Monday, February 26, 2024

From seed to sip on a Southland farm

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A Southland arable farmer and whisky distiller wants to make sure a century-old sheep and arable farm can live another 100 years by using its own grain in an on-farm whisky distillery.
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Southland arable farmer Rob Auld is a self-proclaimed whisky geek.

Lucky for him, he gets to live out his geeky passion at Auld Farm Distillery, which he and wife Toni founded on the family farm in 2017.

The farm will be a century farm this year, with three generations of mixed sheep and arable operations on land Rob’s grandfather began working in May 1924.

In a full production circle, the farm now grows grain, distils spirits from it, and sells direct to the public. 

Ten years ago wife Toni and Rob realised farming isn’t getting easier, and if they wanted the farm to be there for another 100 years, and their three boys to have a future on the land, they needed another legacy business to operate in parallel.

“We wanted to take something to the consumer, but didn’t know what,” Rob says.

It was a chance encounter that cemented the idea of a distillery for the Aulds.

Rob popped into a local whisky seller after he and Toni had lunch in Oamaru in North Otago.

He was invited into their bond store, an area where whisky is kept to age.

“I love whisky, it doesn’t take much to convince me to have a look. There were Wilson Whisky casks there that were labelled 1987. Our farm used to supply malt barley to Wilson’s in Dunedin. That was the first time I’d ever seen something from here go full circle. We never get to see that,” he says.

Shiny kit means whisky tourists love farm visits, and Rob Auld says public awareness is key to keep people aware of their products.

The Aulds were already busy with a Rabobank business course and the plan for a distillery was well received by the Rabobank team, Rob says.

“We thought, we love the idea, let’s give it a crack, it can’t be that hard. That was the first mistake.

“I knew how to grow grain and how to drink whisky. It was the bit in the middle that we didn’t know. It’s overwhelming at the start, there’s much to take in. You can follow a recipe, but there are key points to remember, and eight or 10 of them are critical,” he says.

The Aulds travelled to Tasmania to learn because there is a big distilling culture there.

Rob says he thought the vibe would be closed and “mafia-like”, and that no one would share any knowledge.

But the distillers were open and wanted to help where they could.

The first stills were installed on the farm after that.

“We’ve been making whisky since 2017. In 2021 we decided to make as much whisky as we can. So we cranked it up and ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Because whisky takes time to mature, the first Auld whisky will be released only in the first quarter of 2025.

Until then consumers can buy Auld gin, which can be made in six weeks, and New Make, a clear spirit that is basically unaged whisky.

These spirits are all made from Auld-grown grain. 

Selling them  “brings people on the journey to the point of whisky release”, he says.

Until it is sufficiently aged, whisky is kept in a bond store on the farm, where it matures.

A bond store is a customs controlled area and the whisky is duty free and not excise liable while it matures. 

This is because while whisky matures it disappears or evaporates out of the cask. Excise duty is paid only on the final product.

Rob Auld is a whisky geek, with a 20-year plan to use half of the grain produced on the farm for spirit and whisky making. If that can be achieved, Auld will be in the top three distilleries in Australasia.

Whisky that has been in a cask for two years is classified as whisky, but only has about 75% of the taste of the grain and is missing the things that make whisky whisky, one of which is the colour from the cask, he says.

“The rounding and the flavours and intensifying those grain notes, that all comes about from time and maturation”.

Auld uses casks sourced from Kentucky in the United States.

Rob has all the tools to make casks and wants to establish a cooperage, or cask-making facility.

A cooper, or cask maker, is an apprentice for at least eight years, and Rob says he hopes apprentices will visit Auld and make casks so the distillery does not have to rely on imports and can also satisfy the local market.

Rob plants nine different grains, from the traditional southland grains like wheat, barley and oats, to purple wheat and black oats.

Distilling brought a mind shift in how he approaches growing grains.

“We can grow the best of the best. But what’s the best of the best look like for the distillery? It turns out it isn’t always yield. It’s all about flavour,” he says.

Southland grain is traditionally spring sown and harvested around May, but to produce the best flavour Rob now sows in autumn. Plants then hibernate through winter, grow through spring, and are harvested in January.

If grown traditionally, malting barley, for example, would have too high a protein content and boil over when heated in stills.

Rob says he has a full “whisky geek 20-year plan”.

“We’re growing 1500 tonnes of grain. We’re only using 20% of that through the distillery. If we use half of the 1500t, which is an aspirational goal, we would be in the top three distilleries in Australasia.”

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