Monday, 13 August 2012


An Interview with the owner and Head Distiller of Limeburners, Cameron Syme

Which aspects of your production methods or other factors would you say has the greatest impact on the end quality of your whisky, i.e. the one or two things that you do that makes Limeburners whisky what it is?

Cameron comments - that's a tough question - we make every batch by hand, and our attention to detail at every stage of the process (from grain selection, yeast selection, mashing, fermentation timing, distillation, and maturation) is what turns out Limeburners and makes it what it is. it's not really possible to just choose two.  Our mission is to make the best whisky in the world (that's the goal - nothing like aiming high) so we have a continuous improvement methodology where we are always looking at the various steps to see where we can improve. I guess perhaps if I had to say the one or two things, then I'd choose 1) the fact that our entire team share the passion and commitment to make premium quality whisky, and 2) we make small volumes by hand according to traditional distillation methods - not one computer is involved in our production process.
What made you decide to distill single malt whisky and what made you choose Albany? 

Cs - I love my single malt, to me it's the pinnacle of all drinks. My family came from Scotland, and they were involved in distilling whisky there.  I thought Australia makes great wine and beer and send that around the world, and compete at the premium level, why don't we make a whisky - we have all of the key ingredients here - great grain, clean water, clean environment...  That was where it all started.   Why Albany - after 18 months of site selection process looking everywhere from Perth south, it was clear that on a number of key criteria, Albany was the best place in WA to make single malt whisky.

Was there anything specific in the region that led you to build your distillery there?  
Cs- yes, plenty of good quality water from limestone aquifers, some of the worlds best barley grown in the region, renewable energy from the Albany wind farm, a cool climate ideal for maturing whisky, and peat bogs.

Limeburners along with many Australian whiskies have no age statements on the bottles.  I believe that you said the average age of most of the whiskies that you produced was between 3 and 5 years old.  I agree with your comment that oftentimes there is too much emphasis given to the number of years old that a whisky is, do you think the lack of an age statement hurts Australian whiskies or hurts them?  

CS- Age statements are an interesting thing. We have proven that whisky does not need to be 'old' to be good. Whisky can improve with age, but every cask will get to a point when it will be too old as well (each cask is different, and old casks need to be monitored to make sure they don't get too woody, otherwise the quality diminishes). I would not release a whisky younger than 3 years, as the youthfulness shows through and the spirit is not as rounded or finessed.  Let's also not forget that Laphroaig quarter cask has no age statement - I haven't heard anyone criticize that. Peated notes in whisky will diminish with age, so that would tend towards younger peated whiskies appealing to peatophiles. Generally people are critical of Australian whiskies as we are not considered a traditional whisky producing nation.  In reality a number of Australian whiskies have won medals on the international stage against much older whiskies.  I think those results speak for themselves.

Age does play a role, but there has been too much of a focus in age (our 3 year old has prevailed in more than one blind tasting over 18 year old whiskies).  I think consumers have been trained to think that a whisky must be 8, or 12, or 18 years old to be good,  that's simply not true for Australian whiskies.  Australian whiskies are great at 3, 5 and 8 years.  Whisky matures faster in Australia and the United States than it does in Scotland.  You can bet that by the time our Australian distilleries' whiskies are 12+ years old we we will be appreciated as the best in the world.  

Are there any barriers in the Australian whisky industry that you think are specifically "Australian" or do you think problems in the industry tend to be fairly common across the different countries?

CS- there are the usual barriers of costs of production.  I Australia we face additional burden as to start with some Australian consumers have been overly critical of Australian whisky.  We have had some people criticize a whisky that won a silver medal best in class in London.  Their comments changed when they knew what it was they were trying.  That said we've also had positive support from many people who love our whisky and people have quickly converted to being strong supporters of Australian distilleries.  

Possibly the biggest impediment is the taxation regime in Australia.  This is at one of the highest rates in the OECD, and means the economics of producing here are much tougher than our international competitors. Wineries and breweries in Australia all get excise (tax) breaks - distilleries get no such break.  This is a major issue.
The price of many Australian whiskies starts at $100 and can easily shoot up to $200+.  I've experienced quite a range in quality in many distilleries (not Limeburners for the record) that go from the whisky being just ok to being brilliant I need to buy this bottle now.  Do you think this lack of consistency and high price point drives many of the Aussie whisky drinkers away from Australian whiskies to bourbons or Scottish Single Malts?

CS - first, thanks for your comments that all Limeburners whiskies have been good.  Our commitment to quality is we will not release a whisky if we are not 100% satisfied with the quality. We have won awards in major international spirit shows for each of the last 5 years, including the prestigious London IWSC, where among other awards we've picked up 2 silver in 2011 (one best in class) and 3 silver in 2012.  We do not pick 'show ponies' and submit them. We take whatever is our current release of whisky and send it in - the fact were winning awards for every whisky we've submitted means that any of our whiskies would be capable of holding it's own on the international stage.

All of the Australian producers I know are committed to producing a quality product.  I would be disappointed if anyone is releasing poor quality whisky as reputation is hard earned and easy lost.  The costs here reflect the small scale of production, the high capital and operating costs and the tax burden (currently at about $75 a liter of alcohol).  I also like to think we need to compare 'apples with apples' and not 'apples with oranges'.  Many of our international colleagues are producing very, very large volumes (Jack Daniels for example produce 2000 barrels a day, Limeburners produce 2 to 3 barrels a week. Scotland produces over 1 billion bottles of whisky a year).  If you purchase a Scottish single distillery, single cask, single malt whisky (which is the equivalent of what most Australian producers are releasing) there is not a great disparity in price.  In economic terms, alcohol is a price elastic good, and people will find cheaper substitutes if they are not motivated by quality. I think that is the main driver towards people consuming cheaper spirits.  At Limeburners, and similarly with Lark, Sullivans Cove and Bakery Hill, we could sell more than we currently have available to sell, as we are all recognized as being committed to producing quality whiskies,

What does the "M" designation refer to in the bottle title?

