What is “craft” distilling?
Can we agree the term “craft” is overused in the industry? Does a distillery have to be under an arbitrary annual production output to qualify as being a craft distiller? Does a certain amount of its production need to be done by hand? Can the ingredients only be sourced locally, with every step of provenance and production meticulously detailed?
I’ve read talk that Bimber are a craft distiller, though they have a global sales reach and significant cult following. Perhaps, ultimately, craft is harder to define than it is to say, I know it when I see it. And that’s where we come to Headlands Distilling Company. Even for a bloke who runs the Twitter account @australiawhisky, I had never heard of Headlands.
If I had never heard of Headlands, I can almost guarantee you haven’t, either. They are small, they are regional, and their sales reach barely extends out of their home state of New South Wales. These guys are hitting farmers’ markets and local fairs to try to promote their products, which include gin, vodka and – as of 2021 – single malt whisky
Luckily enough, a mailing list I subscribe to, The Whisky List, offered the chance to get to know Headlands through a recent virtual tasting flight with the distillery team and the chance to purchase a members only ex-Bourbon American Oak cask. Intrigued, I did some reading on Headlands and then reached out to the crew to find out a little bit more about who they are.
Malt: Opening a new distillery must be a challenging and scary venture both in terms of time and money invested. Tell us about the background of Headlands, how you chose your site, and how you first took the plunge into distilling
Headlands: Headlands started from humble beginnings. Tom was completing his PhD at the University of Wollongong, studying opportunities for integrating underutilised grains into the Australian food system. He mentioned that many of the farmers he spoke to were disheartened that there was little to no traceability when it came to knowing what products their grains ended up in. This was the spark of insight that triggered us to look at interesting applications of grains where we could trace the origins of the grain to final products.
With Jared and his chemical engineering background, we decided to look into producing craft spirits. We spent months organising licences, permits and equipment and whilst it cost us both time and money, it was well worth the effort! The site itself made sense as the four founders have all lived in Wollongong (almost) since birth. We wanted something local and easily accessible, so we’re located in the heart of Wollongong and as close to the community as possible. The local community helped us build a footprint, which enabled us to gradually grow into other markets and build a vibrant portfolio of spirits.
Malt: I notice that you started off selling gin and vodka; was the true passion always malt whisky and these were to establish yourself in the market, get some income flow while the first whisky barrels matured? Or would you say Headlands is equally passionate across its portfolio of spirits?
Headlands: Starting with vodka was a deliberate move because we consider it the hardest spirit to make to a premium quality. When crafting vodka you cannot mask the taste with other flavours, meaning that it is entirely down to the quality of the inputs and skill of the distiller. Vodka needs to be ready to drink the next day and we can’t rely on the influence of ageing.
Once we had started producing the vodka, we also had control of all the variables which affect the quality, such as the mashing and milling process, fermentation time, temperature, yeast type and pitching cell count, distillation cuts, distillation energy input and reflux. All of these variables are applicable to whisky and since we had learnt exactly what factors influence different tastes – for instance which range of fermentation temperatures or yeast varieties produce the esters and lactones we want or don’t want – we were well prepared. We were very lucky in the early days that we still had friends working at UOW in the science department, so we could call in favours for Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry tests. We then focused on branching into other related spirits, such as gin.
In saying that, the goal was always to produce whisky, and this is why we were putting barrels down early in the Headlands journey. At the time we had no idea what the future would hold, but we adopted the three horizons framework (short, medium and long term) to sketch out what we wanted to achieve. Nevertheless, we are all passionate about the products we produce and stand behind each and every spirit that comes out of the Headlands stable. If we aren’t happy with a product, we won’t release it; it’s as simple as that
Malt: I was pleased to read on the website that all grain for your spirits is sourced from the Wollongong region. Can you tell our readers a little about the variety of barley you use, your malting process, fermentation times, barrel entry proof, and warehousing?
Headlands: We source our barley from a sixth-generation grower named Mick Sinclair, located in the Riverina region of NSW (Temora to be precise). When starting our journey, Tom reached out to a series of growers asking for a small quantity of grain. The majority of those cold calls were ignored; Mick was one of the very few who backed us and supplied us with some of his best barley. Our barley is a variety called La Trobe, although we have tried a number of other varieties as well. The most recent experiment involved a variety called Planet barley, which – as the name suggests – is grown all over the planet.
