Cat on A Tin-Shed Roof - Clandestine Whisky Interview

  • by Ian Schmidt

David Pearce of 'Clandestine Whisky' recently interviewed Ian and Vic, summing things up well when discussing this unique working partnership.

We invite you to read the original article from Clandestine Whisky below and gain a little more insight into Tin Shed Distilling Co.

"Cat on A Tin-Shed Roof – an interview with Tin Shed Distilling."

Ah! A glass of malt, winking in the light of a roaring log fire as the sleet pelts against the window as you thaw out after a day on the heather moors. No one questions why they invented whisky in Scotland (or Ireland for that matter, but I don’t want to go into all that now), but it takes real passion to create an award-winning whisky when the temperature is in the high 40s and koalas are running for the shade.

Ian Schmidt and Vic Orlow haven’t time for these stereotypes or whisky snobberies. They don’t even have time to rub in the Ashes whitewash – North American readers can consult Google for an explanation. Tin Shed is not a place for pretentions, it’s the home of a non-nonsense approach to whisky production. It is a company that is part of a revolution that has seen the Australian craft distilling industry move from a tiny handful of producers to around 80 distilleries. A sector that crafts distinctive whiskies which in tastings can take on, and defeat, much more established brands.

‘It’s a grunty whisky,’ says Ian. ‘Ornier than most. Our short, fat still means what comes out the other end is jucier, fatter, oiler than many others. A whisky with lots of character.’ Like whisky, like proprietors. Ian and Vic have personality to spare. They’ve been in the spirits business for some time. But that’s not their only business experience. ‘I used to make flag-poles,’ Ian tells me. ‘My wife got fed up with my moaning about how hard it was and suggested I get a more sedentary job.’

Their initial whisky venture was the Southern Coast Distillers, a company which enjoyed rave reviews for the product but which faced more difficult challenges around the board-room table. The two friends moved on from there to set up Tin Shed in Adelaide. It’s easy to see how well they work together. There is a strong connection between the two. They finish each other’s sentences; they take the mick from each other relentlessly. All of which suggests that they have been through times together but come out the other side with a deep friendship which has anchored their success.

They have plenty advice for anyone with a romantic dream of setting up their own distillery: ‘Sell vodka and gin from the start!’ Vic laughs. He has genetic heritage in the white spirts world – Tin Shed now sell Piotr vodka named after his father – Piotr Mikhailovich Laptev. ‘What we didn’t do was what everyone does now, sell white spirts to fund the business while you wait for the whisky. We had to keep working at other jobs.’

Not that they had to wait too long – one of the many advantages that the Australian climate has over Scotland. Vic explains: ‘We have a much shorter maturation time here. With a cold winter’s day at 12 degrees going up to 50 in summer, the process is much faster. We lose about 12% to the angels.’ The roaring heat of an Aussie summer has a downside as well as benefits. They make rum in the summer. ‘It’s our summer game, like cricket,’ says Ian, unnecessarily, I thought. And all that warmth can play havoc with the fermentation process. As Vic explains: ‘We have to cool down the process, taking batches into the freezer. We also made the mistake of dropping huge blocks of ice into the wash. Not recommended. You end up wearing the wash. But we all have to learn from our mistakes.’

The climate challenges have led Ian and Vic to a decision to relocate from the city centre to the Adelaide Hills, a move that will take them closer to South Australia’s other great beverage industry. ‘We’ll be going out to the hills, out by the vineyards.’ Says Ian. ‘The climate will be more moderate.’ ‘And handy for the casks too?’ I ask. ‘We do use wine casks,’ Ian continues. ‘White wines – Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Champagne. But the cask market is very tricky. Casks tend to be used first for white wines, then reds and finally tawnies – port and sherry. But the prices are now huge as fewer people drink tawnies and the best casks become more scarce. We experiment with different barrels, but it vital to get the right ones. The cask is probably the most important element in the process.’

Not that the distillation process isn’t complex in itself, and the preparation of the barley is unique. Let Ian explain how an Australian single malt is very distinctly different from a Scottish malt: ‘When we smoke our barley, we use wood from a Malan (??) tree. It’s a eucalyptus that grows in exceptionally dry places. So, the wood is extra hard, unique. Some people here import malt from Scotland. We never do, what is the point of that? We use home produced peat too – from South Australia. In Scotland the peat is a reduction of sphagnum moss, pine needles, deer shit – all mulched down and matured through the centuries. Our peat is a bit sandier, made up of gum leaves and maybe some kangaroo shit. Very different!’

The innovation and distinctiveness of the Tin Shed operation extends to the packaging. There aren’t many booze websites where you can watch a box of premium whisky being drop kicked across the factory floor. And surviving intact. Don’t try it at home. The secret is the unique Z box, developed for Tin Shed by Spectrum packaging. No bubble wrap, no metals, no plastics – just very clever design. It helps the environment, helps the customer, helps the producer and ultimately, helps the industry. ‘No one benefits from broken bottles,’ says Vic. ‘We’re happy for Spectrum to share this with other producers – it’s their great idea and we are a better industry all round if we can reduce damage to our products in transit – and to the environment.’

‘We like to share here,’ adds Ian. ‘There’s a real collegiate relationship with other distilleries. We’re competitors, sure, but we are all working towards the same thing and we’re all prepared to give each other advice.’

The company might be small scale by international drinks conglomerate standards: ‘We hand label the bottles, we pay decent wages;’ but Tin Shed is a great case study on how passion, determination and innovation can produce a suite of distinctive premium products. They have ambitions to export beyond their current modest shipments to China and the USA, to build the business. But whatever happens in the future I don’t see Ian and Vic changing much, their relationship and humour are the secret of their success:

‘We have a smoked whisky, Flustercluck. We call it that because it was the result of a few cluck-ups. Looking at no one in particular.’ Says Ian looking at Vic. ‘It’s not my fault if I assumed that some people knew what they were doing.’ Says Vic, demonstrating what any good working partnership needs, mutual respect disguised as mutual finger-pointing. And sipping malt whisky at 45 degrees?

‘Put some ice in it!’

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