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The new whisky isle down under

Felicity Murray talks to the master distiller and general manager at a Tasmanian boutique distillery, set up just 14 years ago, whose whiskies are now making a global impression

Mark Littler Hellyers Road Distillery

Mark, a born and bred Tasmanian, has been with the Hellyers Road Distillery for 10 years in the dual role of master distiller and general manager of parent company, Betta Milk.

Like many people from north west Tasmania, his background is in the dairy Industry having completed a Bachelor of Applied Science degree (Dairy Food Science) at the University of Melbourne. It’s a skill set that is surprisingly suited to whisky production making Mark’s initial transition from dairyman to distiller relatively seamless. His understanding of the unique local climate and abundant natural resources, combined with many years studying the art of distilling, enables him to craft single malt whiskies that are quickly becoming internationally lauded for their high quality.

Hellyers Road is Australia’s largest boutique distillery with the first flow of spirits taking place on 29 January 1999 and first product sales in 2006. Located in the heart of dairy farming country on the outskirts of Burnie in north west Tasmania, it is a fully-owned subsidiary of Tasmania’s second largest milk processing company, Betta Milk, and was established following deregulation of the Australian dairy industry in 1996. The company employs 20 staff, which includes distillery roles and roles within the associated café and interpretation centre.

“Hellyers Road produces six varieties of single malt whisky – Original, 10 Year Original, Peated, Slightly Peated, Roaring Forties and Pinot Noir Finish.  It also produces an own-brand vodka, Southern Lights, (which is also marketed as 666 by an independent distributor) and three varieties of whisky cream liqueur,” Mark explains. Other products include whisky icecream in three varieties, relish, fudge and chocolates.

I ask Mark if the distillery, being part of a dairy farm, produced vodka from whey. He says: “The vodka which is released under the brand names of Southern Lights and 666 Vodka is made from malted barley. Despite the company’s ready access to whey, there is no intention to initiate a new vodka product using the dairy by-product at this point in time.”

In 2010 Hellyers Road was recognised by the Malt Whisky Association of Australia for producing the nation’s best single malt and in 2012 it released its first aged statement whisky – 10 Year Original. In 2012 the business also signed a major distribution agreement with national liquor outlet, Dan Murphy Cellars and in February 2013 it shipped a full container load of single malts to France, one of the world’s largest consumers of single malt whisky.

“We have increased distribution in France during the last 12 months and have recently returned from distribution meetings in Sweden, The UK, Belgium, Switzerland and Denmark where we hope to increase our foothold. Negotiations for a distribution agreement within the US and China are underway.

“In Europe and Singapore, La Maison du Whisky is our principle distributor supported by The Nectar in Belgium, Juuls Vin & Spirits in Denmark, Symposion International in Sweden, Bacchus Spirits in Switzerland, Specialty Drinks in the UK, and Velio in Italy, while in Australia our major distributors are Dan Murphy Cellars, First Choice, Vintage Cellars and duty free outlets,” Mark explains.

“As an entry price product into the competitive and discerning French market we introduced the 40% alc/vol single malt whisky called Roaring Forties. This product was developed to a price point aimed at gaining acceptance into the French market. In France it retails for €55.

“Our clients come from a wide demographic reach from the traditional single malt drinker to an ever increasing level of younger people who are being attracted to high quality spirits. Younger females are typical of the new breed."

When it comes to marketing the whiskies Mark comments: “We are a relatively young distillery that has only recently started making distribution in-roads As such, our marketing budget has been dictated by the balance sheet.

"We currently rely on public relations activities to get our brand noticed and employ a contract publicist to develop flow which to date, has been very successful. Tasmania’s emergence as a high-class environment for single malt production has given rise to interest in the brand. Our relationship with major distribution house, La Maison du Whisky has helped promote and distribute the products in Europe. We have also had a presence at the last four Whisky Live events in Paris, recognised as one of the world’s premier spirits events.

What, I asked, distinguishes your brand/products from others in the sector?

