Cloaked in mystery, the arcane art of making whisky, and those behind it, have always fascinated me – the who, why and how of it all. When we recently had the pleasure of meeting Brian and Genise Hollingworth, owners of Black Gate Distillery in Mendooran, Australia, all my questions were answered.
Some 400km northwest of Sydney, the road to the tiny township of Mendooran, much like its inhabitants, is straight up and quiet. A touch out of town is the Black Gate Distillery and the Hollingworth family. They’re waiting for us to arrive.
As we pull into the property, Brian and Genise Hollingworth, owners of Black Gate, are there to welcome us in.
And there’s nothing quite like a country welcome.
The Hollingworths are self-effacing yet somehow effusively friendly. They’re so warm and welcoming we feel instantly at home.
It’s not long before we’re all sat together sharing stories and beers, and Mrs Romance has Frankie the distillery’s tiny dachshund on her lap. I don’t know who’s happier out of the two!
With Brian and his mate Owen – aka ‘Foot’ – as our guides, we explore the workings of the distillery.
The big warehouse is home racks and racks of wooden barrels – some are aging Brian’s excellent rum, others developing the flavours of his world-class whisky. Brian and Foot have even built their own cooler room where they can maintain a constant temperature for the delicate parts of the distilling process.
And at the back of the room there’s the heart of the operation: the single copper still, where all the magic happens. It’s a direct fired still with a gas flame heating the pot from underneath. Old school, which is just how Brian and co like it. From his mechanic’s background, Brian loves nothing better than creating something out of thin air.
In fact, the barley that Foot grows on his property goes straight into making the whiskies Black Gate is so proud of. It’s currently one of only 4 distilleries in the world wielding the label “paddock to bottle”. Pretty amazing.
Beneath his unpresuming exterior and quite magnificent beard, you get the impression of incredible knowledge and a remarkable mind. But Brian would never admit to that.
Even when he lifts the lid on the homemade barbecue he’s knocked up out of an old oil drum to show the sizzling pork belly, Brian just gives a little shrug and a rye grin.
Soon we’re back outside for a real country feast. There’s pumpkin and potatoes, freshly grilled corn, steamed veggies, the pork (with incredible crackling) and a lamb shoulder that’s been roasting in a pit for most of the day. It’s nothing short of superb.
And little Frankie’s happy because he gets to gnaw on the lamb bone after – even if it is twice his size!
After dinner, we’ve retreated back into the distillery to taste some of Brian’s creations.
The single-barrel molasses based aged rum is sublime. A little sweet from the ex-sherry barrels he uses, it’s a very drinkable dark rum. Even the cask strength stuff goes down easily – and that should burn like mad it’s that strong.
But it’s the beautiful single malt whisky Brian makes that’s the real winner. It’s smooth and packed with flavour, and even has a hint of smoky peatiness, which comes from peat from much-loved and respected Bill Lark’s land in Tasmania – the already legendary Lark Distillery.
And if rum and whisky weren’t enough, Brian also makes a seasonal Quandon Liqueur. Quandongs – or wild peaches – grow wild in Australian bushland. Brian forages for them when they’re in season.
After a late night of guitars, yarns and more whisky, and Brian whooping me at pool on the table in his house, we’re out foraging too the following morning.
The last of the season’s quandongs are still clinging to the higher branches of these small fruit trees. We don Akubras and hunt them out. Between us – Mrs Romance and myself, Kath and Ros from Nip of Courage, Chris, Byron from Trolley’d and their families, and Brian and Genise of course, we haul a reasonably handsome yield. I think.
I hope it’s enough for Brian to cook up another batch of liqueur. It’s pretty good, I must say.
All too soon, we’re back on the road heading for the big smoke. It’s been an amazing experience and given us a real understanding of what life in the country’s about. It’s definitely not something you can put a price on. It’s even quite hard to write it down!
Make sure you get yourself a bottle of Black Gate small batch rum or the exquisite single malt Australian craft whisky. You can buy it direct here from Nip of Courage – Black Gate’s distributor – or from good independent bottle shops like the Oak Barrel in Surry Hills.
It’s the perfect Christmas or birthday present for lovers of spirits – and even better if you want to support Australian craft distillers, who work bloody hard. Trust me, I’ve seen it to be true!