Wander the grounds of the Tamborine Mountain Distillery and you’ll feel like you’ve stumbled upon a hidden paradise. Michael Ward, a passionate gardener, planted every tree on the property, which was once a run-down citrus and avocado orchard. With an abundance of excess fruit at their fingertips, and drawing upon Alla’s childhood memories of distilling, the Wards decided to turn their property into something productive. The family-run distillery may be Australia’s smallest operating pot still distillery, but it is also the most internationally awarded distillery and liquor brand this millennium. Tamborine Mountain Distillery is open Monday to Sunday from 10 am–4 pm. (www.tamborinemountaindistillery.com)
MICHAEL & ALLA WARD
What do you do?
MICHAEL: We make schnapps, liqueurs, fruit brandy, gin, vodka, rum and whisky. We have over eighty different products. We’re Australia’s most awarded distillery and liquor brand in this new millennium by a mile. We’ve won over 320 international awards.
When did you open the doors?
MICHAEL: We got our licenses in ’93. So, we’ve been playing around for a long, long time. And at that time, if it was Australian, people didn’t hold much respect for it, and it is impossible to compete with the multinationals. So, what you have to do, if you are smart, you’ve got to go somewhere where they don’t go, which is up here: niche market, premium, high quality. It is wonderful. There aren’t many things in life that are fair anymore, but the world competitions are fair, because it is blind tasting. And they haven’t a clue what A, B, C or D is, so you have a sporting chance.
What is your background?
MICHAEL: I was born in England. I migrated here a long time ago, millions of years ago, and went to Tasmania. I opened up a hairdressing salon called Michael of London and I had a ball. I branched out into property developing, building and sub-divisions. I had a catering business. This entrepreneurship, serving people and loving people has been there from day one. Then I met Alla — she’s from Melbourne of Russian background. I met her in 1980. We lived in Tassie. We decided to move to a warmer climate and we’d seen Tamborine Mountain. Neither of us like the heat, but we felt we could probably cope with the heat in summer because it is five or six degrees cooler here, which is pretty perfect. So, we came up in ’92, and then in ’93 Alla said, ‘I wouldn’t mind making some schnapps and liqueurs.’ So, I said, ‘Well, we won’t do it illegally. We’ll get licenses.’ It took me eighteen months and then we built that Tudor building, which was the original distillery. We started building that in ’94, I think it was. So, that was where it all started.
Alla’s the distiller; I am not. You can’t have two distillers. There’s a load of other stuff when you run a business. There’s the admin side, the advertising, the marketing — it is the perfect marriage.
You grew up around distilling?
ALLA: Pretty much. I mean, only from a hooch point of view. When the eastern Europeans came out in the late ’40s into Melbourne — there were Hungarians, Czechoslovakians, Slovakians, Germans and Austrians … a big hodgepodge of people that came out on these Italian ships — they settled in particular places after they were sent to work in the mines. They saved up their pounds and then bought their homes. Usually, they’d buy two blocks of land: one to build the house and then one next door to put the orchard and everything in. They were like mini eco systems. Everyone had chooks. Everyone, now, is talking about organic — we grew up like that and we didn’t really realise. The Italians always made their wine, and the leftovers and leaves they would put through a still to make grappa. The Russians used stone fruit: plums and apricots. And it was just an interesting thing to see how people brought the European heritage into the northern suburbs of Melbourne.
What was it that made you want to distil?
ALLA: There has been no noble thought behind this other than that we had an excess of fruit. Essentially, we were chock-a-block full of fruit trees. It was a rundown orchard when we bought it; still, when you are not spraying, you are going to get fruit — small and insignificant fruit, but still it is fantastic for what I do. People aren’t going to buy a shoddy-looking piece of fruit; they’re going to go for something really lovely. So, you have to convert it into something to make the place productive. It was a bit of a headache — picking the fruit and processing it. But now, there are always farmers that will dump their excess here. It is a given, otherwise it is just ploughed back into the ground. I give them a few bottles in reciprocation, so everybody is happy. They’ve got a dozen of my best in their cupboard and they’ve given me a trailer-load of not-their-best, and it works for us all.
You use local and native ingredients, don’t you?
MICHAEL: We like to use a lot of products that are Australian native. There’s quite a range of different things that you can get in the area. Backhousia citriodora, which is lemon myrtle, grows up here. We use the leaves. We did a batch only last week. That magnificent lemon flavour comes through in the spirit, which is then our vodka. There’s actually ninety-four per cent citral in the leaf, which is more than in a lemon — quite amazing — and it is a common, old Aussie tree.
Can you tell us about some of these ingredients?
ALLA: That is St John’s Wart. It is very bitter and it is beautiful in a bitters. Bitters are like the old world medicine. People would have bark, roots and seeds, and infuse them into a strong spirit. The spirit extracts all of the nutrients and the qualities of those herbs and spices, and it is kept in concentrated form. The origin of all liqueurs was essentially medicinal.
That’s what the monks used, didn’t they?
ALLA: Yes. They would be way up in the alpine regions, with their Benedictene, and they would pick their herbs and place them in their copper-pot vats and distil them. Those herbs really translate well when you are using a pot still because alcohol has a quicker boiling point than water.
Let’s say, for example, I have lemon myrtle leaf and a light wine in there, and it is distilling. Alcohol will come off sooner than the liquid form. It is going up in steam form, separating itself. If you are redistilling water, you are making the purest form of water, because what happens is it goes up in steam; the condenser, the cooler, cools the steam, and you’re getting the purest result at the end. In this case, it is alcohol, and it picks up all of the lovely flavours of lemon myrtle.
You create some very artisinal products.
ALLA: Thankfully, we’re living in a time in which artisanal is popular. Thirty years ago if we were doing this, we would have gone down the gurgler because they were still thinking about French and Italian alcohol. Now, they are really embracing things that are local — local in the sense that they’re small and artisanal. There are so many more little distilleries that are popping up everywhere. Gin is the flavour of the month, or the year. There are many gin distilleries popping up. It is all about timing.
Speaking of gin, do you buy your juniper berries?
ALLA: Yes, I go through an organic wholesaler. Most of it, if I can, I’ll get here. But things like juniper berries, you wouldn’t bother growing them. You have to make a decision: are you a distiller or a grower for the distilling. They’ve been already steeped and extolled, so it is just the remnant of the berries. But they are very fragrant and beautiful, and that is the basis of gin. But there are so many different types of gins you can layer all sorts of herbs through it.
ALLA: That’s wormwood. It is added to vermouths for bitterness. I think it’s properties are to purge intestinal worms, actually. Anything that is bitter is actually good for the gut.
You are clearly passionate about the region. Why?
MICHAEL: Tamborine Mountain is special. At five o’clock in the morning, it is dark. I get up and I go for a walk. To go for a walk in the rainforest … It is hard to describe the splendour and how magnificent it is. The lyrebirds, the birds of the early morning, a little paddymelon will run across your path … I am tingling at the thought of it. It is utopia.
There are over forty different nationalities up here. International tourists are in awe. They can’t believe this place. The sunshine. There’s no pollution. It is the most special, special place.
Note: Michael and Alla Ward have since sold Tamborine Mountain Distillery to Tamborine International Pty Ltd – principal owner, Dr Shumei Hou. Contact details and trading hours for the business remain the same.