“Tasmania has a world-wide reputation for producing top quality food and beverage. Hellyers Road Distillery leverages itself off this reputation by highlighting the pureness and quality of the ingredients that make our single malts so highly regarded. The fact that our distillery is located on an island state boasting one of the world’s most pristine natural environments is central to our brand’s growing popularity.

“Hellyers Road is Australia’s largest boutique distillery. In Tasmania there are nine other distilleries of medium to smaller size. Tasmania is becoming recognised as ‘the whisky isle’ because of the ideal climatic conditions it offers for single malt production.

With regard the latest trends in the packaging and presentation of spirits and the importance of good design, Mark says: “Single malt whiskies seem to be sticking to their traditional brand values despite now attracting a swathe of younger drinkers. A new single malt audience is greatly welcomed but not at the expense of ‘welded on’ single malt lovers. We believe this industry attitude to brand visualisation will predominantly remain despite pressure to modernise. Beyond a high quality taste and nose, the origins, tradition and history behind single malt whiskies is part of the experience consumers look for.

“Our brand, despite being relatively new, reflects the history of our region so in that sense Hellyers Road buys into the sense of tradition and history that characterises most top quality whiskies. And this sense of history and tradition is best realised in the popularity of aged statement whiskies.

“Like any consumer product, you need to be noticed. Our products are no different as we are competing for point of sale shelf space against massive competition. At the end of last year we revised all of our labels and packaging evolving the brand visuals to a point that better highlighted our sense of region and in-store visibility. We were respectful to the established brand visuals but delighted with the new, refreshed look.”

Hellyers Road uses Clemenger Tasmania, a locally based marketing company with global affiliations, recognised as one of Tasmania’s foremost communications agencies, while the product labels and giftbox printing is provided by a range of printing businesses from within Tasmania and mainland Australia. “Our labels need to be printed on the mainland by a specialist label printing company (Collotype) due to the high quality gold foil finish we require. We work with design team at Clemenger Tasmania to maintain quality control over all of our print work. Once we have an agreed standard in place we will often deal directly with the print supplier.”

So where does Mark see future growth for his products and spirits generally? “As a single malt distillery we are very young by world standards. Our growth in the last 12 months has been outstanding with a doubling of sales due to significant distribution agreements being struck in Australia and abroad. We are untapped and envisage further significant growth of the Hellyers Road brand over the next five years and beyond.

“More and more younger people are turning to traditional, high quality spirits as their drink of choice. The trend began in Europe and has now manifested in parts of Asia and Australia. These younger consumers are looking for an overall experience from spirit brands. They recognise quality and are looking to embrace the origins and brand story, as much as the taste experience.

“Distribution and marketing are the key components of reaching any market, younger deomographics included. We will continue to work with our distribution outlets and publicist to push the Hellyers Road brand. We know that once people try our products, most will become strong brand advocates. When cash flow permits, we will work with our communications agency to target strategic forums to advertise the brand.

“In June/July 2014 we will release our second aged statement single malt – 12 years. This is an exciting milestone for Hellyers Road and one we are confident will be well supported following the success of our 10 Year Aged release.

“Aged Statement whiskies are a globally recognised way of highlighting he quality and experience of the distillery. Of course being an aged statement whisky does not necessarily guarantee top quality, but we are very confident in our product offerings. Most keen single malt drinkers look for an aged statement spirit.”

Hellyers Road Distillery is named after Henry Hellyer, one of the first European explorers to set foot in north west Tasmania in his role as chief surveyor with the Van Dieman’s Land Company. Hellyer had nothing more than a bullock gang and the most basic of tools to carve a dirt road through the ferocious wilderness, which today leads to the Hellyers Road Distillery.

Current annual sales are in excess of Aus$2 million and rising while the annual distillery capacity stands at 100,000 litres of pure alcohol. Bottling capacity is 9000 bottles per week. Annual sales growth is forecast at approximately 100% while the distillery’s Visitor Centre attracts upward of 25,000 people each year, many of whom take advantage of the fully interpreted Whisky Walk which also offers the opportunity to pour and wax seal your very own ‘Distillers Choice’ single malt. The current Bond Store inventory stands at 3,000 x 200 litre casks.


14 November 2013