THE WHISKY DIARIES: Corowa Distilling Company

The spirit of lateral thinking

When the Druce family’s 1100-hectare property at Ardlethan, NSW, produced an excess of wheat one season they came up with a novel solution: mill it and use the flour to make chocolate-covered licorice. The Junee Licorice and Chocolate Factory was born.

A few years later when the farm produced an excess of another grain, the family applied similar lateral thinking and later this year the Corowa Distilling Company will release its first whisky, made with barley grown on the Druce family’s organically certified property – about two and half hours’ drive north of the distillery site in Corowa.

Like the Druces’ Junee factory, their Corowa distillery is housed in an old flour mill. Renovations on the 1924 Corowa mill began in 2010 – which is a story all on its own – and distillery operations started in March 2016. Its first release is scheduled for September 1 and will be available at the distillery door and through selected retailers, as well as via Kathleen Davies’ craft spirits distribution business, Nip of Courage.

Distillery founder, Dean Druce, says the pieces of the distillery puzzle “just started to slide together and it married up really nicely”. “We had this excess of barley and were looking around at what can we do, and how do we make this work, and then this magnificent building in Corowa became available,” Druce says.

Founder and Distiller Dean Druce

“We thought, well, whisky is becoming a huge thing, we’ve got an excess of barley, there’s a building down there, it’s a great area for tourism, there’s a lot of wineries around so there’s barrels that are readily available, and the water is really good in Corowa. So it all just sort of fell together really nicely.

“You think, well, it’s almost too good to be true. And the last point would be that we love drinking whisky. It makes it a lot easier when you want to do that job. Coming to work and drinking whisky all the time and looking at whisky and talking about whisky is so easy when you enjoy drinking it yourself.”

Druce picked up on a blossoming trend in boutique whiskies during two years spent in Canada after leaving high school. But with only a rudimentary knowledge of the craft of distilling, Druce and his father Neil headed to the birthplace of whisky to learn more. “We went to Scotland for two months and learned off some of the big distilleries in Scotland, and we also learned from a lot of the littler ones, exactly how they’ve done it,”Druce says.

“We worked with Kilchoman for a while, which was a start-up back then. They talked about the troubles they had and what worked. So that was really helpful for us.”

In developing their own style and approach to distilling, Druce and Corowa Distilling Co’s master distiller Beau Schlig started with a concept of the finished product and worked backwards from there.“The style that we were going for is a nice fruity and quite sweet whisky that also has that really nice grain and malt flavour coming though in it,” Druce says. “Because we are famers off the land and we wanted to replicate that in a drink. We try to get as much malt and grain into it, with that springtime flowers and fruits and different things in it as well.” The distillery hand-designed its own stills and had them manufactured in Australia.

Head Distiller Beau Schilg

“The more you get into it the more you then realise, well, the way the lyne arm faces down produces a different type of spirit profile than if it faces up, and how long it is, and every little last intricate detail has an effect on what it’s going to taste like,” Druce says.

The proof of whether they’ve hit the mark will come in September. Druce and Schlig aren’t messing around with limited runs and their first release in September will be followed quickly by as many as four further releases. “We’ve got quite an amount of whisky sitting down, we’re not a little distillery only making 40 barrels a year,” Druce says.“We will have probably up to our fifth release ready to go fairly soon after [September 1]. So if people do miss out on our first release and they want our whisky they can certainly get the other releases straight away.”

Druce says the secret to producing a high-quality whisky lies in using high-quality ingredients and equipment, attention to detail and plenty of time. “We try to use the best products at any given stage,” he says.
“It’s no good using terrible barley and terrible yeast and terrible water and then thinking it’s going to be fixed in a really nice barrel. If you use really good quality barley and take your time the whole way along, you will have a lot better chance. And put it in the best-quality barrels you possibly can.”

Feature image via