Taking a peep behind the still, our series Meet the Distiller is all about getting to know the people making the amazing gin, whisky, rum and vodka around Australia.
Far from the anonymous mass-produced spirits in our supermarkets, these craft tipples are the result of the loving care, hard work and pure creativity Aussie distillers put into every bottle.
Ally and Nick Ayres from Karu Distillery, NSW
With their distillery at the feet of the beautiful Blue Mountains, the Ayres have been crafting superb gin since 2017.
Their navy strength gin - appropriately named ‘Lightning’ - won double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and they’re turning their attention to rum as well.
Along with their award-winning spirits, this distilling duo have an amazing sense of humour and adventure that’s welcome in the Australian craft distilling community.
1. How did you both get started as distillers? And how have you found working together?
ALLY: I usually answer this question first because it’s not as interesting as Nick’s. I was working an office job, which I liked but wasn’t all about it and wasn’t getting self-fulfilment.
So naturally when the opportunity to choose between moving into going further in my corporate career or placing all chips on us in a new business… I chose us.
Nick and I share a love of good spirits and were originally going to open a bar, but decided we loved the spirit side more and began our journey. I have always loved science and adore the science of flavour, so it just really made sense to me.
We established Karu Distillery in 2017, I left my job 2018 when we released our first gin and we’re still doing what we love now.
NICK: I worked 10 years in the film industry working on major motion pictures.
Ally’s interest in distillation drew me to the world of distilling, and now we’re in our third commercial year to our prior three years of research and development.
Plus barrel ageing, who doesn’t like barrels?
2. What do you love about being distillers?
ALLY: At the moment I am all about rum and producing that.
I love molasses. I love the smell, the texture, the taste, when people arrive when I am doing a ferment day and go “that smells amazing, what is it?” and sparking that intrigue as once upon I time I was the same.
I love creating the environment for the yeast to make something delicious. I love low wine days, I love spirit runs and most of all I love when all that hard work gets put into a barrel.
My favourite part of the job with gin is the smell of the botanicals and also a scientific freedom you don’t get elsewhere.
As for the worse parts of the job, it’s always cleaning; I am the only person small enough to fit into the fermenters, so guess who gets to do that pretty job (also I cause the mess so…. fair).
The worst job for me is labelling. I am glad I have been banned if I am completely honest with you. I am garbage at it!
NICK: I really like filling barrels; it’s nice to see it all come together.
Having mates in the same industry and how supportive everyone is towards one another. It’s always good when you do shows and see other people who do what you do as we are in a shed in the middle of nowhere.
HA! Who gets to do the worst jobs? Whoever has to clean the gutters. Worst job for me is I am allergic to using the bottling filler…. If you want it done, don’t ask me.
3. What makes Karu special?
ALLY: Without sounding mega bias it’s everything. We are in a beautiful part of the world and share it with such intriguing insects and animals that are just everyday for us but are really actually quite unique.
We grow a few of our botanicals on site and source the rest from other small-scale farms, so they are always mega juicy and fresh, and the care behind each one is incredible.
The journey - the good, the bad and the ugly - and to still be here after fires, floods and pandemics and still hustling hard. As lame is it sounds, following that dream and being unapologetically authentic about it.
NICK: As Ally mentioned above, we are unapologetically authentic about what we do and share such a wonderful part of the world.
4. What is Karu’s flagship spirit and what’s your favourite way to enjoy it?
ALLY: Affinity I’d say is our flagship and the first product we released. It was actually designed to be drunk neat, but also in saying that it is amazing in a negroni, a dry style gin and tonic, paired with cider (we are around a few cideries where we are), and anything fruity it goes fantastic in.
We usually pair our Navy Strength gin Lighting with pineapple and chilli with a gin and tonic and it goes down an absolute treat.
NICK: Affinity neat in a tumbler glass, especially after a few beers. It’s just very smooth, no ice!
5. What’s something we should know about craft distilling in Australia?
ALLY: There is more to it than meets the eye. Being an owner, operator, distiller and everything-else-er, it’s literally everything.
What you have in your glass when you have true craft Australian product is us making sure quality is up to scratch and placed highly.
It’s making sure materials arrive safe and sound, it’s making sure botanicals are happy and growing, it’s cleaning, it’s bottling, it’s hand labelling, it’s early starts and even later finishes.
