Pioneering craft brewery evolves into whisky distillery

By / 25th of January, 2017
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ONE of Australia’s early craft breweries has grown up to become a premium whisky distillery.

The Steam Exchange brewery in Goolwa, South Australia, has been rebadged Fleurieu Distillery, realising a lifelong dream for head distiller Gareth Andrews.

The distillery, on the edge of the River Murray about and hour’s drive south of Adelaide, released its first single malt whisky just before Christmas and has almost sold out despite its $260 a bottle price tag.

The next release is due in April while a new 36-hectolitre still is expected to be delivered before the end of the year.

Andrews has resumed distilling after a hectic tourism season at his waterside cellar door, which sits between the Goolwa Steam Ranger train station and the wharf where river cruises on vintage paddle steamers regularly depart.

The unpeated first release was matured in 100-litre ex-Seppeltsfield port barrels for about “three summers” resulting in a “big thick, oily, punchy, gutsy whisky”.

Whisky from the five barrels was selectively blended to produce 600 bottles, allowing Andrews to maintain consistency and produce something he felt reflected the “whisky terroir” of the Fleurieu Peninsula.

While 350 bottles of the first release were pre-sold as whisky bonds before bottling, the remaining 250 bottles are being sold at the cellar door, through the distillery’s website and by the nip at specialty bars such as Hains & Co in Adelaide. Only about 70 bottles remain.

“They’re first-use barrels so they are at their maximum strength and we’ve had them cut down to 100-litre barrels,” Andrews said.

“We are looking at the premium end so we released at 52 per cent.

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“The next one will still be port barrel but it will be what I call a medium peat and we are looking to produce that one at full-on cask strength – around 62 per cent straight out the barrel with no watering down.”

The distillery also produces G-Town Gin and still brews beer but both are only sold at the cellar door along with a selection of boutique Langhorne Creek wines.

“We also have whisky sitting in sherry barrels from McWilliams both peated and unpeated but our sherry barrel whiskies won’t be out until next year,” Andrews said.

“At the moment we’re using first-use barrels so it’s big thick, oily, punchy, gutsy whiskies.

“The customers we’re looking for are obviously not people who want to mix it with Coke, we’re looking for adventurers who don’t mind paying that extra for a very high-quality product that stands out.

“We’re looking for people who want to travel that winding road and live a life less ordinary.”

Andrews said he was trying to source bourbon barrels to mature his next batch in.

He said the “maritime” conditions at Goolwa, less than 3km from where Australia’s longest river meets the Southern Ocean, were ideal for maturing whisky because of its fresh sea breezes, fluctuating temperatures range and mild summers.

Goolwa is at the southern end of the Fleurieu Peninsula, which is also home to the McLaren Vale wine region and the McLaren Vale Distillery.

Andrews began the brewery in 2004 and was one of only three craft breweries in South Australia at the time.

The success of the business allowed him to eventually become a distillery, which had been a long-term goal. The businesses focus is now 90 per cent whisky, 5 per cent gin and five per cent beer.

“As the craft beer game evolved people became really fixated with the IPA style whereas I am a big fan of the more traditional style English ales,” Andrews said.

“We decided that was not the style we were interested in and we wanted to go off and do other things.

“There comes a point where you have to ask ‘what am I most passionate about’ and focus on that.

“For us down here our passion for whisky has grown and grown and the beer side has become less important – we’ll always have our Steam Exchange brand but it’s in the background now.”

The similarities between making beer and whisky have helped Andrews reach his distilling goal, which he said was simply not an option when he opened the brewery 15 years ago.

“Even in 2004, just to find brewing equipment was really hard so back then the concept of setting up a distillery was unheard of because you just couldn’t access the equipment,” he said.

“Effectively from a distiller’s perspective, making whisky wash is very close to making beer without hops in it. There’s a few things you’ve got to change like mashing temperatures and a few chemistry issues you’ve got to deal with but effectively it’s the same process.”

The distillery’s 12-hectolitre still, custom made by Knapp Lewer in Tasmania, is a small version of the still at Islay distillery Caol Ila – one of Andrews’ favourites.

Andrews has engaged Knapp Lewer to make him a larger 36-hectolitre version of the still, which he hopes to have before the end of the year.

His wife Angela – who has worked for more than 20 years as a librarian/teacher is becoming more involved in the business from next week by taking a year off from her job to learn the distilling ropes.

“Basically by October/November she will be able to walk in and do her own cuts – heads and tails – and create her own whisky,” Andrews said.

“We are going to train her to become South Australia’s first female whisky distiller.”

“The promotion of women into whisky is fairly important so Angela is going to set up a blog and every week go through what it’s like going from being a librarian to being a whisky distiller.”

Key contacts

Gareth Andrews Head Distiller Fleurieu Distillery
fleurieudistillery@bigpond.com https://fleurieudistillery.com.au/