Bakery Hill whisky celebrates 20 years: Season Three, Episode Two

David and Andrew Baker of Australian whisky pioneer Bakery Hill Distillery

Founded in 1999, Bakery Hill whisky was the first distillery on the mainland, and the third to open in the modern era after the celebrated Tasmanian distilleries Lark and Sullivans Cove.

Located in Melbourne’s north east, Bakery Hill might be lesser known today than these brands.

But that’s certainly not down to the quality of its whiskies, which have received consistent acclaim from critics such as Jim Murray, Dave Broom and Australia’s Andrew Derbidge, who we heard from on last season of the Drinks Adventures podcast.

I visited David for a chat about Bakery Hill whisky’s journey to date, and to hear some exciting news about their expansion plans coinciding with their 20th birthday this year.

David and Andrew Baker of Australian whisky pioneer Bakery Hill Distillery
David and Andrew Baker of Australian whisky pioneer Bakery Hill Distillery

More on whisky:
Heather Tillott of Sullivans Cove Distillery on making world-beating whisky
Australian whisky, gin and bottled cocktails with Starward’s David Vitale

Bakery Hill whisky celebrates 20 years: Full transcript

James: Well, David Baker, thank you so much for joining me on the Drinks Adventures Podcast.

David Baker: My pleasure, James, it’s great to see you at the distillery and we should have a few quiet ones before the data is out.

James: Sounds good to me. Bakery Hill whisky has a tremendous reputation among whisky enthusiastic, people in the industry but you’re not so well-known outside of that. Why do you think that is?

David Baker: The main reason for it is that Bakery Hill whisky is 100% family-owned. My sons are involved. As a result of that, we don’t have huge amounts of money for capital for massive growth, and we’ve actually focused our production at quality rather than quantity. We can’t compete with the overseas distillers with prices, but where I can compete is quality. And from day one, and that was 20 years ago now. From day one if there was any decisions to be made in production the question was will this improve the quality or not? And it had to be a yes because people are prepared to pay a little more for whisky if it’s really, really good quality. So we’re aimed at providing a quality product.

James: Sure. And you’ve mentioned to me that this will be the 20th anniversary of Bakery Hill whisky. What inspired you to launch your distillery in the first place?

David Baker: I’m a typical guy and basically if I’m told I can’t do something I’ll dig my toes in and say, “Yes I can and I’ll show you I can.” And I started to get an interest in whiskies when I constantly was bombarded with overseas paper articles saying, “The only place in the world that can make whisky is overseas.” And I said, “No, that can’t be right. We make fantastic wines in Australia. We make fantastic beers. It’s a process. If you understand the process and you can modify it for local conditions, things should be possible.” So I dug my toes in and I said, “Okay, I reckon we can make whisky in Australia.” So it was a long, long voyage. First of all, trying to get the bumf out of processing because we’ve all heard it’s the air, it’s the water and the fairies at the bottom of the garden that make the difference.

David Baker: I can tell you now it ain’t. It’s the process. And if you understand the process and you can modify it, you can do wonders. My background was chemistry and I took this as a chemical exercise. This is the raw materials. This is the end product that I want. How do we create footsteps to get there? And it took a quite a while to actually break down that air, the water and the fairies at the bottom of the garden into a chemical process and we’ve done that. Now we’re very, very happy with our product. As I said, we’re a small family business so we can’t advertise, we can’t market because we just don’t have supplies to provide volume sales. So we’ve kept ourselves a little bit under the radar, basically to handpick the outlets that are selling our product.

James: What was the reaction that you got from people back in the late ’90s when you said, “I’m going to start what was then the very first whisky distillery on the mainland at the time.”

David Baker: People laughed and said, “You’re a bloody idiot. You’re going to waste your money. I wouldn’t even bother.” And for about the first five or six years we were being laughed at of just being bloody idiots and it can’t be done in Australia.

James: How did that make you feel?

David Baker: It made me more focused on being able to produce a good quality whisky, because I knew that it was a process and as a chemist, I could look at all the reactions that were going on and I could come up with something that was equally good, at least.

James: And there were no decent textbooks to draw from really that did explain that process to you It was more about you decoding that yourself.

