The Whisky Diaries: Timboon Railway Shed Distillery

When Josh Walker announced he planned to acquire a whisky distillery in Timboon, a small town about two and three quarter hours’ drive west of Melbourne, he wasn’t short of people telling him they thought he was mad.

“My friends and family said I was crazy,” he says. “I had this contracting business that was doing reasonably well. But I haven’t looked back. I love making a good-quality whisky that people can enjoy and take home and celebrate with friends and family.”

Timboon has a population of about 1200 and a colourful history featuring railways and bootleg booze. Although the town’s main industries are listed as dairying, forestry and the production of lime, the town is also renowned as a hub for gourmet dining, being on the 12 Apostles Gourmet Trail. Central to its reputation is the Timboon Railway Shed Distillery and its associated 60-seat restaurant, now run by a cast of Walker family members.

The distillery has operated since 2007, but Walker took it over in 2015 not long after he returned from a trip to Kentucky, where it was clear that the craft beer brewing trend had peaked, but there was a second swell building behind it and breweries were scrambling to convert into distilleries to catch a coming craft spirits wave.

Walker says he and group of his cousins were already keen but “very amateur” brewers and given the similarities in the early stages of the brewing and distilling processes, and a belief that Australia follows the US on a five- to 10-year time-lag, it seemed timely to make the transition from amateur brewer and agricultural contractor (he still supplies beef to the restaurant) to craft distiller and restaurateur.

Walker’s move was aided by the availability of assistance and guidance when he needed it from the distillery’s former owners, who today run Timboon Fine Ice Cream just across the creek from the distillery.

Walker produces two permanent single-malt whiskies in a 600-litre Tasmanian-made Knapp Lewer copper pot still: Port Expression, which he describes as fruity, sweet and slightly smoky, “an all-rounder’s whisky, pretty soft and delicate and a slightly smokey finish to it, pretty popular with people at the entry level or who just want a good drinking whisky”; and Christie’s Cut, a cask-strength whisky at 60 per cent alcohol content, which he describes as “quite strong, big, bold and aged for longer in a bigger barrel – this one is more designed for single-malt drinkers, people who appreciate that full-bodied long-finishing whisky”.

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He also produces a third line, three times a year, in limited quantities and in varying styles, under the moniker Governor’s Reserve.

The latest release of just 96 bottles was in August 2018 and currently retails for around $260 for a 500ml bottle. Walker distributes his products nationally through Nip of Courage, and exports to Singapore with Spirit & Penance.

The distillery sits inside the restaurant and patrons find themselves dining next to a working still. The business is absolutely a Walker family concern. Walker’s sister Sarah works full-time, doing some distilling and all the running of the business, including looking after local wholesale clients; and his fiancee Caitlin works during the week in Warrnambool but moonlights in the distillery’s tasting bar on weekends.

Walker’s parents Glenda and Matthew take care of bottling and labelling, and run the online store. Caitlin’s mum, Fiona, looks after the restaurant kitchen, under the guidance of head chef Simon Yarham, while Caitlin’s brother and sister – Josh and Laura – work front of house.

Walker expects to produce about 6000 litres of new make spirit in 2018, and has doubled production in each of the past three years.

“The angels take a good proportion of that; we lose about 30 per cent to the angel’s share, depending on how long it ages for, or 5 per cent per year  ” Walker says.

“We hope to double again next year. It’s pretty ambitious but we can see there’s high demand there for it already and we want to meet that demand.”

Depending on how it is ultimately cut down and how much is lost its output could translate to around 14,000 bottles, but “that’s really approximate – there’s a lot of guesswork in that with every cask losing different amounts”, Walker says.

“Some barrels lose more than others. Because our barrels heat up and cool down really often, the spirit is forcing into the wood and then retracting from the wood more often than it would in Scotland, so we naturally lose more in seepage but also evaporation out of the cask as well. Those barrels are working really hard. The payoff is we get out product to market quite quickly, but we do lose more in that process.”

The wash that goes into Timboon’s still is produced by the Prickly Moses brewery, about half an hour away. A feature of Walker’s style is the high ester profile in the spirit, producing a sweet floral or fruity note in the final product.

“That’s a little bit of a secret we use at Timboon to try to make it a little bit sweeter,” Walker says.

“A lot of distilleries [ferment] for seven to 10 days, but we go up to six weeks sometimes. I’m happy to talk about it – but not the way we do it. We do it a little bit special.”

Walker’s Port Expression always goes into American oak barrels, of between 20 and 100 litres in capacity, and generally ages for between three and four years.

“The Christie’s Cut goes into bigger barrels – 100 litres-plus and sometimes up to 220-litre barrels – and always French oak, but still port barrels,” Walker says.

“The French oak gives a really nice, spicy, long finish to it, whereas the American oak makes it quite soft and vanilla-y – butterscotch and those sorts of notes come through in the Port Expression.”

Walker says people are often surprised by how important the barrel is to the characteristics of the finished product. Timboon sources its barrels primarily from wineries in the Pyrenees region of Victoria, and some from the Barossa, and afterwards moves them on to a local brewery, which uses them to produce a whisky stout.

“We place a high emphasis on the quality of barrels we use,” he says.

“Whisky gets 100 per cent of its colour from the barrel and, I believe, around about 75 per cent of its taste. What barrel you put it into is really, really important. The distillation process is pretty monotonous and you’re trying to get quality spirit consistently – it’s doing the same thing every time to get a good consistent spirit, but then making sure your barrel preparation is good.

“We do a really heavy char to all our barrels, and that makes us a little bit unique as well. We get that big smoky finish to our whisky, but definitely not a peat smoke, it’s a charring smoke.”

Walker says the family plans to have Matthew and father-in-law Heath trained as coopers, which will give it a considerable advantage in preparing its barrels – a perennial issue for craft distillers.

“Our cooper recently passed away,” Walker says. “We’ve got a little bit of barrel stock on hand at the moment but coming up it’s going to be a challenge. I’ve found a fellow who’s going to teach [Matthew and Heath] how to recooper barrels. It’s a dying craft and it’s really hard to come by a cooper that’s willing to teach other people. We found this fellow not that long ago and we’re hoping it works out.”