Next in our Meet the Distiller series, we meet husband and wife team Ally & Nick Ayres of Karu Distillery in NSW.
Tell us a little about yourselves, your position, where you work and where the distillery is located.
We are Nick and Ally. We are the founders, distillers and every job title imaginable at Karu Distillery. Karu is located in the Devils Wilderness NSW (that’s right, there is no apostrophe, we get that a lot, ha-ha) which is on the outskirts of Sydney further West. Fortunately, we are lucky to be surrounded by beautiful Australian bushland which we share with a lot of native flora and fauna.
How did you get started in distilling?
Ally: I originally wanted to start a bar. I am a huge fan of conceptual ideas and had some pretty bold ones but soon realised that my liking was what was behind the bar, spirits. As cliché as it may sound, I soon discovered that spirits can be just as creative as designing a space or painting just in another context. So distillation and flavour, for me, became a huge interest. I worked in an office job full-time since I was 18 in accounts etc. and it never really provided me with a creative outlet or stimulation no matter how hard I tried to change that. It came down to me having to provide my own opportunity and take that risk and Karu became my playground.
Nick: Easy, I wanted to build something with my wife. I have always been fascinated with the production of alcohol and how much you can alter flavours through fermentation and distillation. Ally & I spent 3 years travelling around meeting distillers, attending courses and researching. The minute we started working on Affinity Gin together, everything came together and we knew this is what we have to do. Operating a distillery comes with many challenges other than putting booze in a bottle. When becoming a distillery owner, you can guarantee you will never have a dull moment ever again. Aside from Karu, I work in film & TV as a grip/ camera rigger/ crane operator, remote heads you name it, so I am very well adjusted to the un-glamorous side of a glamorous industry which made that transition easy for me.
Tell us a little bit about your distillery, when it was founded, the vision behind it and the spirits you currently produce.
Karu Distillery was founded technically in 2017 but we had been playing around with the idea and making steps towards it before that. 2017 was when we were able to start distillation and start working on Affinity plus several other projects, however it was 2018 that we released our first gin to the market. The idea behind Karu is to create spirits and compose flavours that are a bit unique and to do things the way we want it to be done and hope that others enjoy them as much as we do.
Currently the spirits we produce are our two gins Affinity Gin & our navy strength Lightning Gin which we are very proud of. We have been playing around with rum fermentation too and giving our copper pot still “Calcifer” a run so watch that space. For anyone wondering what that paw print is all about Karu means “bear” in the Estonian language which is where Ally’s mother’s side of the family were from. Ally’s great grandfather tried his hand at distillation when he came to Australia so it was sort of a tribute to that. Why the word bear? We like bears, who doesn’t?
What has been the most rewarding part so far?
Ally: For me (cue something sappy) it’s working with my best friend. I have worked with some pretty spectacular people in my life but that man takes the cake. Another thing is to have the location we have. We both grew up pretty rural and being back in our element just feels like home again. As I mentioned before, being able to provide ourselves with creative opportunities. The whole small distillery and boutique distillery attitude and a way of being really impresses me, especially here in Australia. A lot of the genuine small producers are pretty supportive of one another and share the same dream as you and know how important this is and get it completely when no one else does.
Nick: Everything that Ally creates impresses me! The most rewarding part for me by far is watching her in her element whether it’s distilling, fermenting or working on something new. The response we have received so far has being out of this world. Both Ally and I have put everything into this and it is very motivating to receive such incredible feedback from the general public, people that have been in the industry their whole working life, our mentors and idols. Of course, lastly for me being back surrounded by bushland everyday when we go to work, it’s just beautiful.
Aside from taxation, what has been the most challenging part?
Australia’s red tape outlook and how NSW is incredibly legislated which makes it difficult for us to do what we do.
Time management between being the distillers, the ambassadors, the sales reps, the marketing team and the distillery managers which are all full-time jobs. Also in saying that, balancing your life with the job, that one is important but probably one of the most difficult as I am sure so many people are saying in their head, “can relate”.
What advice would you give someone considering distilling as a career?
Get some sleep before you start because you will never sleep again after you start your distillery! In all seriousness, know your materials and what you are working with. Always choose quality over quantity every single time. Listen to any professional who is kind enough to lend you their knowledge. Last but not least, you have to love it, if you don’t love it you will be crawling back to your 9-5.
What’s your opinion on the current state of Australian distilling, and is it sustainable long term?
It’s sustainable if the tax is lowered for smaller producers. The way the industry is going, consumers are loving supporting the boutique players however they cannot always afford to (from the tax perspective) which makes it easier for them to decide to just go buy a bottle of generic, mass produced imported spirit than to buy from within the country.
Where do you see the future of Australian distilling heading?
At this current stage it has worlds to go. We already have some outstanding producers , the way we see it going in the future is having Australian defined spirits. For instance, tequila can only be made in one place making that unique to it’s area, bourbon can only be made in one place in a specific style and that is what makes it unique. Our unique spirit and method is yet to come and I feel that is what is in store and we are keen to see who creates that and what it will be.
Are there any projects in development that we can look forward to?
We have a HUGE list of projects in development. We currently have rum in production which is getting there. We have another project with a NSW whisky producer in the works (if you pardon the pun, that’s a hint). We also have things in place to do a lot of experimental projects as well as some liqueurs that are shaping out to be really delicious.
Any closing comments?
Overall we are really impressed with the quality of Australian spirits and we only hope it continues. When we talk to people who are “only getting into gin now” and the “it’s become a craze here and the in-thing to drink” or the “it doesn’t taste like grandma’s kisses anymore”, we always make a point to tell them it’s because you never liked a certain style before. A lot more people are figuring out that it’s Australian Gin they like and that’s because we have the opportunity to be more playful with flavour as producers. Keep up the good work! It’s the same with spirits across the board here which are really challenging the consumer to drink better and to explore the different sides of drinking a spirit.
Karu Distillery is listed in the Australian Distillery Directory.
In partnership with Karu Distillery.