The NSW man wanted to transform this product from “elite” to everyday and in the past year smashed through his $1.3m sales budget.
When Dean Druce had the opportunity to buy an old flour mill from the council for $1, he thought he had hit the jackpot.
He had a business idea and the spot was perfect for launching it.
“Back then you buy something for $1 and think how good is this, but it needed so much work,” he told news.com.au.
“They should have paid us to take it over. The roof was missing, every glass pane was missing, the building wasn’t straight and there were no services like gas, electricity, a phone line or water.
“I quickly realized it needed a lot more work than first anticipated but we knew where we wanted to go and how to fix it up.”
Eighteen months of renovations later, the mill was ready for Mr Druce to launch his whiskey distillery but it took another four years of fixing before it could be opened to the public.
During the renovations eight years ago, Mr Druce said they were finessing the whisky’s flavor profile after coming up with the idea back in 2010.
“We looked around at how many other whiskey distilleries there were in Australia and there 10 to 20 max, so we saw a niche,” he explained.
“Australia has some of the best barley in world and the best barrels from wineries and a great climate for making whiskey … It was a nice little fit as our family, we grew up on a farm, we came from the rural farming background … and all the ingredients along the way originate from the farm.”
The 33-year-old’s research included learning how to make whiskey in both Tasmania and Scotland under the old traditional methods.
The goal was to make a fruity and fragrant whiskey that was big on flavor but was easy to drink rather than having a big kick to it, Mr Druce said.
NSW-based Corowa Distilling Co was officially launched in August 2018 with a party to remember.
“There were 380 people attending including the acting prime minister (who) flew in and the Scottish whiskey owners came over and landed in a private jet to attend the event and then flew home,” he said.
“It was extremely special for us.”
All 320 bottles of whiskey they created also sold out at the party.
“We enjoyed a honeymoon period there where everything that we were bottling we were selling,” he added.
But business has continued to boom since then with Corowa Distilling Co selling around 20,000 bottles in the last financial year and soaring past its $1.3 million sales budget.
Mr Druce said his booze offers a “nice entry point” whiskey, which retails for $95, adding that there are hardly any single malt Australian whiskey’s that sell for under $100.
“We make whiskey so other people can enjoy it – not so it’s sitting in a barrel forever and aging,” he said.
“We didn’t want to make it elitist. We wanted an everyday drinker and consumer to buy it, enjoy it and talk about whiskey – that was always going to be our mantra.
“It means people can enter that Australian single malt bracket without breaking the bank.”
Recently, Corowa Distilling was awarded Best Australian whiskey with its Characters Single Malt whiskey as part of Dan Murphy’s inaugural Decoded Spirits Awards.
It means the brand’s whiskey, which was previously stocked in 10 local Dan Murphy’s stores, will now be ranged in almost 260 outlets nationally.
Mr Druce said the recognition was “surreal”, even if he thinks awards in the spirit game can be “overrated” but said it will also mean moving the business out of being “slightly obscure”.
“I don’t like awards. I think awards in the spirits game are overrated – there are no substance and no mechanism to go and sell your product, you still have to work just as hard to sell the product,” he said.
“But Dan Murphy’s are an outlet and retailer that are going to buy it because of the awards.”
Australian whiskey is a rapidly growing category, with Dan Murphy’s having seen sales double in the last 12 months and the category is now growing faster than craft gin, which has seen an explosion in sales over the past few years.
Dan Murphy’s spirits category manager and Decoded Spirits judge James Duvnjak said the two biggest drinks trends in alcohol are customers wanting to support local producers and to drink less but better, and Australian whiskey ticks both of those boxes.
“Customers have started to discover that Australian whiskey can compete on the world stage when it comes to flavor and complexity. There are some great flavors and stories to explore from distilleries in our own backyard,” he said.
“Although Australian whiskey is often compared to single malt Scotch when it comes to flavour, it is distinctively unique.
“Australian distillers tend to use old wine and port barrels to age whiskey more than producers in other countries, simply because of our local wine industry. If the barrel has been filled with port or wine before it was filled with whiskey, it will pick up these flavors from the barrel also.”