David Baker: No, there was very, very little. Unfortunately, most advertising, most marketing, most books that were written were written by individual distilleries, and all they were trying to do was prove that their product was the best. They didn’t look at the product across the board. So basically, I had to forget everything that I ever read or had heard and start at square one. And then move forward in small steps, ensuring that each step was firm before we moved to the next step.

James: And I was a bit surprised to find out that you actually weren’t a tremendous whisky enthusiast prior to that point yourself.

David Baker: In fact, I’d never had a whisky. I’ve made up for it in the meantime. I can assure you. When I decided that, “Hey, whisky could be something that we need to look at.” I bought every bottle of whisky I could lay my hands on. I looked at every review that I could lay my hands on and every whisky production book and had a very, very steep learning curve.

James: When you set out, what type of whisky we looking to create? Was there a blueprint internationally or were you trying to create something new?

David Baker: It had to be an Australian whisky. I wasn’t in the market to be producing a Scotch whisky, similar to Scotch whiskies, but while I was learning as much as I could about whiskies I discovered that there were whisky regions in Scotland. The Highlands, the Lowlands, the islands, and Speyside. And I was absolutely besotted by the whiskies that were coming out of the Speyside region. I love the character. I love the aromas and I love the flavours. So that was a point that, a marker that I was actually aiming towards. To have a whisky which had residual sugars. It had the flavour, the aroma of a Speyside whisky. That we’ve been able to do basically because of the design of the still that was made in the UK. I spoke to the still engineers of the company and they said, “Look, before we can design is still for you. You need to tell us exactly the style of whisky that you would like to produce because every dimension in this still, every angle is a going to affect the quality and the characteristic.”

David Baker: So I went through a long discussion of the styles of whiskies that I enjoyed. When they got to a point that they then understood that they then sat back and drew and designed stills for us. Now, what is important characteristic of the stills? I don’t know. Height is an important one that I do know. The taller the still the more aromatic flavours, the more aromas you’re going to get through the whiskies. Boiling bulge on the top of the still is important. What that does is it provides depth and character, a three-dimensional structure. But apart from that, that’s the job of the still engineer. My job is to put the stuff in a bottle. Is to make it, put it in a bottle and enjoy it.

James: And what about the Oak regime? Did you have a definite idea of what you wanted to do there?

David Baker: At that stage, and this was very, very early in whiskies production in Australia. I knew what I wanted and more particularly, I knew what I didn’t want. What is quite common in whisky distillation is to use French Oak barrels that have contained other products. Sherry, Port, Madeira wines. What that does is basically blankets the whisky with Sherry, Port or Madeira characteristics. That I didn’t want to do. So the barrels that we use are American Oak bourbon casks we get from Jack Daniels. They’re heavily charred, which means that the spirit is not going to soak into the wood to any great degree, and also what was in the barrel previously is not going to soak in. So our whiskies are not being tainted with other products. Sherry, Port or Madeira. What you get in a Bakery Hill whisky is our whisky and the flavours we wish to impart into the whisky.

James: You’ve also mentioned to me that you were not keen to release any of your whiskies until they were sufficiently matured. Was that a bit of trial and error early on working out how long it was for your whiskies to peak in this environment?

David Baker: That’s an interesting discussion because yes, you’re right. Basically, I was producing new make spirit, putting it in the barrels, maturing and tasting the whisky and saying, “No, it’s not quite right yet. It’s not quite right.” And I had a phone call from the guy who ran the Australian whisky, one of the Australian whisky clubs, and he was putting on a whisky show in Canberra. And this was when our whiskies with three years old. And he said, “Why don’t you release your whiskies in Canberra? Let the public have a look at it and see how you go.” So I thought, “What the hell? We’ll do that.” So up to Canberra I went with our whiskies that were three years old, and people enjoyed them and I was surprised. It was three years old. So we thought, “Okay, let’s leave it for another year just to improve it a little bit more.”

David Baker: So we left it for four. We started selling when they were four years old, but I left one for five years and it improved so much better we made it five years. Then we made at six, then we might’ve seven. So now we bottle when the whisky has reached the standard that we’re really, really happy with regardless of the age. Typically, we’re bottling now at six or seven, or eight years depending on the activity of the wood. It’s worth it for us to hold back and to provide whisky of the six, seven, or eight years because the quality is much better.

