Australian craft pioneer changes focus from beer to $260 whisky

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Australian craft pioneer changes focus from beer to $260 whisky
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 its head distiller. 

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 A$260 (US$196) 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. 

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

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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 speciality 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%​. 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% straight out the barrel with no watering down​.” 

The distillery also produces G-Town Gin and still brews beer, though 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. 

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​. 

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. 

Andrews began the brewery in 2004, when it was one of only three craft breweries in South Australia. 

The success of the business allowed him to eventually start distilling, which had been a long-term goal. Its focus is now 90% whisky, 5% on gin and 5% on 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 and teacher, is becoming more involved in the business 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​.” 

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