Backwoods Distilling, Yackandandah’s home of whisky and gin: S7E3

Backwoods Distilling founders Leigh Attwood and Bree Attwood

Backwoods Distilling was founded by Leigh Attwood and Bree Attwood in Yackandandah, Victoria in 2017.

The arrival of their distillery has added whisky to the list of regional specialties in Victoria’s High Country region.

In this episode of the Drinks Adventures podcast, Leigh and Bree discuss their whiskies produced using 100% Australian farmed and malted grains from Voyager Craft Malt, located across the border in the Riverina region of NSW.

They mature their whisky exclusively in barrels that have previously held Australian wine and whisky, where possible using ex-wine casks from local wineries such as Sorrenberg in Beechworth and Scion in Rutherglen.

Backwoods Distilling founders Leigh Attwood and Bree Attwood
Backwoods Distilling founders Leigh Attwood and Bree Attwood

The first Backwoods Distilling whiskies – a Rye and a Single Malt – were released in August 2020, with both selling out in less than 24 hours.

We meet the Attwoods with Leigh currently preparing to finish up his full-time teaching job in order to focus purely on the Backwoods Distilling business.

Backwoods Distilling, Yackandandah: Full transcript

LEIGH ATTWOOD: Yeah look, it’s been pretty crazy. Like we’ve sort of given up pretty much every weekend for the last three years to kind of get this happening, so I’m kind of pretty relieved that the teaching part has come to an end. That you know, I can just focus my full energy on what I love doing. And teaching’s been great to me over the years, but I’m really looking forward to sort of moving on and I’ll be able to stop spreading myself so thin across everything and totally devote my life to my love of yeah, making whisky. Which is pretty exciting.

JAMES ATKINSON: And what about you Bree? I understand you’ve got a background in communications I saw on your LinkedIn profile. Have you been focusing on Backwoods Distilling mostly for the last few years?

BREE ATTWOOD: No, so I work part-time. So three or four days a week for the University of Melbourne. They’ve got a little rural campus in Wangaratta. So I’ve been working there the whole time and then yeah, after hours and weekends on distillery stuff. So, yeah it’s been pretty crazy for the both of us but at this stage I’ll hang onto my job. Leigh will move in because he’s production man, so we need to start spending more time making more whisky. So we kind of prioritised his job to be the first to go I guess.

JAMES ATKINSON: So it’s a pretty massive plunge that you’ve taken. What was it that inspired you both to go down this path?

BREE ATTWOOD: I suppose it all sort of happened when we moved back to the North East. Because we were living in Melbourne since probably 2007, was our last stint. We’d been overseas before that and then Melbourne before that to go to University. And then yeah, around 2016 we started looking for properties back up in the North East, which we both grew up in this area. And yeah, found this beautiful property in Yackandandah. Made the move with our two boys. Within like a few months we’d found jobs, sold our house, bought another house and we were moving up here. And I think it just sort of kick started the idea that we wanted to do something different. And just this whole region, the North East of Victoria is just known for its craft, artisan makers and producers and growers, and so I guess we were just inspired by things that people were doing here. Having grown up wine region, it just inspired us to give something a go and we were both you know, enjoying whisky as consumers. As whisky drinkers and then Leigh started looking into how it was made and then a little trip to Tassie. Met a few distillers down there. Came home and he was like I think we could actually make it. I think we could actually put a still in our shed and start making it. The climate was right and Leigh’s you know, interest in how it was made and my sort of love of the whole story around whisky making. Just, it all just seemed to fit together and I don’t remember really thinking about it too hard. Like it just sort of happened.

LEIGH ATTWOOD: Just yeah, I don’t know. Just was almost like we didn’t have a choice. It just all unfolded in front of us and it just seemed like the perfect thing to do. And yeah, like Bree said, the North East just you know, it just has so many great producers in this area and there wasn’t a lot in terms of whisky. So it just seemed like the perfect opportunity for us.

Backwoods Distilling, Yackandandah cellar door
Backwoods Distilling’s Yackandandah cellar door

JAMES ATKINSON: Yeah and Leigh, did you have a background in science at all? Is that what your teaching discipline was?