It’s designing, it’s making sure it tastes good, it’s educating the public, it’s coping with environmental factors that you have no control over.
It’s managing your space, it’s the shirt off your back, it’s being the face of your brand. It’s not sleeping, it’s putting yourself last, it’s keeping everything in check, it’s packing orders and making sure they go out the door on time.
It’s a lot of care and effort, it’s doing shows, it’s travelling, it’s catching up, it’s a lot of failed attempts, it’s a bit of success.
It’s living on beans and rice, it’s making sure your online presence is there, it’s doing the sales, it’s being an inventor, it’s learning everyone else’s job. It’s missing your friends’ and family’s birthdays and events, it’s no down time. It’s not easy but if you love it then it is worth while.
That moment where someone buys your spirits and comes back with “this is my new favourite” makes a craft distiller’s day. So be nice because it goes far.
NICK: I can’t even answer or say anything else because that is it, literally.
6. Some people think that distilling is a dangerous pastime. Any near-death experiences?
ALLY: Ha! Not from distillation, no. We made sure we were and have been very careful as it is easy for things to go VERY wrong.
Fermentation-wise we have a funny story and amazing security footage.
On one of our first, I mean VERY FIRST ferments for rum - taking a wide stab in the dark at it - we added something to the ferment which we didn’t have to and didn’t leave enough space in the vessel.
I pitched the yeast into it annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnd like the volcano science project, it erupted and went everywhere. And I mean everywhere.
Molasses on the floor, all over our clothes, under the damn filing cabinet, you name it, it was there. It’s probably still in some spaces.
I am standing there with this delicate spoon that was my mash paddle at the time (bless, I was trying my best) just not knowing what else to do other than laugh.
I have a portfolio of other tantalising tales and if your readers want to hear more, ask me at a show.
NICK: I guess we could say catching the Death Adder was one?
It was only a baby though about 40-50cm long just hanging out at the front door. So we put a Tupperware container on it, edged it along to the side of the path where we had a bit of ply waiting, put some occy straps around it chucked it on the back of the ute.
I stayed on the back to make sure it stayed put and we relocated it to the national park.
ALLY: I was standing at the front door no shoes like “what’s that leaf doing there? There are no leaves like that around” and shone my torch on it and it starts to stretch out.
I was like “I’m out of my element here.” Hopefully it tells its pals that we were nice.
7. I see you’ll be releasing your rum soon. What can you tell us about that?
ALLY: We have kept pretty uniform in our production so we can work with a staple product to begin our rum range.
Our oldest barrel “Bungholio” - a fond reference to Beavis & Butthead - is creeping up to nearly two years of age (they grow up so fast) so it won’t be too long for the wait.
We name all our barrels after wood-related puns including classics like Barilyn Monroe, Master Splinter, Barole Caskin, Stavid Attenborough and so on.
The spirit itself is shaping up quite nicely, giving off crème brûlée, vanilla, crushed shortbread, oak (surprise, surprise) and honey, which is kinda nice.
We pot distill ours without reflux to make sure we don’t miss out on those thick flavours - I love to drink medium to heavy style rums.
I didn’t know I even liked rum until we met Richard Seale from Four Square Distillery and he explained everything so well. I wasn’t able to stop thinking about it and every day since that’s what I have done.
NICK: It’s amazing, Honey, crème brûlée - even at cask strength it’s super easy. Very happy with it.
8. Your distillery cat Omen looks very cute. Is that accurate or are appearances not what they seem?
ALLY: Little Omies, the assistant to the regional manager herself. When we first started, we were here A LOT, still are.
So being the helicopter cat-mum I am I took her with us to work, which is something I’ve never been able to do.
She is strictly indoors at Karu Distillery unless on her lead. She has come for little walks with me to look for flora. She enjoyed the new smells and sights of the bushland she’d otherwise have missed at home.
She isn’t up here much anymore unless we have a stacked production schedule, but she does sneak into Zoom meetings occasionally and is a part of whatever is happening at the home office.
Photos never do her cuteness any justice, she is a very sweet girl with a sparkling personality with THE BIGGEST EYES ever. I’m glad she adopted us.
Her main duty now includes checking if the boxes are sturdy enough to hold precious cargo.
NICK: Omen was the first team member at Karu Distillery to actually sell anything believe it or not.