Australia's Tamborine Mountain Distillery's artisanal approach to making spirits

The Tamborine Mountain Distillery adopts an artisanal approach, writes Janelle Carrigan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 September, 2013, 10:28am

Arranged on the shelves are dozens of hand-painted bottles. There are vodkas with clean, crisp infusions: ginger, wild citrus and the native Australian lemon myrtle leaf. There are also brightly flavoured liqueurs: honeydew melon, banana, violetta. Varieties of schnapps, aquavit, grappa, absinthe, and a pink Lilly Pilly Gin round out the range.

The unsuspecting imbiber would assume such a collection is borne from commercial-sized stainless steel vats overseen by workers in white coats. But it's quite the contrary.

Tamborine Mountain Distillery is perched high in the Gold Coast hinterland. Owners Alla Ward and her husband Michael embraced the artisanal movement before it became a corporate catch cry.

Alla makes every batch of spirits in a hand-made copper pot still, tweaking the flavours with each distillation. The fruit and botanicals are harvested from their 1.3 hectare property, and are grown without pesticides or other chemicals.

While Australia's wine industry is well developed and driven by local players big and small, spirits lag much further behind. Five players control more than 80 per cent of the market, according to a study by The Australia Institute, an independent think tank.

The Wards have found that Asian visitors especially like their fruity liqueurs, more so than the vodkas, with honeydew melon, peach and passion fruit. With an eye on the Asian market, Alla is experimenting with a durian fruit liqueur but stresses the drink - which has a "fried onion character" - is still very much a work in progress.

The distillery is now looking for a China distributor, having won the China Wine & Spirits Awards Asia-Pacific Spirits Producer of the Year 2013 Best Value, with individual drinks also being recognised. The banana and honeydew melon liqueurs took golds and the violetta a double gold.

Most of the Wards' spirits have won awards, several at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition and London's International Wine & Spirit Competition.

The Wards also export to Singapore and Malaysia, and sell locally as well as internationally via their website.

In the early 1990s, the Wards struggled to convince the government to give them a licence to operate a pot still. Australia's most popular home-grown spirit, Bundaberg Rum, has been churning its way through endless fields of Queensland sugar cane for more than 100 years. "There wasn't this concept of small and artisanal," says Michael. "We were doing something that was fairly unusual."

The subtropical Tamborine Mountains has fertile volcanic soil and high rainfall, creating an overflow of fresh spring water. Mangoes, avocados and bananas fall ripe from the trees. The Wards knew they were taking an unusual step trying to make use of the fruit piling up on their land, a rundown avocado and fruit orchard.

But the siren call of Alla's heritage proved too strong. Growing up in the Melbourne suburbs in a Russian family, her Polish, German, Italian and Hungarian neighbours tended plots of vegetables, grape vines and fruit trees.

Alla watched as wines and other fortified spirits were made - and listened to the odd exploding still blow the roof off the neighbour's garage. "That was my life, it was a way to utilise excess fruit," she says.

Alla started to make schnapps and liqueurs, enlisting Michael and their children Sonya and Alexander. "We had an orchard that was too big for a small family so we had to convert it to make the place more productive," says Alla.

By 1998, Tamborine Mountain Distillery was a fully licensed commercial venture. Now, there are more than 80 products for sale.

Michael is the marketer and front man for the business. It comes easily to the Englishman, who made his way to Australia in the 1960s, working on a luxury liner as a ladies' hairdresser. "He's a yapper," says Alla with a smile.

"I don't even like alcohol," he says. "It was Alla's idea, her dream. It was a natural thing for her to be the distiller." When Michael praises Alla's self-taught talent, she'll admit, reluctantly, that she has some appreciation of the process: "When you're flavouring liqueurs, you do have to have a nose and a taste and an understanding of balance."

Alla's wood-panelled distillation room is crammed with jars, many containing the native flora that she adds to the spirits. Fruit ferments in sealed bins for up to four months before being put through the distillation process. She'll spend 20 to 30 hours on each batch in her copper pot still.

"Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water so it goes up in a steam form," she says. The steam cools back into liquid form. "I collect it into my big glass jars and then it's redistilled again for smoothness until I get it right."

"We produce every batch fresh each time," says Michael, rather than topping up old unsold batches or freshening up old product with new flavours. "It's the same old-fashioned method of distilling used by the Benedictine monks."

Alla usually does about three to five distillations. "If there's a lot of oil in it, I have to do more because it tends to pick up a lot of oil in the earlier distillations," she says. "You can see a lot of oil globules, especially with citrus."

The hands-on approach and multiple distillations create smooth and true flavours. The spirits contain no artificial additives so the 20 per cent passion fruit liqueur tastes simply like passion fruit.

A customer favourite is the 20 per cent native Australian wattle toffee liqueur, a sophisticated version of hazelnut liqueur Frangelico. The sweet roasted pecan notes set up the expectation of a sugary hit but there's nothing cloying about the light tingle on the tongue.

Alla favours the 40 per cent lemon myrtle vodka, which is best sipped cold and neat. The citrus scent of the botanicals lingers after sipping. "You pick up the vapours quite naturally when it's distilled," she says.

Michael now fights the interminable battles of the land with help from a part-time gardener, while Alla tends to the copper still. "It's a lovely business," says Alla. "It has grown steadily and well, like a good tree that's been watered."

Tamborine Mountain hosts quality wineries

Tamborine Mountain is an idyllic pocket of southern Queensland. The nearby Gold Coast is studded with postcard-perfect beaches. Less than an hour inland, Tamborine Mountain is a cool respite from the relentless sun, with rainforest trails and plenty of cafes and restaurants dotted along the main tourist street of Gallery Walk.

There is also a surprising number of quality wineries in the area - the Granite Belt provides good soil for vines even if the weather is not ideal. A visit to Tamborine Mountain can easily become a cellar-door day trip to wineries such as:

Witches Fall Winery

The winery sits on a lush parcel of land and has an impressive variety of wines, from viognier to chardonnay and pinot noir. The wild ferment wines have no commercial yeasts added.

Cedar Creek Estate

The estate is set on a calm lake. Buy a bottle of the crisp semillon sauvignon blanc and spread out a blanket on the lush grass, or head for the restaurant.

Mount Tamborine Winery & Homestead

This has a cellar door on Gallery Walk and specialises in a range of chardonnays. information on wineries on Tamborine Mountain, visit

Tamborine Mountain Distillery:

Janelle Carrigan