LEIGH ATTWOOD: No, my discipline is actually history. But I’ve always sort of… yeah. So I certainly love that kind of, the whole story and the history of distilling as well. But yeah, I’ve just always had a pretty keen interest in learning. So whether it’s really history or science, I’ve just always been a pretty eager learner.

JAMES ATKINSON: You’ve been and studied the IBD distilling course. That would have helped?

LEIGH ATTWOOD: Yeah absolutely. So when we decided to take the plunge and we ordered the still, I sort of had about six months to wait so I thought here’s the perfect opportunity to actually get some formal qualifications. So yeah, I engaged in that for about three or four months and got it all done. And at the same time I bought a little test still and just sort of practised my craft as I was learning. So yeah, that was a fun time. I learnt so much.

BREE ATTWOOD: Yeah, I remember you mashing in an esky back then.

LEIGH ATTWOOD: Yeah in an esky in the kitchen and yeah, making a mess.

JAMES ATKINSON: And you know, when you decide it was going to be whisky specifically? Was there any particular moment overseas perhaps or travelling around Australia where you were trying some whiskies and thinking this is… if we’re going to have a crack at making something, it’s going to be whisky rather than gin or rum, or whatever else?

LEIGH ATTWOOD: Yeah, I always sort of blame our kids. When the kids came along we were sort of sitting at home a lot and you know, rather than going out on a Saturday night we started just drinking some quality whiskies. And it probably was really when we tasted the Australian stuff that really inspired us. You know, we sort of did the tour through the… you know, we started on Irish malts and then worked through Scottish malts. But then when we landed on Australian stuff, I don’t know. There was just something that is sort of just turned from a love to an obsession I suppose. And there was a real kind of buzz going on at that time around sort of craft spirits and I think yeah, just sort of got caught up in that and really just wanted to not only be a part of it, but sort of feel like we could contribute something.

BREE ATTWOOD: And I think like, yeah. You can be connected to the industry when you’re drinking Australian spirits. Then you can go and meet the distillers, visit the distillery and that whole side of it was really what yeah, what we were interested in wasn’t it?

LEIGH ATTWOOD: Yeah, there’s sort of a real camaraderie you know, in the Australian whisky scene amongst the distillers and I felt that even just when I went down and sort of yeah, took that tour of Tassie to learn. So yeah, sort of really wanted to be a part of that.

JAMES ATKINSON: So, what have the last few years been like? Apart from you know, how busy you’ve been managing this start up in tandem with your own careers. But you know, has it been a real steep learning curve? Have there been moments where you thought wow, what have I gotten myself into or has it been smooth sailing?

LEIGH ATTWOOD: Yeah look, I guess in some respects it’s been fairly smooth sailing. But we are a little bit adventurous, we are sort of I guess following tradition in some ways in the process but we are I guess trying to push some boundaries too. So you know, we are sort of using grains that probably haven’t really been used before and we’re trying casks that haven’t really been used before. So I guess with whisky, the learning curve… because of the maturation time, you know, it’s not that steep. Because you’ve got time to even the mistakes out I suppose. But yeah, I don’t think we’ve had any real disaster moments yet.

BREE ATTWOOD: Not disasters, there’s been some pretty high stress moments I would say. Like particularly before our first release you know, we were pretty nervous about that. About how you know, the reaction to the release and if we…. because it was all in a digital, you know, landscape there was no face-to-face launches and that’s sort of what we were expecting at the start of the year. We expected to be at whisky bars having launches and inviting people to Yackandandah to meet us. We thought the distillery door could be up and running by then. And I suppose you know, everyone’s plans for 2020 have changed so the fact that it was all online was pretty nerve wracking because we do get such a buzz out of meeting people, tasting whisky with them and we found that the festivals and events that we’d been to previously you know, people were so interested in talking to us about what we were doing. So, yeah, it was nerve wracking launching it all digitally, but then that night that we launched when it all sort of kicked off and sales started coming in pretty quick yeah, then the stress went down a bit, didn’t it?

