Knapp Lewer

7K Distillery: Thinking outside (and in) the box

Posted by: Ted

I have a bit of a weird confession to make: I have a thing for shipping containers. Having worked for nearly a decade in an industry where I have spent a lot of time around (and in) these standardised marvels of modern global transport, I rather enjoy seeing all the different colours, company logos and algorithmically-derived alpha-numeric serial numbers. So what’s this got to do with whisky? Well…

A geometric flower shape that is the logo of 7K Distillery

Traditional distillery design tends to veer along stone-and-timber lines, usually with a lick of white lime wash for good measure if you’re in Scotland. In Tasmania things tend to be split between restored heritage buildings, à la Scotland, or modern pre-fab steel sheds, which are easy to erect, relatively cheap to build and a breeze fit a still into. Tyler Clark of 7K Distillery had other ideas though and decided to go down a rather more… modular, route.

7K Distillery is perched half-way up a hill on the outskirts of Brighton, north of Hobart. One of the first things you notice as you head up the gravel driveway and past the brick farmhouse is that it has an absolutely epic view across the Derwent Valley to kunanyi/Mt Wellington. Behind the house sits a cluster of three shipping containers, a 20ft and a couple of 40ft units, which isn’t that unusual for a paddock in Tassie. What is unusual is that fact that an entire distillery is hidden inside.

A cluster of white modified shipping containers that house 7K Distillery. The containers sit on a hill overlooking the Derwent Valley north of Hobart. Mt Wellington/kunanyi is visible in the background. There is a bright blue sky with whispy white clouds. A tall rusty fire pot sits near the containers

Amazing what you can fit in a shipping container

“The property, Lodge Hill, is my Nan’s,” Tyler revealed to Whisky Waffle when we dropped by for a visit in late 2019. “I’d been over to the States and had a look around what was going on over there, and decided that I wanted to start my own distillery. It can be hard when you’re in your 20’s, with the start-up costs and finding a space, but I thought to myself ‘If I don’t do this shit when I’m young I’ll probably never do it'”.

Luckily Tyler was a man with a plan: “I’ve always liked the idea of building with shipping containers. My original concept was that I’d be able to move them to a new site a few years down the track if I decided to expand. At first I thought I might have some trouble with the ATO… you know, some dodgy guy distilling out of a shipping container, but they were fine with it. I suppose as long as they get their excise, they’re happy.”

A laboratory style bench inside the shipping container that houses 7K Distillery. Clusters over brightly coloured Aqua Vitae gin bottles sit on the bench and shelving above. Dead tree branches covered in moss are artfully arranged to hang over the bench

It looks like a wizard’s laboratory

The problem of what to put the distillery in had been solved, but Tyler still needed somewhere to plonk his containers down: “One of the biggest challenges was finding a site. I eventually I thought of asking my Nan if I could put them out the back of her place at Lodge Hill and thankfully she was really cool with it.” Tyler paused, glanced over to the house and then laughed ruefully, “The only downside is that she can’t have a shower or bake a cake while I’m running the still because it takes up all the power. Sorry Nan!”

Speaking of the still, the shape is rather different to your ‘standard’ Tassie ‘Knapp Lewer-style’ unit, having been entirely designed and built by Tyler himself (“with a bit of help”). A sparky by trade and handy on the tools, Tyler was able to put his skills to good use throughout the project: “Half of my interest was building the still in the first place. I wanted to design something that I could do multiple things in.”

A copper still with black cladding sits next to a stainless steel gin column inside a shipping container

The cylindrical copper pot, about the height of a person and mostly clad in black insulation, is topped by an elegant tear drop-shaped onion and a very neutral lyne-arm. Taken in concert, you can tell the 1100L 7K still is designed to generate a lot of reflux. “I just wanted to make a lighter style of spirit,” was Tyler’s simple response when we grilled him about his design choices.

Connected to the still via a series of bypass valves is a stainless-steel vapour chamber used for infusing botanicals for Tyler’s ‘Aqua Vitae’ gin range. “I still do the juniper in the main pot, but it’s a pain in the arse to clean out again so I’m going to get the little stainless-steel keg-still, which I built as a test back when I first started, up and running again to do that separately.”

