If you spend anytime scrolling at pretty pictures of makers of spirits on social media, chances are you’re eye will be caught by the shining copper and beauty of the stills.
So these lovely things often stand in to represent the distillers craft and speak of the alchemy of science, botany and engineering that makes for the good stuff.
But with a few rare exceptions, all that beautiful metal is the work of a fine craftsperson, the unsung heroes of the current spirits era.
To my mind, one of the best things to come of this boom has been the resurgence of the skill sets that are essential to what ends up in your glass. The makers of barrels, farmers growing new and old varieties of grain, foragers of botanicals, and those who fabricate the still technology that brings it all together. Simply put, without these and other industries, there would be no Australian craft spirits industry.
In Australia there are about half a dozen or so makers of stills, some are new, having responded to the demand, others have been quietly getting on with business for years. I’ve some 300 gin makers alone listed on this site, and I add more every month. These all need a still pretty much.
So I thought it timely to introduce three of them to you, Mark Kolodziej and Tim Freeman from Stillsmiths in Tasmania, Michelle and Mark Burns of Burns Welding and the Aisling Distillery in Griffith New South Wales, and Hilton from HHH Distill in Western Australia.
In researching this article it became clear that if you’re a would-be distiller you can do your research, visit lots of places, ask about, and order something from overseas or here off the shelf as it were… more often it’s a process of co-design with the makers of the stills.
The technology of the still is critical to what get’s made (obviously), and there are lots of technical and business decisions to be made such as what sort of spirit is going to get made, what level of investment is possible for a start. Then what about power sources and the raw ingredients being used, the scale of production aimed for, and then there are a range of regulations and approvals that all need taking care of.
I’ve heard of distillers with romantic visions of making the next world’s best gin with scant a business plan and a lust for a shiny copper still in their eyes, but not having really thought through the business fundamentals, let alone what sort of gin they wish to make, in what volume and how they will sell it. The risk is a significant investment in set-up but a slim chance of getting a return on that expense.
So the engagement of a still fabricator is a vital step in the journey of these would be distillers is a vital step, and their interaction with these makers can make a big difference as to whether the new distilleries journey will be a successful one.
My thanks to the three craftspeople who were so generous of their time and insights to make this article possible.
So pour yourself a glass of something nice, get comfy and let’s have a chat.
Burns Welding + Aisling Distillery, New South Wales
This husband and wife team are possibly one of the very few people in the world who both make the stills and the spirits in the one location. This must be very handy for spare parts!
As Michelle relates, “ Five years ago we embarked on a new journey and that was following Mark’s heritage into owning his own distillery. With his engineering back ground we built our Distillery with pure efficiency, to be able to aid and assist clients looking at distillery set ups.
We have a very efficient distillery, no hoses, so we are not moving pumps all the time and everything is plumbed and runs through our heat exchange and chiller system. With our experience we hope that our clients leave with ease and passion just like we have. We are able to do cycles in 3 weeks.
We mash & ferment 20,000 litres of beer a week, to then progress the following week to do our Wash & Spirit runs. We have Single Malt Whisky & Rum to release in July 2020. More recently we released our two Gins. Our Dry Gin Murrumbidgee which has received a Bronze & Silver Award and our Classic Dry Pepper Berry Gin.”
- What was the scope of the business like before the emergence of the craft distilling scene in the mid 90s in Australia? Very similar to start up distilleries it was a wine boom in the 90s.
- What sort of stills do you specialise in? We specialise in Pot, Column & Vacuum Stills, currently working on continuous column still.
- How do you work with new distillers in deciding what gets made? We have a series of questions, process of elimination of which direction they would like go, at that point it is a balancing act for them being able to scale up for the future without making there existing equipment redundant.
- What sorts of customers are you getting now? In the early days it was husband & wife start-ups, clients looking into the future and thinking a slower pace heading into retirement, as we progress forward they are commercial clients requiring end to end set ups of larger scales and returning clientele, expanding and opening numerous distilleries.
- Is there much of a wait list, or how long, on average does it take to make a still from concept to installation? The fabrication process is a few hundred hours, although it is not something you can put numerous tradesmen on as it requires an eye for detail, working with copper is a challenge and takes a lot of patience and expertise. Our general wait time is 3-6 months this depends on the project at hand. We are getting a lot of referrals from past clients and more interest on social media.
- Do you have any free advice for would be distillers? Buy a small Alembic Still and have some fun. Buy Australian made equipment and get the ease of being able to have support into the future, something you may not acquire if going off shore.
- Ball park only, what sort of investment would a typical still be? There is no typical Still, they all vary in range, design and cost depending on clients taste, location and most importantly budget. But as a guide, a 300 litre, gin still 4-6 plate column, with whisky combo start at $28-$33k, a 600 litre Pot, column Still combo start at $50-$60k, 1250 litre Pot Still $58-$68k all fabricated from 3mm copper, insulated with a 75mm blanket & 1.6mm copper insulation on the outer barrels.
- How long in business: I have been in business since 1995, I did my trade as a First Class Boiler Maker. As times have changed we have had to diversify. Seven years ago we built the first Stills for Corowa Whisky. Since fabricating and commissioning of Neil Druce’s Stills 90% of our Engineering, Design, Fabrication and Commissioning is Distillery & Brewery Equipment.