The fermentation varies greatly with different products. Our vodka/gin alcohol base is always fermented at relatively low temperatures so we don’t form as many solvent-like flavours, whereas the whisky can be fermented cold or hot. Hot fermentations will produce a lot of fruity esters but won’t be as smooth until many years have passed. This is where the magic of the ageing process comes in.
We generally fill the barrels around 63.5% but have filled some higher for fun.
Malt: Is it a struggle to obtain good quality casks? Do you have a relationship with a local cooperage?
Headlands: Thankfully, there is a thriving wine industry in Australia and a few producing excellent fortified wines which pair perfectly with whisky. We are constantly experimenting with the casks we use so we aren’t committed to a single cooperage. We’re free to build relationships with all of them!
We are doing some coopering here and there ourselves and we’re fortunate that we quite enjoy taking a plane to some wood. Buying used barrels, shaving the inside and re-charring, etc. is really fun. Tasting the product years later and knowing it came from that hard work… now that is even more fun!
Malt: I know you are early on your journey in the spirits world, but what would you say you are aiming for as a distillery character in your spirits?
Headlands: From day one, we aimed to be an innovative craft distillery. This is demonstrated through our bespoke distillation setup, which was designed by Jared. Reusing the waste heat energy is key to the design, such as a solid copper, continuous alcohol stripping column which preheats the incoming fermented alcohol and also condenses the product at the same time, saving a huge amount of energy and water and not losing flavour.
Innovation also focuses on the type of ingredients we use to craft our products with. This includes a range of native plants and botanicals such as the Illawarra Plum, which create distinctive flavours and unique products. When consuming Headlands products, we want people to be blown away by the quality, taste, and uniqueness of the product. When they come to us, they can try something unlike anything they have had before.
We do a lot of products based around our favourite fruit, the Illawarra Plum. It isn’t actually a plum, but a rare native Australian bush tucker fruit. We make a two-plus-year-old barrel aged spirit and liqueur from the Illawarra Plum fruit, gin steeped in Illawarra Plum and soon we will release the world’s first Illawarra Plum cask whisky, which is a four year old bourbon cask whisky, finished for a year in an ex-Illawarra Plum fortified cask.
Malt: I notice on your website that you have a journal article about the high price of Australian spirits, but so far your releases seem very reasonably priced given your economies of scale. How sensitive are you to pricing your own products competitively?
Headlands: The Australian government levies excise tax on alcoholic spirits which are some of the highest in the world. When deciding on our pricing strategy we take this into account, as we are also aware that consumers are price sensitive when it comes to discretionary products such as alcohol. For this reason, we focus on setting our prices at a point that demonstrates we are a premium craft product, but still has value when compared to international distilleries.
We produce every batch by hand and have a strong focus on continuous improvement. We strive to produce the highest quality spirits and offer people a variety of flavours that are new and unique. If we did one batch of whisky every six months and tried to sell it for a high price like a lot of other Australian distilleries, we would be inactive for the rest of the year. We would always rather share our passion and keep mashing, fermenting, distilling, and coming up with new releases.
Malt: What has the reception and feedback been like so far for your first ever batches of malt whisky?
Headlands: Our five year old Muscat cask batch 2 received a gold medal in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2021 and silver in the London World Spirits Competition 2021. It was tied with Lawrenny Ascension for best whisky from Australia, so you can imagine how pleased we were when we received the results. The judges of these competitions are very high profile and influential spirits experts, so we are stoked to say the least. The Apera cask whisky was awarded a silver in the London World Spirits Competition and silver at San Francisco 2021.
One of our favourite things to do is give people a taste and sometimes see the shock on their faces when they weren’t expecting to enjoy it so much. It’s fun to convince the guys and girls who “only drink whisky” to try our Tidal Lines Illawarra Plum Infused gin. It’s been a huge hit with the whisky lovers, and it is really fun to introduce them to a gin they will love.
Malt: What challenges can you foresee in the next 5 years for Headlands, and all going well what would be the dream outcome after this time? Is there an ambition to push into bottle shops nationally?
Headlands: The biggest challenge we face is scaling the business fast enough to meet demand. While new distilleries are constantly appearing on the landscape, we believe that as long as the quality of the products being produced paints the Australian craft distilling scene in a positive light, the reputation both locally and internationally will grow, further bolstering growth opportunities. We are excited to be part of this expansion and our reputation and following is growing rapidly.
