Tim Stones didn't have your typical COVID lockdown.
While other distillers made hand sanitiser and devised home delivery sales strategies by Zoom, Stones had a straightforward mission - to perfect the first-ever gin for Hickson House Distilling Co.
With lockdowns slowing down the new distillery build to a crawl, it was left to Stones, at home, armed with a rudimentary lab and test still, creating the ideal gin.
'My pandemic was a bit of a blur', he said.
'(I was) sitting in the garage, focusing on nothing else but tweaks upon tweaks upon tweaks, exhausting all possibilities within a recipe, basically, and tweaking down to a hundredth of a gram.'
Even the QA sounded fun. Stones would make a test gin and then drop off samples (contactless, it was the COVID era, after all) to the other co-founders of the business - hospitality gurus Mikey Enright & Julian Train of Sydney's Barrelhouse group. The trio would then have a video call at nighttime to compare tasting notes.
Finally, after almost a year of lockdowns, with hundreds of samples later (Stones estimates it was over 200 iterations), the inaugural Hickson Road Gin broke cover.
After that much work, is it any surprise that success followed quickly?
The Hickson Rd Australian Dry Gin landed the number one spot in Bartender Magazine's Hottest 100 Aussie Spirits Countdown of 2021. Then, in early 2021, when the physical Hickson House Distillery Co. and bar opened, it quickly followed the gin's winning ways, snagging Best New Bar, Best Distillery Bar & Runner-up for Best Gin Bar 2022 at the 2022 ALIAs.
The bar and distillery make for a fascinating complex, too. Set in the base of the heritage-listed, 110-year-old Metcalfe Bond Stores in The Rocks, it's a space most recently occupied by advertising giants Saatchi & Saatchi.
Although, it's not the most accessible place for a serious distillery.
'When we were first looking for a site, we were going down the road of the classic Marrickville/Inner West warehouse', he explains.
'You know, with fun things like forklift access and drainage. Huge expansive warehouses kind of thing. But then we stumbled upon this place, and you couldn't say no'.
'We're probably the first legal distillery in The Rocks in a very long time. Here we are, sitting in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge. I think it's pretty special. Although logistically it can be a nightmare - I'd never build in a heritage venue ever again!'.
Long before the whole Hickson House Distilling complex, however, Stones, Train & Enright had harboured a decade-long desire to open a distillery. More recently, a casual chat between Stones & Enright really helped kick the project into gear. Then it was purely a matter of connecting the dots, with the backing of a silent investor helping to make things happen financially in early 2020.
Stones - the bartender turned longtime Beefeater Gin Global Brand Ambassador & Head Distiller for Manly Spirits - also sees the backgrounds of the trio as a natural choice.
'The three of us - myself, Mike and Jules - all come from drinks backgrounds. We're all ex-bartenders, and we've been involved in booze for most of our lives,' he notes.
There is a neat synergy here for Barrelhouse's other venue, too, with The Barber Shop crowned World's Best Gin Bar by the UK's Gin Magazine in 2020.
So when Hickson House Distilling Co. was launched, it just made sense to lead with a world-class gin, complemented by a tiny amount of whisky (mainly for the silent investor's consumption).
But then it all changed...
'Gin was very much going to be the focus,' Stones said.
'For the whisky, we were going to buy wash from a brewer and then into a little still, and then off to barrel. It was maybe going to be half a barrel a month. And then, in however many years, it would be like a super small release, where we would say, "you've loved the gin; here is something we have been working on the side".
'But our investor, he doesn't do things by halves. He has Scottish heritage and said, "just go for it!" and we decided to do the full whisky process ourselves'.
The pivot to whisky didn't stop at a new brew kit, either. The silent investor also has a significant rural footprint and could provide suitable grain for new make. Quickly, what had become a half-barrel-a-month sideline has now taken front stage at Hickson House, with whisky production now five barrels per week and rising, with 20 tonnes worth of grain supplied direct from the investor's farm.
Suddenly, Hickson House Distilling Co. had become a farm-to-glass whisky player.
Interestingly enough, one of the first whiskies that the brand will produce is a product of the COVID-era too. One of Stones' contacts works at Four Pines Brewing, and during the 2020 lockdown, Four Pines found itself with a volume of unsold kegs of Kolsch without anywhere to go. So rather than seeing the beer go down the drain, Stones, in turn, put it through the still and then into bourbon barrels. Voila, whisky!
Stones believes the first release of that batch could be as little as 18 months away, but he doesn't want to rush anything into production if it tastes too raw. So instead, his team have shifted their focus to other new products while they wait - like this summer's Pimms-esque Hickson Rd Wild Rosé Summer Cup.
As Stones notes, it was a fun product to make.
'We did that as a collab between Regal Rogue Vermouth and us', he said.
'So a bunch of Poms making Aussie stuff! Mark Ward is an old friend of mine, and we used their rosé vermouth and our Australian gin, steeped in muntrie and distillates of tonka bean, bush tomato and whatnot'.
'It's a bit of a labour of love. Because you're also dealing with the infusions, you've got to wait a week to find out whether something works. Whereas with gin, you can run it through on a test still and within about two or three days. Once it's settled, you're like, 'oh, that works'.
Looking to the future, Stones knows that while gin will continue to be an important part of the business, he sees whisky as very much the long-term plan.
'I think we have a USP with our grain-to-glass whisky too. I just hope I can do the grain justice!'.
'It's a really fun time because people now recognise that Australia is becoming a powerhouse whisky-producing nation. There's been a big, big surge in new distilleries opening, so we're starting to see more good stuff, and it's an exciting time to be part of that next wave'.
In the meantime, Stones freely acknowledges that the last three years have been a pretty wild ride.
'When people ask me what I did during the pandemic, I like to say that I opened a distillery!'
'One day, I'll take a step back and realise what we did. It was pretty amazing'.
Hickson House Distilling can be found on Kaddy Marketplace. Explore the range here.