With a bushfire just 3km away, Aussie distiller prays the wind doesn’t change direction

By Richard Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Pic:getty/philips
Pic:getty/philips

Related tags: Wine, Australia

Faced with blazes on three sides, the owners of Stony Creek Farm distillery decided to defend their property and protect their livelihood.

The fledgling artisanal gin brand - whose rural distillery is in the heart of an Australian bushfire inferno - has pledged to battle the flames and reopen when things finally get safer.

When owner Gavin Hughes spoke to BeverageDaily​, the closest blaze was just 3km and the survival of his property was dependent on the easterly wind staying true. On other sides, bushfires roared 6km away to the north, while the Werri Berri blaze had retreated to 8km.

We are only a short way from having issues again, so we are on constant alert. They are predicting that later today we could be getting some strong gusts​,” he said.

'The property was choking with smoke'

Hughes and his partner, Karen Touchie, had chosen to stay in their property and defend it from the fires that have roared out of control across southern and eastern Australia over the last month.

They could have joined others in the area around Bega, in southern New South Wales, and retreat to safety. But their gin distillery was brand new, having only started producing spirits less than a year ago, they figured. It was also still uninsured. More than anything it remains their livelihood.

Since the couple were given the option to leave the property Hughes has managed to install a sprinkler system on top of the distillery. He now has two fire pumps and percolated hoses and has watered the land outside to make a wet boundary in areas the fire is likely to approach from.

We actually lost the sun for two days. It was like midnight, just this deep dark orange glow and the property was choking with smoke. Those were really worrying times because you can’t see something approaching until it arrives,​” said Hughes.

Local limes also threatened

In 2017, Hughes and Touchie had exchanged corporate lives in Melbourne for Stony Creek Farm, with its 12 acres just outside Bega on Australia’s Sapphire Coast. The following year, they converted an old farm shed on the property into a small gin distillery, and in March 2019, they sold their first bottles of gin under the North of Eden brand.

Within just a couple of months, their two lines had won silver and bronze medals at an international competition in London. By November, it picked up the same tally at the Australian Gin Awards.

North of Eden’s The Classic is London dry-style gin with a citrus foundation that features Australian finger limes that are grown on the property.

“We try and use as much produce as we can from our property and around it. It’s what a gin used to taste like,”​ Hughes said.

The second gin is The Connoisseur, which features kelp harvested from Mystery Bay up the coast among 14 botanicals.

I designed it to give a a full palate experience, rather than a traditional gin which is more front of the palate. It has things like elderflower and rose to round out that mouthfeel. It’s a really nice sipping gin and it’s fantastic in cocktails​,” he added.

Gin school opening delayed

The drinks industry executive-turned-distiller is currently looking for an international distributor, after already receiving a mass of orders from overseas.

With its online store open and sales growing nicely, the couple were looking forward to opening their gin school on January 8. They expected these courses for tourists and spirits lovers, which had been booked out for January and into February, to be a revenue spinner for their business.

Guests were to be given their own stills, asked to choose their own botanicals and taught how to make gin. At the end of the day they would be handed a bottle of their handmade spirit, which they would give a name and take home.

We are still at the establishment stage getting our business to where it is going to support us. We are only starting with trade customers and local bottle shops, restaurants and bars​,” said Hughes.

The gin school would provide us a bridge, another source of income to help us become financial. We sold out for January but we had to refund it all all because of the bushfires. You can’t have people coming to this area when it’s too dangerous. Plus it’s an unpleasant place to be with all this smoke​.”

Buying local to support businesses

What is sorely needed in the area is a downpour of at least 200mm in one go, but there is nothing in the weather forecast that suggests that will happen in January. Some rains are expected next month, but if they come together there would then be a strong risk of flooding.

The local community has rallied. Hughes mentions seeing a friend the previous day from Cobargo, a township about 50km north that had been devastated by the blaze. He had lost his cousin and uncle, who were on their property when a bushfire raced past it, razing it to the ground. Much of the historic settlement has also been destroyed.

He also knows dozens of people who have lost their own properties. As one of the areas of lowest socioeconomic development in New South Wales, many home- and business owners do not have insurance. In their darkest moment, the community has been pulling together to support one another.

North of Eden has been doing its bit by donating 10% of what it sells online to the community. He has also been able to employ local people to fulfil a rush of orders that have come with the help of the @spendwiththem campaign, a mass movement by Australian consumers to buy products from businesses affected by the fires.

Orders have closed now, however. With local highways closed, it takes time for orders to arrive, but worse, the materials Hughes needs like boxes and bottles are in short supply.

We’ve had such an enormous amount of support from the public​,” said Hughes. “This area relies on tourism, but there is nobody here. All their that income has gone so we have all these people who are living hand to mouth​.

As soon as we get supplies through again, hopefully we can reopen our shop and continue to employ people. The best thing we can do in this district is provide some economic stimulus. It’s just been smashed as a result of this bushfire crisis​.”

'We are the lucky ones'

Faced with the daily struggle of fireproofing his property and willing the wind not to change direction, Hughes is staying positive. Others in the area have lost so much more, while rural spirits distillers elsewhere in Australia have also been hit hard.

The owners of Joadja distillery, one of a handful of single malt distilleries in the world who grow their own barley and have a spring on-site, were forced to flee when their community was evacuated due to the fires.

Schnapps, gin and vodka maker Wildbrumby Distillery, in the Snowy Mountains, has had to close its cellar door. The owners of Reed & Co Distillery were forced to leave their gin distillery and restaurant in Bright, Victoria.

Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia, had a thriving distillery community. The fires there have been shocking for their speed and extreme behaviour and it is now feared that half of the island has been scorched.

We are the lucky ones: we are still all here; our property hasn’t been burnt and, touch wood, it will stay that way​,” Hughes said.

We are determined to continue, we are determined to build this business. We think we have a good product and we know what we are doing​.”

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