Barley or bust: New King Island whisky and gin distillers go with the grain | Ralph-Lauren

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It was a relaxed night in spring a few years ago and King Island farmer Thomas Shaw was having a beer and chatting with neighbour Vaughan O’Connor when Mr O’Connor announced the island needed a distillery.

“And I said, ‘Woah, don’t get me started,'” Mr Shaw recalls.

“I’ve probably been talking about it for five or six years too long now.”

King Island distillery founder Vaughan O'Connor
King Island Distillery founder Vaughan O’Connor says is fully committed to the venture.(Supplied: Vaughan O’Connor)

Mr Shaw said he had dreamed of opening a distillery since travelling to ancestral homeland Scotland.

For Mr O’Connor, the idea took hold when he started coming to King Island to surf at the world-renowned Martha Lavinia break.

“Anyone that’s been there (King Island) probably falls in love with the community and the place itself,” he said.

“And the more time we spent there, the more we realised that it would be a great opportunity to do something special with the distillery.”

With that, a distillery was conceived. But the project hasn’t been without challenges.

Mr O’Connor’s vision is to build a distillery with a “world-renowned pedigree” akin to King Island’s iconic cheese and beef brands.

To do that, the distillery will use King Island’s natural peat and grow its own barley on Mr O’Connor’s 5-hectare [12-acre] block.

Grain crops aren’t common on King Island, which is dominated by green pasture due to its climate and rainfall, but veteran farmer Robbie Payne says they are possible.

“For growing, the rainfall is always reliable. But the biggest problem is probably trying to get the grain moisture levels down,” he said.

King Island distiller Thomas Shaw inspects the progress of the barley.
King Island distiller Thomas Shaw inspects the progress of the barley.(Supplied: Vaughan O’Connor)

Mr O’Connor isn’t too concerned. He has grain growing in his veins because his father grew up in Yarrawonga in the “wheat and barley belt” of Victoria.

“We’re very fortunate in the fact that we can pick up the phone and talk to my second cousins and uncles and actually say, ‘What are we doing wrong here? What do we need to do to get this crop going?'” he said.

Mr Shaw knows it can be done. The previous owner of his farm grew barley to feed livestock.

“And I grew a test crop about three years ago,” he said.

The inaugural distillery crop was planted in November and now boasts “beautiful, fat barley heads”.

But growing might be the easy part; harvesting is another story.

‘Cranking up the old beast’

An old Massey Ferguson header in a large shed with the farmers
King Island farmers helped transport an ageing Massey Ferguson header to the distillery.(Supplied: Thomas Shaw)

Mr O’Connor admits his original plan for harvesting was a little naïve.

“I thought I’d just be able to ring someone up and contract them in to take off the crop but that wasn’t an option,” he said.

Grain headers are just as rare on King Island as grain crops, so Mr O’Connor was forced to get an old Massey Ferguson header shipped across Bass Strait.

“We didn’t think it would be all that clever, smart or financial to purchase one of the more technologically advanced harvesters,” he said.

Mr O’Connor says they are now a couple of weeks away “from cranking up the old beast and seeing how it goes”.

Then the real work begins, especially for Mr Shaw, who will serve as chief distiller.

King Island whisky distiller pats a cow in a paddock
King Islander Thomas Shaw will serve as chief distiller.(Supplied: Thomas Shaw)

Mr O’Connor, meanwhile, will harness his strengths in salesmanship, given his career in marketing and brand management.

King Island Tourism Association president Adam Hely said he was excited about the venture, which would complement an existing distillery run by Heidi Weitjens and a brewery set to open in a few weeks.

He said it made sense for the tourism sector to trade on King Island’s agriculture excellence.

“The location, rainfall and geography sets us apart for being able to produce the best of the best,” he said.

“We’ve got unreal, dedicated farmers but their location makes their job a lot easier.”

The ‘Viking strategy’

King Island Distillery barley fields
Fields of barley at the site of the distillery.(Supplied: Vaughan O’Connor)

As they prepare to start their first batch, Mr O’Connor has already scouted nearby farms for an expanded barley crop.

He expects clear spirits such as gin and vodka to be on shelves by September but the whisky will be a long time in the making.

“We’re going to try to go the whole hog in terms of a 12-year, barrel-aged [spirit] for our Cape Wickham whisky,” he said.

Mr O’Connor says he realises it “takes a lot to be able to keep pouring into production that you’re not going to see a dollar on for a decade”.

But he’s confident and has embraced the “Viking strategy”.

“Let’s burn our boat and go hard on this and not have the chance to either retreat or surrender,” he said.

“Most good businesses, if you really weigh it up, don’t give themselves an exit strategy. They actually make sure they have to go through and make it work.”

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