LEIGH ATTWOOD: Yeah, yeah.

JAMES ATKINSON: Yeah, I suppose you must, like I would imagine being in that situation of thinking, ‘gee I hope someone buys all this whisky because if no one does, then we’re in some trouble’. But if you know, then as soon as the sales come through it gives you a lot of confidence.

BREE ATTWOOD: Yep, I made a pretty big error on that first release because I’d set up the website and I’d forgotten to tick that the shopping cart icon would appear. So everybody’s like trying to buy it and they couldn’t get to the shopping cart so we just had like all these emails and calls and messages – we can’t buy it, we can’t buy it, so.

LEIGHT ATTWOOD: That was a stressful moment.

BREE ATTWOOD: Yeah, that was pretty stressful but we sorted it out in the end.

Backwoods Distilling Rye Whisky

JAMES ATKINSON: Tell me about the first two products that you’ve got. So there’s the rye and the single malt. How did you arrive at these two products and what makes them different to what else is on the market?

LEIGH ATTWOOD: Yeah sure, I guess I could start with the rye because I think that’s what really was the thing that inspired me the most and I’ve told this story a bit. But when I visited Peter Bignell in Tasmania and tasted his rye. I just sort of… I just fell in love with ryes and you know, I sort of started exploring American ryes and just sort of felt that there was an opportunity there to probably do rye in you know, in some different casks. There’s a category there to be explored, so the rye that we use is grown by a voyager craft malt and that rye was an old heirloom grain that had been neglected. And it was on one of their neighbour’s paddocks for the reckon a good 30 or 40 years where it became sort of hardened by drought. It sort of grows very small and it’s yeah, sort of very hardy and very full of flavour. So, we selected that rye and spent a fair bit of time with R&D on that because it is… it’s got such a punchy flavour to it. Messed around with the mashed build and ended up with I suppose some barley in there, but a little bit of a variety of winter wheat as well. And it just really tamed it out and sort of flattened the curves a bit I suppose and flattened the peaks. So that rye itself, I guess the mash build is pretty unique. In that it’s a 60% rye mash build and just a really unique rye. So we’ve done that as well in some local shiraz casks and when I say local, I suppose I mean Australian shiraz casks out of the Barossa. So it’s pretty unusual the combination of I guess a spicy kind of rye and I guess a spicy kind of wine. But they just work really, really well together.

Backwoods Distilling Single Malt Whisky

The single malt, we selected that really carefully. Because we do live in a pretty celebrated wine area, we really wanted our first release to be from I guess some casks that we got from around here. So we selected some tawny casks that yeah, that came out of the north east. And I guess the grains in that single malt are a selection of things from voyager and a pretty, again a pretty complex mash build that took a lot of time to I guess settle on it. Yeah, so I guess we consider that, the single malt, to be a little bit of a tilt of the hat to where we live and sort of… and the producers in this area that have you know, sort of paved the way for I guess successful craft producers of North East Victoria.

JAMES ATKINSON: And they were both, I think I recall that they were vatted releases? They weren’t single cask releases. What’s your release schedule going to look like from here?

LEIGH ATTWOOD: Look, as much as possible we will probably vat things and just for consistency of the product. But in saying that, our second release which we just sold out of was a single cask release.

BREE ATTWOOD: For the single malt, yep.

LEIGH ATTWOOD: For the single malt, yeah. So look generally we will try and vat things, but I think when a cask like that one just stands out like the way it did to us for you know, the sort of three years that it matured. It just constantly you know, stood out from the rest that we thought look, this has just got to go as a single cask. It’s too good on its own.

BREE ATTWOOD: I suppose the challenge for us is we’re still really learning about our releases and what we want the Backwoods Distilling flavour profile to be. It is probably one of the most challenging parts is selecting the casks, would you say?

LEIGH ATTWOOD: Yeah, and I suppose being small and being to sort of start… the way we’ve started to try and do just the Ma and Pa team. And that we haven’t been able to produce huge amounts in the first three years. So essentially I guess we’re kind of talking about kind of batch releases for the first couple of years, to sort of match what our production was like in those first few years. But we very much want to move towards some staples and sort of regulars in our line up.