A small stainless steel still built out of a beer keg

The keg still is ready to kick juniper arse

Delicious as the gin is (the ‘Tasmanian Raspberry Gin’ is sticky-pink goodness and the ‘Winter Edition Carolina Reaper’ chilli-infused gin will put hairs on your chest (if you can find a bottle)), we ain’t called Gin Jargon, so we were keen to check out progress on the amber stuff.

The first batch of single malt spirit was laid down in November 2017, meaning that by the time you read this it will officially be able to be called whisky. The wash is produced further down the river at Last Rites Brewery in Cambridge. In terms of barreling, Tyler has used a variety of casks, including bourbon, sherry and pinot, sourced from various Tassie cooperages.

Tyler Clark of 7K Distillerty poses next to the still that he built

Tyler Clark and his copper creation

An ex-sherry number that we got to have a cheeky nibble at was delicate and creamy, with a splash of vanilla on the nose, while the mouth was light and dry with a hint of citrus. All in all, a very promising start. (There was also a very unusual ‘smoked’ spirit in a virgin oak cask that might be a story for another day…).

While the Aqua Vitae gin range has a botanical watercolour aesthetic, Tyler wants to go down a different route for the whisky: “The demographic who are buying the gin, which to be honest is mostly women of a certain age, are going to be completely different to the people who will buy the whisky. I feel like I want to make a statement with the bottle, something that speaks really about quality, rather than just having the same old cheap 500ml glass bottle as everyone else, which is why I’m leaning towards ceramics at the moment.” (Watch this space…)

An idyllic view over the Derwent Valley near Brighton. A large gum tree is in the foreground. Paddocks and low hills covered in trees extend into the distance

The view from Lodge Hill over the Derwent Valley

There is no official name for the whisky yet, but according to Tyler “The name of the distillery itself, 7K, refers to the postcode of the region and connects it to that sense of place, where I live. When it comes to the whisky I want it to have that same sort of feeling, something that has meaning to me.”

The tour eventually came to an end as Tyler was heading up the bush to be manly and cut up some trees. As we trundled down the drive to set out on our long journey home, I glanced back at the neat white containers (they used to be painted bright orange, which I rather liked as they gave me Hapag-Lloyd vibes. Yes, I’m sad, I know), I reflected on the fact that they are something of a symbol for the young, adaptable industry that is growing up in Tasmania, largely unshackled from the weight of tradition in the old country.

Three men standing in front of a whisky still. Two of them are Nick and Ted, world famous whisky writers from the blog Whisky Waffle. The other man is Tyler Clark, the owner of 7K Distillery

The future of 7K distillery is looking bright (particularly if the container colours keep changing) and to quote Tyler himself: “I think it’s going to be exciting.”

Sawford Distillery: Welcome to the family

Posted by: Ted

“Sorry I’m a bit late!” exclaims Jane as she sweeps into Sawford Distillery, “The kids have just had their nap and are now at the park with my sister.”
“Everything revolves around nap time these days” laughs husband and head distiller Mark, chipping in on the conversation as he checks the stills.

Family is core to everything at Sawford Distillery, but that idea isn’t just limited to blood relatives. It also extends to the relationships and community that Mark and Jane Sawford want to create around their distillery.

Mark and Jane Sawford relaxing in front of their shiny stills

Jane herself is the scion of a famous Tasmanian whisky family. Most people would know her as Jane Overeem, the daughter of one of the founding fathers of the modern scene, Casey Overeem. During Whisky Waffle’s recent visit to Sawford, we are immediately struck by that rich sense of heritage and connection as soon as we enter the bond store.

Sporting something of a Cold War chic (one can imagine secret agents hurrying through, clutching top-secret counter-espionage dossiers), the bond store has an important place in Tasmanian whisky history: “This was originally Bill Lark’s back in the very early days,” Jane tells us, “But after he left, my dad was quick to snap it up. This room is where we used to bottle the Overeem. Mum used to do the bottling, Dad did the labelling and I did the packing. Then I had to take the boxes down to the local post office to send off. It was all part of building the Overeem brand!”

The old Overeem bottling bench. In a few years time it’ll be Sawford’s turn.

While the bench may still be covered in Overeem bottles, these days all the barrels in the next room are filled with Sawford spirit, meaning that one day in the near future it might be Jane’s kids helping to pack their own namesake whisky. That day is still a little way off though as, unlike a lot of Tassie distilleries, the Sawfords are taking the slow approach.