CS - hmm, there's not rocket science to this one, the M designates M for "malt".  It's so we know what's in each cask in our bond store.  Our brandy barrels all carry the symbol "B" and our sour mash (bourbon) carry the symbol "SM".  

I've tried quite a few of your whiskies, the ones that specifically come to mind are the M31 which was a brandy finished barrel, the M66 which was the Riesling finished barrel and the M80 which was Muscat finished if I recall correctly?  I find the varieties of finishes very cool and am curious if you guys have anything else really cool in the works for Limeburners whisky?  I know we covered a little bit last night, but any chance of going into anymore depth?

CS - Nate you certainly have good taste - M80 was awarded a silver medal at the IWSC in London this week. Barrel selection (referred to as "Wood policy") is very important.  Yes we do have more things in the works, including importing bourbon barrels directly from distilleries in the US.  The whiskies you are seeing from our distillery now are the result of 8 years of research and development of our wood policy.  For the last 3 years we've been working closely with coopers in South Australia and at Seppelsfield, and we have access to some amazing casks with known pedigrees.  M80 for example was finished in cask that was a bourbon barrel in the US in the 1930s, and which was then sent to South Australia to mature fortified for the next 70 odd years - that's amazing provenance.  Yes we do have some other lovely casks in our barrel store which are weaving their magic.  We think we've got the wood policy fairly well sorted - of course we won't rest on our laurels and are continually working with coopers getting them to source the very best barrels they can find

I've read that you use filtered rain water to cut your whisky down to bottling strength, this is quite unusual compared to distilleries in Scotland or even Tasmania where local spring water sources are used - what led to your decision to use rain water and do you think the character of your whisky would have been different had you been able to use "local" fresh water sources instead where the softness or hardness or other qualities of the water may have had an impact?  I believe we covered this in the hard water vs the soft water, but anything else that you could add would be awesome!

CS - we need soft water for product dilution.  Our research with the WA Ag department resulted in us using rain water as this is the purest softest water we can source... And it falls out of the sky into the distillery. One other thing to note is that Despite what marketing departments might have us believe, many Scottish distilleries use tap water. Only a few use 'spring' water.

What would you say to someone who were to question the "Australian-ness" of Limeburners whisky, given the seemingly intentional modelling on Scottish whisky production methods, say down to the stills which were designed to be similar to some great Scotch distillers?

We didn't want to reproduce Scottish whacky here, we wanted to make Australian whisky,  however the flavor profiles produced by the stills is important, that's why we looked to the Scottish single malts we like the most. We make whisky in a traditional manner - there are a number of things that we do that are no longer done by the Scottish industry ( for example our long fermentation periods), and there are some developments we do that are distinctly different - for example a cold peat smoking process.  Most importantly the wine industry use the expression 'terrior' (pronounced ter-wah) which relates to the influence of the place where the grapes are grown and the influence on the wine. Each vineyard is different,  the same can be said of whisky,  there is no doubt to me that we are making uniquely Australian whisky, not a Scottish replica.  
Following on from the previous question, are you able to name the distilleries in Scotland that might've influenced the still design at Limeburners?

cs - Let's talk about that over a whisky some time (you wouldn't ask a woman her age or dress size...) 
Some malt whisky fans in Australia have a difficult time getting a hold of Limeburners whisky given its inherently limited small batch release nature and seemingly limited distribution channels into retail outlets - do you think there is greater demand for your whisky than you can currently accommodate?  Again we covered this in the 30,000 bottles a month for I believe Sweden.

Yes there is great demand.  We've focused on making a quality product first,  now we have that we're looking at distribution,  we now use Liquid Library in WA, and are working in the eastern states.  People can always order from our website and the whisky will be delivered to their door... What's hard about that?  

Following on from the previous question, do you think the price point of your whisky, as with whisky from other Aussie distillers, presents a barrier to some from experiencing your whisky - or do you see a niche for your whisky that isn't about trying to compete with imported and even local malt whisky counter-parts?

Yes I'm sure it may be a barrier to some. We're not trying to compete - we  can now say with some confidence that we are producing one of the world's best whiskies. 
Do you ever see a time when you might produce limited amounts of 3-5cl sample bottles of Limeburners in order for people to experience your whiskies?   

Yes - we're working in this and hope to have a set of 3 x 100ml bottles available within a year.  This way people will be able to Experience 3 different expressions.
We discussed the difficulty of getting Limeburners in the Eastern States.  I recall you saying that whisky drinkers in Queensland would likely be able to get their hands within the next 12 months or so.  Are there any specific outlets where they can go to get Limeburners?  How about folks in Sydney or Melbourne? 

Sydney and Melbourne have a number of places.  They're all listed on our website.  If people want that can order from us and Australia post will deliver it to you door... 

Whew!  CS - phew is right.  Hope my responses are what you're looking for.  Cheers Cameron.

I'd like to thank not just Cameron Syme for allowing me to take up his valuable time in this interview, but also my whisky friend from Queensland, Systemdown, who helped come up with quite a few of the questions.

Thanks you two!

Slainte Mhath!

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