JAMES ATKINSON: I know there was the announcement a few weeks ago now about the government grant and I believe that was towards the distillery cellar door and also I think maybe towards some equipment as well, which might help with ramping up production?

Backwoods Distilling gin

BREE ATTWOOD: Yeah, so we were lucky enough. We applied for two streams in that grant program and we were lucky enough to receive one from each stream. So the first one went towards the purchase of another still. So we’ve got another 500-litre copper still waiting to be installed at the new site. And the second stream grant that we got was for the fit out of the distillery door that we’re moving into, where work has started this last week on that move. So, the smaller still we’re putting into production on our gin that we’ve decided to do, just in the last few months really. Yeah, we’re going to add gin to the range. Just because I suppose once we started releasing and the thought of opening up a distillery door, knowing the product volume that we have on offer. We just knew that we needed some more product to have available at the distillery door. So we’re hoping that the gin will help with that as well.

JAMES ATKINSON: But whisky’s obviously… that’s where your passion lays and Backwoods Distilling will be a whisky-led business?

BREE ATTWOOD: Yep, 100%. And that’s why really worked hard to establish ourselves as a whisky distillery. That was really important to us and gin wasn’t really even on our radar for the first two or three years. And I suppose it’s just been this year that we’ve decided… oh well, we’ve had a lot of advice too from other distillers that just to have the gin at the cellar door is a really good way to diversify. And actually I did a little post on our socials the other night and I got so many messages from people saying oh my God, my girlfriend is so excited. Now she’s definitely going to come visit the distillery door with me. So I think it’s a really good decision for our business, especially with the distillery door opening up at the end of the year.

LEIGH ATTWOOD: I suppose unfortunately not everyone loves whisky, so to have that other option I think is going to be really good for us and you know, and the gin we’ve come up with we’re pretty proud of. It’s actually… it’s been a lot of fun doing that over the last few months and coming up with a list of botanicals. And again, we’ve tried to do something I suppose that really represents where we live. Where our hours is, we’re actually next to a bush block. And in the morning when you get that fresh morning air or even a bit of rain, you just get this beautiful smell of kind of eucalypt and sort of, it’s almost like a peppermint smell. So I really wanted to try and incorporate that, so I’ve got some peppermint gum in there and some strawberry gum, and some other things as well. Wattle seed. And tastes great.

What is Yackandandah famous for?

JAMES ATKINSON: Tell me what people are going to be able to experience at the distillery door?

LEIGH ATTWOOD: Sure, so the way we’re going to set it up, it tells a story from grain to bottle basically, as you walk through. So everything’s going to I guess line one wall, and as you kind of walk through… whether it’s either a tour with one of us or a self-guided tour with some sort of information that we’ll provide in the distillery. So you can see basically grain to bottle sort of unfold in order as you walk through. There’s also a few stories we’re pretty keen to tell about distillation in the area. And I guess not only Australia’s sort of history of distillation, but Yackandandah in particular. Because this was a gold rush area, there are some pretty cool stories about the kind of things that were going on in the goldfields. There’s actually a little area, was originally outside of Yackandandah called Whisky Flat. And they used to illegally distil spirits out there. So that’s going to be a pretty cool story we get to tell.

BREE ATTWOOD: This is Leigh’s love of history and whisky combining in the perfect way.

JAMES ATKINSON: I think it’s really cool to be able to kind of you know, bring in that heritage of the area as well.

LEIGHT ATTWOOD: Yeah, there’s a little area… Whisky Flat and next to that is Rowdy Flat, so Whisky Flat they made the booze. They went over to Rowdy Flat where they partied.

Bright Brewery collaboration

BREE ATTWOOD: Yeah, so all of our production will happen at the new site. So and we’ve got a couple of extra fermenters being installed. So we’ll be able to hopefully up our production, especially with Leigh moving into the distillery full time. And then we’ve got a tasting/sales area and we’re hoping to host some events with other local producers. So we work with some wineries in Rutherglen on some collaboration projects and we’ve done co-lab with Bright Brewery on a beer with them.