James: With such a long maturation time relative to some of the other distilleries, this recent boom in interest in craft spirits, you know, it takes a while to react to that and meet the market. So is that one of the reasons why you talk about, “We don’t want to advertise because we sell through all our product anyway.”

David Baker: This is exactly the problem. What we’re selling currently we produced six/seven years ago. Six or seven years ago we never understood the demand that was going to be provided. Unfortunately, that’s what we’re selling. We only sell the whiskies that we put a big tick on.

James: In recent news have you ramped up production to try and meet that demand?

David Baker: Absolutely. We increased production about five/six years ago. We’re still waiting for that to come on stream. Probably come on stream about December/January of the end of this year. So yes, we will have more product to sell. The other thing which has been a major problem for us is we are exporting to France, Germany and Sweden. They loved our whiskies. The problem is the local demand, and I mean Victoria, little bit in Sydney, South Australia has just taken over and we can’t export anymore because the local demand is so intense.

James: So there’s a big opportunity there for you if you want to take it.

David Baker: Certainly is. Obviously, we increased production, as I mentioned. Not to a huge amount, but we should be able to get back into a small export market. But Australia is such a huge continent and the numbers of people now drinking whisky is huge. I’m not sure whether we’ll be able to export it, but we’ll see.

James: Bakery Hill whisky is still sticking to the single cask production model. There’s no plans to deviate from that?

David Baker: No. What a lot of distilleries do is they have a collection of casks, maybe half a dozen casks. They put them all together and they bottle them. It means that their bottling regimes, their bottling runs is much larger, but what that does is it provides an average and unfortunately the average is less than the best. Now, what we do is we number each cask as we have to do, and we have records for each cask. Every a couple of years we’ll then go and we’ll look at the casks and see how they’re developing. We get the staff here together and we find perhaps half a dozen casks that we think may be getting close to development maturation, and we’ll then try them and will only select the cask or casks that we think are perfect because each cask may mature at a different rate. We can pick the casks that are exactly that we want our branding on.

James: Tell me about some of the more recent introductions to the Bakery Hill whisky range. We talked about your experiments with peated malt.

David Baker: We have our standard range. Our classic, our double wood and our peated, but we also like playing around. Occasionally we’ll get some interesting phone calls, and a couple of interesting phone calls happened eight years ago. And that was from a maltings in Belgium and they said, “We’ve got this fantastic peated malt you might be really, really interested in. It’s 50 parts per million.” Which is for us, a heavy peat, and I thought, “Let’s give it a go. See how it goes.” So we bought half a dozen pallets, we distilled it, we put it in barrels and we left it. And my son who’s now in the business and has been so for three/four years, he said, “It’s about time we had a look at those barrels. They’ve been here a while.” We pulled the bangs out. They were fantastic. So what we’ve done there is we’ve used a different style of malt with different peating. It’s a island peat as opposed to a Highland peat. It’s a heavy peat, 50 parts, as opposed to our normal peat which is about 20, 23. So that’s one way that we can change things slightly.

David Baker: Another way is that we send some barrels to a brewery, Hop Nation, about 12 months ago because they wanted to see how their beers would develop in whisky casks. So we said goodbye to half a dozen of our barrels and then had the phone call that the beers were ready, “Would you like to go down and try them?” And they were fantastic. So what they’ve done is they’ve now decanted the beer out, and we’ve got a couple of those back again and we’ve put matured whisky into the Hop Nation barrels that was originally here for our whiskies. So we’re going to see what the whisky is going to finish like after it’s been in a beer barrel.

James: So lots more experimentation.

David Baker: Oh, lots more. We’ve had wineries, a very special winery that was producing beautiful, beautiful muskets and they said, “Would you like a musket barrel?” And we said, “Thank you, we’ll do that.” So we’ve got another barrel out the back that’s had musket and we’re finishing our whiskies in a musket just to see how they are going. This is very, very small projects but they’d done basically just to see the difference that the barrels again to make and they’re good fun.