- Location: Griffith NSW known as the “food bowl of Australia”
- Websites: www.burnswelding.com.au & www.theaislingdistillery.com.au
- Follow them on Instagram & Facebook
HHH Distill, Western Australia
As Hilton Izzett relates, “In December 2017 I finished off a litigation case in the Middle East which I had worked on full time for almost 4 years (I’m a civil engineer with qualifications in construction law). I had started building my own column for a stainless steel boiler I bought from China and I had designed a pile of fittings in brass and had a company make 20 times more than I needed.
So I started making a column to sell, slapped an advert on Gumtree and built my own website. A guy saw my advert and asked if I would convert an old copper water heater into a still and I said yes, not knowing if I could or not. Three days later I was done and jealous that I did not have my own copper boiler.
So I set out to find a way and 3 weeks later I had made two from sheets of copper, one of which sold a week later. I love the work I do, the learning, the engineering, the creativeness, the interaction with customers. I do not try to make money, I make stills and have come a long way in terms of fabrication method and design.
We have a long way to go and have had great company on my journey – my customers, some of whom have become my friends. There is a great bunch of people out there making great alcohol, innovative, creative, quality conscious. My opinion is that Australia will become well known internationally in the future for its great spirits.”
- What sort of stills do you specialise in? I specialise in copper stills. I have made 4” plated columns, 4” reflux columns, gin pot stills, gin plated column stills, whisky stills, vodka stills, rum as well. The distillation concepts remain the same no matter the configuration. I make my stills to be versatile so you can unclamp, say, a reflux column and replace it with a gin basket column. I may say that I specialise in compact stills and I have designed systems where the condenser is clamped to a fitting welded to the boiler instead of having its own stand separated and away from the boiler.
- How do you work with new distillers in deciding what gets made? I start my asking what the distiller wants to make, and how much and how many times they want to distil per week; I then back calculate what size still they need and the power requirements. If it is gin they want we discuss buying in ethanol or making it themselves, and depending on which one they go for I will design a still to suit.
- What sorts of customers are you getting? Right now my customers are split between hand sanitiser and drinking alcohol. Most drinking alcohol customers are into gin.
- Is there much of a wait list, or how long, on average does it take to make a still from concept to installation? I never used to have a wait list but this year I have been busy and have about a 2 month wait list. The queue is determined by the date of payment of the deposit, not the date of order. I’ve had customers make an order and do nothing, so it fair to have the queue determined by deposit.
- Do you have any free advice for would be distillers? My advice is go do what you have a passion for because in this industry of boutique distillers, passion sells. If you are not excited about your product, better to take your money and invest in blue chip shares. If you have a passion, follow it and make it work and people like me will give you a lot of support.
- Ball park only, what sort of investment would a typical still be? This depends entirely on what size still you need. Some customers make a living with only a 50L gin still which costs around $10,000 plug and play. A 330L whisky still is around $25,000 and the reflux version is $28,000. A 660L combination reflux still with gin basket is $50,000.
I don’t need to tell you the importance of Tasmania to the Australian craft distilling scene from the beginning and it remains a powerhouse for fine whisky and gin and the rest.
Makers of stills there are in high demand for their experience and I daresay new makers are also aiming to capture some of the success of many of the Tasmania brands have enjoyed by leveraging this expertise in fabrication and understanding of the distillers craft by these makers. Stillsmiths as a company was formed in 2015 but the fabrication business that preceded it has operated since 2001, so it’s one of the longest established makers of stills in Australia.
Stillsmiths is co-owned by Tim Freeman and Mark Kolodziej, and they shared these insights.
- What was the scope of the business like before the emergence of the craft distilling scene in the mid 90s in Australia? Our mainstream business has always been food and beverage. We formed Stillsmiths Tasmania to promote an Iconic brand name that would embellish the fine craftsmanship of our team here in Tasmania.
- What sort of stills do you specialise in? We started off designing Premium Quality Tasmanian Style Pot Stills. We are also now designing high performance column stills for the high volume spirit market.
- How do you work with new distillers in deciding what gets made? We work closely with our new distillers to ensure they receive the best quality Tasmanian product that has some of their uniqueness added so they can have an ownership in their new Still.
- What sorts of customers are you getting now? Our customers are varied. We offer a premium product with particular attention to compliance in the workplace. We have built stills for retirees who want to make fine whiskies, as well as designing and constructing fully automated production models.
- At present we are designing and fabrication a complete turnkey distillery for Callington Mill Tasmania. This distillery will define the emergence of Tasmania as a premium quality Single Malt production powerhouse.
- We are also building our own showcase distillery in Westbury Tasmania. This live distillery will be our complete package for would be clients to look over and appreciate what Tasmania has to offer in distilling equipment and design. Our mission is simple: to become the finest Distillery equipment producers in the Southern Hemisphere.
- Is there much of a wait list, or how long, on average does it take to make a still from concept to installation? Waiting lists vary on Copper availability, and customer requirements. Usually we deliver around 16 working weeks from approved drawings.
- Do you have any free advice for would be distillers? Compliance is everything.
- The price of the Still is usually one of the smaller investments in your distillery. Buying a still that is larger than you think you need is something you need to consider. Also the price difference between a budget and premium still is usually paid for in one run. You do get what you paid for.
- Ball park only, what sort of investment would a typical still be? A 900 litre Still is around AUD $85K +