LEIGH ATTWOOD: Beer whisky, yep.

BREE ATTWOOD: Beer whisky. So we’re really hoping to yeah, to use our space as a way to promote the whole region and all the great things that are made here.

Backwoods Distilling Yackandandah cellar door

JAMES ATKINSON: I guess in one sense, you’re probably fortunate that you hadn’t just opened the distillery door you know, before all this happened.

BREE ATTWOOD: Oh, I know. We talked about that. Because we took the lease over in January actually. And we’d sort of had in our heads that maybe April/May we’d sort of move in and we’d be open for the launch of our release in August. And you know, Leigh had talked about resigning from work so that we could put time into the distillery door. And thank God we didn’t because yeah, we just thought if we had of opened and this had of happened, we wouldn’t have survived it. So I think yeah, it was lucky for us in a way and then I think the way the world kind of really adapted to that virtual way of doing events and launches, sort of worked in our favour too. Because we still managed to work with sort of whisky and ailment you know, in Melbourne on a launch and Oak Barrel have had us on a couple of online events with them. We’ve managed to yeah, still really have a successful launch of our products, virtually.

LEIGH ATTWOOD: And that’s… I guess that’s what’s really cool about the whisky community too. Is that they just adapted so quickly and really got behind. Like I know there’s been quite a few new whisky distilleries that have launched this year and I know that all the ones I speak to have just had the same experience. You know, they’ve just had people coming out and just buying their stuff. And you know, participating in their Zoom events and yeah, so that’s been awesome. So like really, I guess in the COVID context, we’re actually a really positive story and it hasn’t affected us too much, other than… the distillery door probably would have been open maybe mid-year. But you know, that’s okay. We’ve had a really successful launch anyway.

JAMES ATKINSON: So when is it going to be open?

LEIGH ATTWOOD: We’re crossing our fingers for Christmas. The plumbers and electricians are in there today as we speak and they’re trying very hard to get it all done for us, so yeah.

BREE ATTWOOD: We should be able to open a version of it I think pre-Christmas. There’s a lot of locals and surrounding area locals that really want to come and get some Backwoods Distilling products for Christmas presents. So we have saved a few bottles from each release for that reason. So we’re hoping that we can have a little opening weekend and then be open during the January holidays officially.

JAMES ATKINSON: It sounds like you’ve put a lot of thought into everything you do and I’m sure you would have with the 500mL bottles and the sort of pricing structure that you’ve gone with. Tell me what your thinking was there? Because you know, you would have heard that’s something we’ve talked about a lot on the podcast with a lot of smaller producers like yourselves. But then a handful of big guys that are coming in and really probably putting a lot of pressure on small guys to try and you know, align their pricing a little bit closer to what the bigger companies are able to do.

Leigh Attwood and Bree Attwood of Backwoods Distilling, Yackandandah
Leigh Attwood and Bree Attwood of Backwoods Distilling, Yackandandah

BREE ATTWOOD: Yeah. I think the whole conversation around it is really interesting… the 700ml versus 500ml and the pricing structure. So I suppose we really considered before our first release how we wanted to go out to market. And having had already decided on the 500mL bottles early on, just because we knew that our batches were going to be small. So having more bottles out there was sort of a priority for us. You know with the latest single malt that we did, it was single cask. We had like 150 bottles so it’s not a lot of product, it’s not a lot of you know, customers to fulfil. And we’re definitely fielding more queries from people that miss out, than people that get a bottle. So the 500mL was for that reason. And then pricing wise you know, Leigh’s worked out a formula of what it costs for us to make it. And we sort of worked back from a distributor pricing. So we do give a small amount to a distributor and then wholesale pricing. And then the retail pricing. So it’s all kind of structured down that way, for us to still… you know, we still need to make a few dollars from the bottles that we give to the distributor. So, we’re pretty confident in the pricing that we’ve chosen. And confident that we can you know, that it’s… I feel like it’s respectful to the consumer and we’re trying to build that respect and reputation I guess.

