Southern Wild Distillery. The forefront of Devonport's cocktail and spirit scene.
Southern Wild Distillery has a very fitting name. The founder and owner, George Burgess wanted to showcase the wild and rugged terrain of his home in the Southern Hemisphere. Southern Wild is located in Devonport right at the northern tip of Tasmania nestled on the Mersey River that leads out to the Bass Straight. Devonport is a small town, but boasts many of the necessary resources for a distillery to be successful. Fresh, clean water, a short drive away from the wild forests of the west coast and Joe White Devonport Maltings is ironically just down the road.
The distillery is ultimately half production, half full serving cocktail bar. The pot still sits on the first floor right next to where customers can enjoy a glass of gin or a cocktail and up on the mezzanine is where you will typically find George. This mezzanine is where all of the equipment is for research and development of new products. From this perch you have the best view of both the pot still bubbling away to create spirit and the customers enjoying themselves over a few drinks.
George Burgess comes from a unique background of food and beverage science. He is a Devonport native and spent most of his career in this food science industry where his job was to ultimately to make everything uniform. You could almost say his role was to eliminate any variation that came about from regionality and seasonality. After a few years of tinkering around in his garage, he finally decided that it was time to rebel against this way of thinking. George knew he was living on an island where the untouched ruggedness of the west had flavours that shouldn’t be ignored or covered up. Not only should they not be covered up, but they should also be utilized and showcased. George had a true passion for how perfumers layer aromas into sections of top, mid and base notes. He wanted this flavour exploration and layering to be in his gin. When combining this thought process with his food background, he became very focused on not only making incredible spirit, but also keeping in mind how it can be paired with food. This adding just an additional layer to the smell and flavour experience.
There are many planned product lines at Southern Wild Distillery. These include whisky, gin, brandy and liqueur. At the moment his Dasher + Fisher gin line is the most substantial. A few casks have been filled with whisky, but the plan is to make this more consistent when the new facility opens in November 2017. George has a significant research and development area overlooking the cocktail bar. It is here that he experiments with whisky and brandy. He currently has three casks aging and each hold about 20-30 liters of spirit. All three casks were made at the Tasmanian Cask Company. One of the casks is a brandy cask and is a combination of distillate from a local wineries chardonnay and pinot noir. This cask has been aging for about 2 years. The other two casks are harboring whisky. The first whisky cask is a marriage of four unique grains including corn, malted barley, malted rye and wheat. This whisky was actually produced in a column still off site as an experimental batch run. The second cask is again a mix of grains, but a much larger variation to achieve flavor. This cask is a non-traditional spin of a malt whisky with a recipe consisting of heavily peated malt, roasted malt, caramalt and green barley. All of the malted grains are coming from the local Devonport Malting facility. The whisky casks have also been aging about two years and he plans to decant and bottle them by the fall of 2017. These bottles of the first three original casks will remain in the distillery for VIP guests to sample over time. He does not plan to sell anything from these first few casks, although he did briefly mention that he could potentially be persuaded to sell a few.
Southern Wild’s current product line that is available for sale includes three distinct styles of gin. The gin line is called Dasher + Fisher gin. Named after the Dasher and Fisher rivers that meet at Cradle Mountain in Northwestern Tasmania. When you look at a map of the Tasmanian Island, you quickly see that civilization resides on the east coast. The west coast is full of natural mountains, rivers, meadows and overlooks the vast ocean. Hence the name for these three distinct gins in the Dasher + Fisher line.
Ocean- This was the first gin ever to be released from Southern Wild. It consists of 12 botanicals featuring and exuding wakame seaweed.
Mountain- This gin is based off of a classic London Dry style gin with the addition of 11 botanicals that feature and boast the native pepperberry along with other herbs.
Meadow- This gin was inspired by local botanicals and George’s own herb garden. There are 15 botanicals in total and the most pronounced are the lavender and orange peel.
There are plans to add additional gins to the lineup and they will all fall under this Dasher + Fisher name. All three gin’s listed above were made with a base neutral spirit of either distilled chardonnay or pinot noir. In some cases a combination. Due to the thriving wine region in Tasmania, George has many connections with local vineyards. He was gifted 500 litres of 20 year old Chardonnay and 500 litres of a 20 year old Pinot Noir to get his business started. This has been the base for all of this spirits so far and helps to give distinct flavours on the palate.
The 1,100 liter copper pot still currently on site is how all of the Dasher + Fisher gin on the market at this point in time was made. The pot still itself was made by Stillsmiths, which is actually another company that George started at the same time as the distillery. He saw barriers and flaws in the current still designs of major coppersmith companies. There are multiple design features that make the Southern Wild pot still different than most. From the outside it looks similar, but you will see that the branding on the man hole is quite forthcoming. Typically the handle to open the man hole covers the branded plate. He has engineered a lever on the side of the hole to not obstruct view of the logoed copper plate. Besides aesthetics, inside of the still is also engineered specifically by George. He created three “zones” where he hangs botanicals in cotton cloth bags via carabineers. These three zones allow vapor to better access the flavors of the botanicals. Along with this he runs a slow distillation to allow adequate absorption time. In addition to this method of gin infusion, he will also sometimes put botanicals directly into the pot to be boiled with the spirit. The still is steam heated from the bottom along with a dimple plated heating jacket. Once distillation is complete, all spirit is cut back with local, natural Devonport water.
We are really catching Southern Wild and George Burgess at the starting point of the business. Although the single pot still is primarily focused on making their Dasher + Fisher Gin at the moment, there are significant whisky objectives for the future. By November 2017 he will open a new facility where all production will take place including mashing, fermentation, distillation and aging. He also plans to add two additional stills. To be added is a 1,800 liter spirit still and a 3,600 wash still. These two copper stills will be focused on producing whisky. George is currently engineering a specific shape for his washbacks as well that should harbor the creation of additional flavors from the yeast. The hope is for the expansion to happen by the end of 2017, so that whisky production can be in line with the gin. The original 1,100 liter pot still will continue producing their batch style gin. He plans to get into a routine of releasing 3 or 4 new gins a year. A way of funding these expansions will not only come from selling the available gin, but also letting brewers come in and use their mash and fermentation equipment. I look forward to following all of George's businesses and seeing how Southern Wild whisky develops into a house style later this year!