Head to the hinterland of Australia’s Byron Bay and you’ll find Cape Byron Distillery nestled among 96 acres of lush greenery and macadamia orchards. Here, co-founder Eddie Brook talks about distilling the sub-tropical pantry on his doorstep in collaboration with former Bruichladdich master distiller Jim McEwan…
More than 30 years ago the Brook family bought a run-down dairy farm (see photo in header) in Australia’s Byron Bay region and set about regenerating the rainforest that once stood there. Today, Cape Byron Distillery co-founder and CEO Eddie captures native flavours from the incredible natural larder he calls home and sends his bottlings across the globe for our drinking pleasure.
Sustainability, community and regeneration are the core principles that underpin the distillery’s approach to spirit-making. Brookie’s Dry Gin came first, co-created with mentor and master distiller Jim McEwan, featuring 26 botanicals – 18 of which are native to the Byron Bay area, followed by Brookie’s Slow Gin, made in the traditional English sloe style using native Davidson’s plums.
Cape Byron’s most recent creation? A roasted macadamia nut liqueur called Brookie’s Mac. Roasted macadamia nuts, macadamia nut shell and wattleseed are steeped in wheat-based spirit before Mount Warning spring water and natural sugar cane syrup is added, resulting in a moreish butterscotch, cacao and coffee-flavoured sipper that tastes incredible over ice with a squeeze of lime, stirred through an Old Fashioned, or mixed into affogato.
We called Cape Byron Distillery co-founder and CEO Eddie Brook for the 411* on potent botanicals, rejuviated rainforest, and soon-to-be Australian whisky…
Master of Malt: Hey Eddie! Congrats on the launch of your latest product, Mac. Let’s start by talking wattleseed. Can you give our readers a little introduction to this botanical?
Eddie Brook: Wattleseed is from the world of bush food. If you look at Australian food culture we’ve got the most incredible pantry of native flavours to pull from and wattleseed is one of my favourites. The best way to describe it is ‘bush coffee’ – the beautiful aroma of roasted coffee meets dark chocolate and semi-burnt popcorn. It’s like coffee in that the quality is only as good as the grower that grows it and the roaster that roasts it. Mac is macadamia and wattleseed, simple in its own right but showcasing those flavours in the best way possible. The macadamia shell in particular has never been used for production before which is pretty exciting. We don’t use any colourings or flavourings, it’s all down to steeping freshly-roasted macadamia and wattleseed in wheat spirit when they’re at absolute optimum flavour for around three months on average, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter.
MoM: Cape Byron distillery is surrounded by a macadamia orchard and a sub-tropical rainforest. Did you always intend to forage a large portion of your ingredients, or did this idea develop over time?
EB: When my family bought the 98-acre farm it was completely run-down, there was barely a tree growing on the land, so my upbringing was regenerating rainforest. We hacked away weeds and replanted trees so I suppose I had a connection to our landscape, which is an area called Northern Rivers. We are blessed with this densely-populated thriving ecosystem of incredible native flavours and that was the world I was brought up in. Every year mum and I would harvest Davidson’s plums from the rainforest and made jam with them. When my journey through the food and spirit industry led me to meet my absolute idol, and now mentor and business partner Jim McEwan, I learned how to bring those products together. We’ll go walking through the rainforest and harvest native ginger and raspberries, we’ve got rye berries growing, we’ve aniseed myrtle and cinnamon myrtle – it’s honestly like having a massive pantry, you’ve just got to work a bit harder to get the ingredients.
MoM: Having previously worked for a spirits importer and distributor, did you feel daunted about being a newcomer in the industry? Or was the idea a no-brainer because of the incredible Australian ingredients growing in, quite literally, your back garden?
EB: Oh for sure, of course you can’t help but look to see what other people are doing. I’ve always been in awe of these great products, in particular I was lucky enough to be an ambassador and brand manager for The Botanist. The story of that spirit represents more than just product in a bottle, it came about by working with botanists to showcase the flavours of Islay. Through knowing those brands and also working with Jim, I knew our foundations were real and strong, too. The world of native Australian flavours, especially rainforest botanicals and ingredients, is mind-blowing. When I take people through the farm and they taste native raspberry or I pick some aniseed myrtle, you can see that child inside them come to life; it opens up their eyes to the flavours and that’s what I wanted to bring through our spirit. We want our gin to taste like gin, but by bringing in those native Australian flavours we’ve created something new and exciting.
MoM: As a distiller, what are you especially proud of? Was there a botanical or ingredient that was harder to work with, for example?
EB: Finding the initial balance for our dry gin was an exciting challenge. When we’re talking about native Australian ingredients, the reason they’re not in the pantry or on shelves is that they are extremely potent flavours – incredible in their own right, but you’ve got to know how to use them. Take dorrigo pepperleaf, for instance, which is like Sichuan pepper meets an Earl Grey tea leaf. When you balance that in rye, it completely pops. But the one that I’m most proud of is our Brookie’s Slow Gin. As a country we don’t grow sloe berries, they’re very much cold climate, but we do have the Davidson’s plum – the same one mum and I would pick when I was a young boy to make jam – a type of bush food that only grows in Northern Rivers through small farmers. In our first year we purchased three tonnes, last year was 12 tonnes, and next year we’re looking to purchase 24 tonnes. With the success of this product we’re growing the local industry and connecting people around Australia with native ingredients and the land.
MoM: Let’s talk about the new make spirit you’ve laid down. Which natural resources lend themselves to distilling in the Byron Bay region? How will the climate impact the resulting whisky?
EB: There’s something quite magical about whisky and the way the barley, the malting process, the yeast, the fermentation time, the distillation, the cask and the environment all have a huge impact on the liquid. We’re quite lucky with the whisky production laws in Australia which give us a bit of flexibility and creativity in how we can approach this incredible category. One of the major ones is that we don’t have to produce our own wort – we’re very lucky that our dear family friends own a brewery just down the road which is Australia’s number one independent craft beer company called Stone & Wood. Jim and I worked with them and selected a certain Australian barley strain and two yeasts, one of which has never been used for the production of whisky before, to make our new make spirit, which has flavours of lychee, kiwi, pear and apple skin. The wash is fermented and twice-distilled with no computers, it’s all down to sensory from the teachings with Jim, and then it goes into full-sized ex-bourbon casks which rest in barrel houses on our distillery located in the hinterland of Byron. You’ve got the sea air mixing with the rainforest, it’s a really unique climate. It’ll take the heat out of summer and the rainforest takes the cold out of winter so that’ll have an impact on our spirit. We’ll see a faster maturation in Australia, the equivalent of maybe a five year old in Scotland we’ll see in about three years. It was a pretty special moment when we found the heart of our spirit – I was running the still with Jim, who was nosing [the new make]. He closed his eyes and when he looked at me a grin peeled across his face and he said, ‘Eddie, hand on heart this is one of the finest spirits I’ve ever produced’. We have to wait two years until it becomes whisky, but there are some very exciting times ahead.
MoM: If there was one thing about you’d like everyone to take away from Cape Byron, what would it be?
EB: I would love to see people reconnect with nature. When people come to our distillery they get a sense of what nature used to be. We had the greatest rainforest in Australia in our backyard and that was destroyed. Regenerating the world might be greater than you and I, but every little bit can make a difference. We’ve brought our land back in 28 years and now it’s a thriving rainforest – giving that sense of empowerment to people is my end goal; to change people’s perceptions and open their eyes to the land.
*slang for information from the American directory enquiries number. In Britain you could say 118 118 instead, though you will get some blank looks.