LEIGH ATTWOOD: Yeah, I guess we sort of… we’ve always wanted to be a whisky that I guess is accessible. And accessible to people. So we sort of feel that we’re in it for the long haul and I think our pricing structure you know, we’ve seen first releases as high as $250-$300 and our first release at $134. Like we just felt that was honest and fair to the consumer. With the idea that, ‘hey guys, you know, please buy it and we’re in this for the long run’, so.

BREE ATTWOOD: And looking into the future, we might look at bigger bottles when our volume gets bigger and that will change our pricing. But I think, one thing that I suppose I find interesting is that a lot of whisky consumers will sort of compare the smaller craft distilleries to the things that Starwood and Archie Rose are doing. And you know, that’s understandable because if you don’t know the differences between all of the different distilleries that are out there. But it’s just… you just can’t compare distilleries around Australia, because we’ve all got such a different structure. The location is such a huge thing, you know, being located in a rural town is completely different to being located in a metro area. We also you know, it’s not really our ambition to be that big. We sort of want to look after our local market here in Yackandandah and make enough to you know, supply a loyal customer base. So we have a different business model and a different goal I suppose. And we just need to be confident that the decisions we make for our business suit those goals and those objectives that we have. And so far I think it seems to be working. We do have a pretty passionate, loyal base already of… we have you know, a Backwoods Distilling Founders Club of 250. And they’re pretty good ambassadors for us. And I know a lot of the people that bought the first release, then went and bought the second release. So I mean I think yeah, you can sort of get a bit caught up in what happens on the whisky forums, but we try to not get.

JAMES ATKINSON: Don’t read the comments is a good rule to live by I think. I mean, I think there was a bit of a discussion on 500mL bottles a couple of weeks ago actually and you guys would have been watching that.

BREE ATTWOOD: Yeah, I do sometimes write and give a little bit of an insight into our decision making as a small craft distillery of you know, two people in a rural town. Just to sort of yeah, give a little bit of rationale behind what we do and I think people do appreciate that. Because I get a lot of you know, DMs afterwards saying ‘oh thanks. You know, I hadn’t thought about it that way’, or ‘you know, I didn’t realise you guys are based where you are’, or… so I think you know, it’s important to jump in there every now and then. But then to let the consumers sort of have their to and fro as well.

LEIGHT ATTWOOD: Yeah, it’s yeah. It’s… I’m getting better and better at not listening and tuning into that stuff. Bree’s taught me that.

BREE ATTWOOD: Well I think though, the people that take the time to come and visit us or you know, even just chat online or give us a call and learn about what we’re doing. They have no problem in the you know, the pricing or the bottle size. They understand where it comes from. So I’m more interested in sort of working with those people around yeah, making great whisky for them. And yeah, loyal Backwoods Distilling customers I suppose.

LEIGH ATTWOOD: Yeah, but I think any yeah, most reasonable people when they sort of realise where it comes from and how you do it. And as soon as they understand that, I think most people are onside.

JAMES ATKINSON: And I was just on your website earlier. It looks like there’s a bit of rye left from the last batch, but you don’t yet have a date of when batch three of both the rye and single malt will be available?

LEIGH ATTWOOD: I would say we’re probably looking at about four to six weeks. Bree’s looking at me sideways. Yeah, so yeah we definitely want to get something ready for Christmas, so it will be the batch.

BREE ATTWOOD: A single malt release.

LEIGH ATTWOOD: Yeah a single malt and a rye.

BREE ATTWOOD: I mean it’s hard you know, we hand label and bottle. Like every bottle ourselves. So it does take time to get through and if we’re going to do a vetting, we might have a few 100 bottles to hand label. But yeah, we’ll manage it.

JAMES ATKINSON: Bree and Leigh, its been really nice to talk to you. I know we were originally going to do this in person, but good to talk to you online nonetheless and we can hopefully catch up over a dram at some point in the future.

LEIGH ATTWOOD: Yeah, that would be great. Please do visit.

BREE ATTWOOD: We’d love to meet you.

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