MASTERS OF THEIR CRAFT: How this small Sydney distillery became a world beater

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The distillery and bar in Sydney’s Roseberry.

Will Edwards was a young man with an impossible dream when a holiday in New York changed his life.

“I’d always had a passion for spirits and opening a distillery was this crazy idea I’d had in the back of my mind for a long time,” he explains. “But with no urban distilleries in Australia at the time, it was hard to see how that could become a reality.”

So instead he studied business at Sydney University and went down the corporate path as a consultant before it dawned on him that it wasn’t the career he wanted.

He took some annual leave and headed to New York in 2013, just as the first distilleries began to pop up in Brooklyn for the first time since Prohibition. One in particular, Kings County in a century-old building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard opened his mind to a new possibility.

Joe Dinsmoor at the still.

“It was the first time I really saw what I imagined in my mind,” Edwards said.

“I came back to Sydney and looked around – we’ve got amazing craft brewers and a great bar scene and this history through rum, but there was no Sydney spirit.”

So he knuckled down and spent six months researching whether creating a distillery was even possible. His conclusion was that it was “pretty high risk and difficult”. But that’s no excuse to stop a dream, so for the next two years he worked to establish the Archie Rose Distillery in the southern Sydney of Roseberry, an old industrial area currently being transformed into high density residential.

Two years of planning to bring the idea to fruition followed, including “a lot of trips to Tasmania”, Edwards says, where Bill Lark, the man dubbed the “godfather of Australian whisky” is based. Edwards enlisted Australia’s only still maker, Peter Bailey, to hand-build two copper stills in Tasmania, a year-long construction from commission to installation in the Sydney warehouse. The 3600 litre stills are the country’s biggest, and Edwards decided to go old-school, powering them with steam in an era when most stills are electric.

As he explains “there’s no handbook on setting up a distillery” and the craft distilling industry itself is incredibly small, so finding the right people to work with was critical. And of course the state’s complex liquor laws were their own challenge.

The Archie Rose Bar

Archie Rose opened in March 2015 – the first distillery in Sydney in 160 years. The name is a tribute to the pseudonym used by a 19th century Sydney bootlegger. The site includes a seriously cool bar, which just six months later, was crowned best international bar at London’s Restaurant & Bar Design Awards, beating 860 entries from 70 countries.

Edwards says he wanted a bar as part of the experience to help demystify the whole distillery experience.

“The bar comes back to reason why we do a lot of things here – we wanted to open distilling and spirits to the public,” he explains.

“Historically, distilling has been secretive and cagey and in modern times, remote – these magical water sources and closely guarded recipes.”

Edwards and his team run tours, hold blend-your-own gin classes and lets people taste the spirits as they mature. He says even if you just come for a beer, the bar offers the chance for people to explore the world of spirits when they’re ready.

“I wanted to make sure that even if you’re just curious, you can pop in”.

The spirits themselves are also earning accolades, most recently at the International Wine & Spirits Competition in London.

The Signature Dry Gin, made from Australian botanicals such as lemon myrtle, native blood limes, native river mint and Dorrigo pepper, was ranked top Australian gin alongside the Botanic Australis Gin from Queensland’s Mt Uncle Distillery. It earned a silver medal along with the original vodka and white rye whiskey. The Archie Rose trio also scored the IWSC trophy for best packaging design range for 2016.

“The International Wine & Spirits Competition is extremely highly regarded so to be acknowledged in this way for our core range and to be regarded as the top producer of these spirits in Australia is unbelievable,” Edwards said.

The latest accolades follow on from gold at the Gin Masters 2016 Competition in London.

One key innovation Edwards launched in the last 12 months is tailored spirits – the chance for people to design their own personal gin, vodka or whisky, right down to putting their name on the label.

“Every day we are lucky enough to able to play with pure botanical distillates, unique malts and rare casks to create our spirits’ flavour profiles, and thought why should we be the ones having all the fun designing spirits? It was a natural progression to go down this route and give people the opportunity to get really involved in the distilling process, which we are so passionate about,” he explains.

You choose up to five of the distillery’s unique botanical distillates to add to your bottle of vodka or gin. You can also personalise the bottle.

Edwards also also producing tailored whiskey, right down to the option of you and four friends helping make the spirit on site, along with choosing to make a single malt or rye whisky, matured in 20L, 50L or 100L casks.

A 20-litre cask is $4,000.

“You can choose any wood type the Archie Rose cooper has available including new American or French oak, ex-bourbon, ex-port and ex-sherry and setting your desired level of smoke influence from a choice of peated or wood smoked malts, among others,” Edwards says.

Your name is stencilled on the cask and it’s stored and displayed in the bar rack until matured. You get a 200ml sample annually to create a library of your whisky’s maturation and the cask can be sampled at any time by appointment.

One of the things that excites Edwards most about his job is that every day is different.

“Even if you’ve been making the single malt for a few weeks, it changes every day,” he says.

Being a master of his craft means balancing a range of factors to produce something special.

“Every little element matters and it’s this combination of the equipment, which is very simple and traditional, but still there’s an element of technology there that contributes to the spirit and the human element of the actual distillers and then the environment, which changes all the time,” he says

“You’ve got to make sure that you manage all three of them to make the best spirit.

“It’s really basic and very complicated at the same time.”

Archie Rose Distilling Co is at 61 Mentmore Avenue, Rosebery. The bar is open daily from noon to 10pm.

The Archie Rose distillery team (l-r): Dave Withers, founder Will Edwards, Joe Dinsmoor and Nigel Weisbaum

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