficulties with one group of internationally based whisky ‘critics’ who are published regularly in one of the key whisky publications – they consistently tell us our whisky is not on the mark, and score our whisky poorly.
Most Australian distillers refuse to send whisky to that publication any more – unfortunately the critics seem to be at the behest of the big advertisers. Their approach to tasting is also questionable as we are informed that they don’t do blind tastings and are prejudiced by the fact that our Australian whiskies are relatively young (eg they recently bagged our 3 1/2 year old single malt which won “Silver Medal – Outstanding” using a blind tasting approach at the IWSC in London in 2012, and also performed well enough to get the “Pourers Prize” (which goes to the pourers’ favourite whisky of the event) for the second year, and a silver medal, against much older whiskies at the 2012 MWSOA single malt whisky competition). It seems odd that true competitions award us with medals, but a mass publicised review which is read widely is very poor. Those overly critical international critics comments do not help us in our pursuit of excellence, and only serve to reinforce the perception that control of the whisky industry is still at the behest of the big global players with large advertising budgets. This does not send a good message to us boutique distilleries who put our very life and soul into the product and whose sole objective is to try and make the best whisky in the world, with an unwavering commitment to quality.
Shame on them is say – as, in blind tastings, our whisky regularly triumphs over whisky that is 18 years plus. The saying “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” is what we are concerned about, and we will ignore the poor reviews from people who should know better. The people who taste it know that we make very fine whisky indeed. The consumer demand continues to grow at a rapid rate and that speaks for itself.
Has the general upsurge in interest in whisky across the world had a positive impact on you?
Yes – we’re able to be more confident in our forecasting. We have to take decisions that will be intergenerational = perhaps 20 years out. I set the distillery up, and I hope my kids and grandkids will one day take over a flourishing whisky distillery and a stable of respected brands.
The worldwide interest in whisky assists provide confidence for me that the big gamble was worth it (I’m normally ‘risk averse’ and not a gambling man at all.) Of course the down side with that is we have to cover the capital costs of increased production and warehousing, and marketing. But please don’t think that I’m complaining.
Where do you think the future lies for Australian whisky in general and for your distillery in particular?
I think Australian whisky will continue to grow in reputation and in consumer acceptance. I think there will be a number of new entrants who will enter the market, and a couple of years later there will be a rationalisation of distillers, say in the next 10 years, to a sustainable level – I don’t know what that number is as the market is not fully defined.
I think it is a matter of time before one of the Australian distillers is bought out by a multinational who wants to make sure that they don’t miss out on having a brand in the premium or ultra premium Australian Whisky range. I don’t object to that as long as they still have the commitment to quality that we all have at the moment.
What do I forecast for us – Great Southern Distilling Company? Well, we will continue with our ‘in pursuit of excellence” ethos, and Limeburners will continue to grow. Tiger Snake will become a huge product in its own right – it’s already being called “Australia’s own bourbon”.
Both of these brands, Limeburners and Tiger Snake” will become household names within the next 10 years. Beyond that, I’ll disgracefully grow to a ripe old age enjoying the fruits of my labour and watching my kids and grand kids build an Australian whisky empire… well that’s my dream at least, that and lots of time off to enjoy the amazing Albany climate…
In an ideal world, what would your dream scenario be for the distillery and its whiskies, say in five years time?
In five years time? That will be our 14th year of production. We will still be making single malt whisky and sour mash (bourbon) we will have expanded our production to be producing 150,000 to 200,000 litres of spirit per annum. We will see 80,000 visitors a year to our distilleries and will have distilleries in Albany and Margaret River making whisky, and we will be acknowledged amongst our peers on the world stage as a serious, albeit small, whisky house. In an ideal world, I would also like to receive the ‘best whisky in the world’ nod from Jim Murray and Malt Maniacs… should I keep dreaming?
Are you witnessing the birth of more and more new distilleries and are you optimistic about the future for Australian whisky?
Yes – we are seeing more distilleries coming on line. These are smaller scale boutique operations, although there are a couple of rumours about larger operations being planned. I am optimistic about the future of Australian Whisky. From the 1920s to the 1970s in Australia, as a country we made lots of whisky (I am too young to remember this, but from the reports I have received it was rubbish whisky – made by an overseas company, and where the head distiller’s directive was “make a whisky that is no better than the worst whisky in Scotland”).
I understand the most commonly consumed whisky in the country was Australian made. I don’t think we will get back to that as both ‘scotch’ and ‘bourbon’ have a very significant and loyal hold on the Australian market, however, it would be nice to see Australian whisky considered mainstream rather than boutique.
What's next for you and what are your plans for the coming year?
It’s probably more of the same… making great whisky. Practically, the next thing for us is to build a new barrel store – we’re bursting at the seams. We’ll also continue to refine some of our production techniques as we have the mantra “in pursuit of excellence” and we’re trying to make the ‘best whisky in the world’ - that’s the aspiration, and one needs to aim high.
For the coming year, our objective is to build a new barrel store, produce at least 120 barrels of whisky and sell 2500 cases of whisky. We’ll also continue to work with our marketing people to build brand presence and recognition in Australia, as well as a couple of select overseas markets.
My other key focus is to work with the established Australian distilleries, like Lark, Sullivans Cove, Overeem, and Bakery Hill to make sure that new entrants to the industry stick to the ‘quality’ ethos, as we don’t need anyone trying to cut corners – a crap product would be a bad thing for us all and would take a long time to overcome; reputation is hard earned and easy lost.