“This place is quite cool and has a very stable climate, allowing for a much longer, gentler maturation” comments Mark as he clambers up onto the top of the racks to thieve some whisky.
“Dad always said that he wanted his spirit to taste like whisky and not oak,” adds Jane, “And we’ve really taken that on board. That’s why we’re mostly using l00L-plus barrels and playing the long game to get the best out of the spirit.”

While we’re down in the bond store, Mark and Jane are kind enough to share some of the fruits of their labour with us (when in Rome, eh?). Mark taps barrel #002, a 100l port cask that’s been down for about 2.5yrs (#001 is off limits as it’s been “getting sampled a bit too often”) and it’s good. Like, really good. Unfortunately we get a bit distracted drinking the whisky and forget to write down any tasting notes, but I remember thinking at the time that if this stuff is cracking after only 2.5yrs, imagine what it’s going to be like on its release around 2022.

Back when Mark and Jane were first toying with the idea of starting their own distillery, there was some resistance from a surprising source, with Jane revealing “Dad strongly encouraged us to put up a solid business plan first, as it’s very expensive – and a long time before you see any return. But we worked through it all, and now he’s very supportive and excited for us!”

Mark has been grateful for the support and whisky making know-how of his father-in-law, having come into the Overeem family past-time as an outsider. “When Jane and I first got together Casey kept an eye on me, as prospective father-in-laws do. But we get along really well, we like to have a beer together. Casey mentored me when we started Sawford. He was there to help me in the first few months and then slowly stepped back as I started to get a good grip on things.”

Mark’s own background is in hospitality, with several properties in the Kingston Beach area, but these days he spends a lot of his time running the stills at his distillery. “The reason I can spend five days a week here at the same time as running three businesses is because I have a good team around me.” Putting in that effort means that Mark is currently able to coax around 40 000L of spirit a year out of the stills and after 2.5 years, already has a couple-of-hundred barrels down. “I don’t want to have the same problem as Casey did back in the day and be saying ‘I wish I put down more spirit down’.”

Back out on the distillery floor, the digs are modern and airy, sharing a wall with the White Label contract distillery, which Sawford helps source barrels for and for which Jane is the sales manager. Taking pride of place on the Sawford side are the Knapp Lewer-built 1800L wash still and 800L spirit still, inspired by the original Overeem stills. “We’re very sensory with our cuts,” comments Mark, “I’m always trying to improve instead of just going through the motions.”

Mark getting ‘sensory’ with the cuts

The stills themselves are brightly burnished, almost purple, and rippling with a rainbow sheen; keen Instagram followers will know that this gleam is the result of a ‘family still polishing day’ a few months ago. “We like to think that the way we present our stills and our distillery is a representation of who we are,” Mark tells us proudly as we gaze at our reflections.

Another representation of who Mark and Jane are is the large silver monogram adorning the back wall in the distillery. According to Jane, ‘S&O’ (Mark Sawford & Jane Overeem) stands as a symbol for “who we are as a couple – two families coming together to make something beautiful.”

Being based in the ‘romantic’ Huntingfield industrial estate means that Sawford is unlikely to pick up any location awards, but Mark isn’t fazed: “We didn’t want to go down the location bent, we want to celebrate the people instead. We wanted our brand to be real, not to pretend that we’re something that we’re not. What we really value is building relationships.”

Jane backs him up on that idea all the way: “Back in the day we had to go knocking on everyone’s doors to try to sell the Overeem and convince them to take a chance on Tassie whisky. We’re going to have to go through all that again with Sawford, not necessarily because people need convincing these days, but because we want to build that personal relationship up with all the bars and businesses and the community. Having those connections with people is something that is really important to us.”

“Oops, sorry guys, I’ve got to go, the kids need picking up!” exclaims Jane apologetically as she hurries out the door again. Our time is up as well as we have an appointment to keep on the other side of the wall, so we say our goodbyes to Mark and ride off into the sunset (aka, around the corner to White Label).

You know, despite their hectic lives, the Sawfords really do walk the talk and go out of their way to make you feel like part of the community that they’re trying to build. Which is lucky, because at a time when the Tassie whisky industry feels like it’s growing by the minute and the big sharks are starting to circle, hopefully it’s people like Mark and Jane who will ensure that we never lose that sense of family.