James: Who were the consumers of Bakery Hill whisky in the early days?

David Baker: Answering this question focuses back on me because I thought that the local market was the older gentlemen, liked to buy a bottle, go home, sit at home, enjoy it. How wrong I was. The market for single malt whiskies, 85% of our sales are the 18 to 40 year olds. It is the young people, they are really, really wanting to learn about whisky. They are enjoying good quality product and they are seeking it out. The older gentlemen, which I was looking at originally tend to be very brand loyal and also the market is the younger people. We’re finding now that nearly 50% of our sales are going to women. So what I was thinking of is completely wrong. It’s young people, males and females.

James: When Bakery Hill whisky started getting some accolades, global accolades from the likes of Jim Murray in 2000s, did that really bring a lot of attention to Bakery Hill?

David Baker: Look, it did. The problem was then that we didn’t have the young market. Well, Jim Murray gave us best small distillery whisky of the year of all the whiskies he’d gone through. That was a number of years ago, and it was the older people that were around at that stage. The younger people really hadn’t come on board. So yes, we got acolytes and we did well and we sold some, but comparing the market now with what it was like six, seven years ago if we did it again we’d be just overrun.

James: Tell me about the new site.

David Baker: The new site.

James: Can we-

David Baker: Yes we can.

James: We can go on the record about that?

David Baker: Oh, yes we can. I’ve been looking for a new site for many, many, many years. Basically, I moved in here because I just needed a place to store all our equipment and to prove we could make whisky. Now, we’ve been so busy making and selling over the last couple of years that any thought of relocating a really was the last thing I was thinking of. But then I thought, “No, it’s time to really move to a place that we can be proud of. A place that we’re very, very happy to bring people in and is very special.” We were approached about two years ago by a company that was restoring a wool mills in Kensington, and this is about 200 meters from the Kensington station. The wool mills was originally built in the late 1800s, early 1900s and was used for wool clarifying or scarifying for many, many, many years. It’s now been purchased and it’s going to be used for specialist producers. Beer, cheese, whisky and we were asked if we’d like to take over an area there.

David Baker: Well, we’re taking over about 500 square meters. We should be moving in in late December, early January this year. One of the things that was important was that they’ve restored the building back to the way it was when it was originally built. So it’s an absolutely special, special place for our stills. A place we can be proud of and a place we can be extremely happy to bring people in, and to show them our range of whiskies and to educate them. We’ve got two areas, 250 square meters. So 500 square meters in total. One area will be our production area. It’ll also be barrel storage because it’s one thing to make whisky and to put it in barrels, but it has to be stored over long periods of time. So we’ll be using one area to do that.

David Baker: The other area which is adjacent, that will be marketing, distribution and sales. We won’t have a large walk-in, walk-out bar as such. It will be more of a small tasting area. There’ll be an area in there where we do education. Where people can come in, they sit down and we can talk to them about whisky production, flavours, how we do it, why are whiskies the why they are. Education will be a important part of this new area.

James: So Bakery Hill’s coming out of the shadows.

David Baker: It is coming out of the shadows. Yes, absolutely. So two stops from Melbourne Central.

James: And what does the future hold for the distillery other than that? Your son’s actively involved in the businesses?

David Baker: Yes.

James: Is he keen to carry on the story?

David Baker: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely so. When my son came on board about three, four years ago he brought in with him, being a younger person the facilities of being able to use Facebook, use Twitter, use all the media that’s available, which I at this stage really didn’t use. So he’s brought all that on board. He also looks after our sales, marketing and distribution, which is fantastic because our market are the 18 to 40 year olds and they are interested in electronic media. They’re interested in podcasts, all these things.

James: Fantastic. Well, David, I look forward to visiting you at the new distillery next time and congratulations on 20 years for Bakery Hill whisky.

David Baker: It’s been an interesting time. Who’d have thunk it, hey? 20 years. Time flies when you’re having fun. The market is absolutely exciting at the moment. It’s a great industry to be in, and the other distillers are great people to know. They’re fabulous. It’s a real network.

James: Well, thanks for joining me on the podcast.

David Baker: It’s my pleasure. Thank you very much, James. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

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