In the next 5 years, we see Headlands growing to become a global company with a portfolio of spirits that caters to all tastes and preferences. We are ambitious, agile, and have high expectations of ourselves, all of which will be needed to succeed in an increasingly cluttered global landscape. We will of course focus efforts on Australia to begin with, and having our products stocked across the country is high on our agenda. This will help to forge out a position for Headlands as a household name in the alcohol industry. On the less “dreamy” side, we wouldn’t mind a distillery with a bit more room. If you’ve been to our distillery lately you will know we have equipment all over and utilise every piece of space! We’ve recently purchased another warehouse, so our goals of expansion are developing nicely.
Malt: Finally, tell our readers about your relationship with SpinalCure Australia?
Headlands: When the four of us started our journey in 2015, we made a conscious decision that we would run the business in a way that reflects our own personal values. We sketched out several dimensions that would allow us to operate in a socially responsible way. This included using 100% renewable energy, deploying innovative energy saving distillation techniques, using recycled packaging, offering a bottle return system, and of course collaborating with SpinalCure Australia.
The reason for donating to SpinalCure is close to our hearts. In 2010, Dean was snowboarding in France when he had an accident which broke his back and left him paraplegic. As the name suggests, SpinalCure is focused on funding research to find a cure for spinal cord injuries. When it comes to spinal cord injuries, it is only a matter of time until a cure can be found, and that time is heavily contingent on the amount of funding dedicated towards it. Our commitment to supporting SpinalCure demonstrates how close the four of us are, as we all unanimously agreed that such a collaboration would be high on our agenda and a key part of our business ethos.
Thanks to Dean at Headlands for taking the time to answer my questions. Before I open my bottle, a note on pricing: the Headlands website sells its core range of 700 ml bottles at 46% ABV for $130. At the scale of production these guys are at, that is excellent. The bottle reviewed here today is one of 274 and comes at “distiller” strength of 58% ABV; so, not quite cask strength, but not far removed. For $150 that is exceptional and appeals to me more than the ex-Apera and Muscat bottlings on the website shop. What better vessel to explore a distillery character than an ex-Bourbon cask?
The Whisky List and Whisky Lovers Australia Exclusive Headlands Distilling Company Ex-Bourbon Barrel 5 year old – Review
Colour: Light gold
On the nose: A surprisingly soft, approachable nose despite the ABV. There isn’t much here by way of fruits, but I do get toasted fig and walnut bread, brandy infused whipped cream, brown ales from hand pumps. Then some olive oil, some damp grass after a rain shower, salt flakes, and either mead or honey in the finish. I would have to say this nose is more sophisticated and inviting than I might’ve expected with no off notes.
In the mouth: The palate immediately reveals some youth, with immediate alcohol burn and a drying affect in the mouth. After a while I get some dukkah and scorched almonds, pumpkin seeds, the sweetness of milk buns and Werther’s Originals. I hit a wall when trying to explore this further so add a dash of water and am glad I did because it seems to immediately soften this dram with bread and butter pudding, fried donuts dusted with sugar and cappuccino ice cream. When I contrast this to my reviews of the Benromach Cask Strength releases, it proves to me again the clarity a single cask can provide.
There is real skill on display here, an embryonic talent that will only evolve with time. I appreciate the generous bottling strength but also wonder what this might’ve been if bottled at perhaps 50% ABV; still, it is imperative on the consumer to experiment with water to open up their whiskies.
A reminder that the Malt scoring bands are sensitive to pricing. If we see an item that represents great value we may add on a point, or conversely, deduct a point for an egregious price rort. This bottle was a subscription list exclusive, so price comparisons are dicey, but I’m certainly happier to have spent $150 supporting the team at Headlands than if I had spent $240 on this or $270 here. As such I am content to add an extra point to the score than what I might’ve awarded otherwise.
After this review the chances are international readers will not hear of Headlands again, but that is OK; I am happy to have given them benefit of the Malt Review global spotlight and to provide some insight into the craft distilling scene in Australia. Perhaps local whisky enthusiasts could look into supporting them, too?
All prices in Australian dollars. Bottle photo by Mark. Distillery photo courtesy of The Whisky List.