Hellfire Bluff Distilling doesn't have your typical distillery origin story.
Indeed, distilling is still only a small part of the Daly family's business, with the bulk of their day-to-day taken up with the world of potato farming in Boomer Bay in SE Tasmania.
Yet how the Daly's - who won the Australian Farmer of the Year Award in 2019 - went from potatoes to Australia’s Best Varietal Vodka at the World Vodka Awards in 2022 is quite a yarn.
In this Kaddy Community exclusive interview, Andrew Graham chatted with second-generation family member Ruby Daly about how Hellfire started and where it's going, including a surprise non-alc spirit backlash and how vodka is coming back in a hurry.
(This interview has been lightly edited for flow)
Kaddy Community: Why spirits? How did you get that leap from growing potatoes into craft vodka?
Ruby Daly: We started by trying to figure out how to utilise the second-grade potatoes. We're potato farmers first and our core business and my family have been farming on the southeast coast of Tasmania for 37 years. But we have a lot of waste - about 2000 tonnes a year were being thrown out, so we were looking for ways to value-add.
Wow, that's a lot of potatoes!
When we sort of say waste, quite often, there's hardly anything wrong with the potato. It's just that the consumer won't buy it because it's just not pretty enough. It was quite sad to see that waste go out the door. So, we started to think of ways to use it and ended up with two choices: A lot of people said vodka, and there wasn't really (potato vodka) done in Australia, and still not many, so it was a big risk. The other choice was for food manufacturing. We ended up doing both, setting up the distillery and the food manufacturing side-by-side and never looked back! I mean, it took us 18 months of R & D and development to do the vodka and a big risk, but we're glad (to have done it).
So from there, you started selling your Hellfire Bluff Distilling Potato Vodka in the Salamanca Market?
We set up a little stall there. We were just casuals, so could move around each week, and we had one product online. We just told the story for a couple of years. Then we were like, 'oh, we can't just survive on vodka', and gin was starting to come into vogue again, so we developed gins and liqueurs and everything else we do now.
Did it feel like you were onto a winner when you first started giving people tastes in the market? What was the reception like?
No, to be honest. Firstly, a couple of comments we got were, 'why do you point out that it's potato vodka when all vodka is made from potatoes?'. Do you really believe that we make vodka from potatoes in Australia? It's just absolutely not the case. And then also, people had an issue with vodka not having a taste or a flavour as it's 'just a really neutral base spirit'. We were kind of competing against these big players that had ruined vodka where it shouldn't have a taste, and then we produce this vodka that was really creamy and earthy, and people were like, 'what is this?'.
It really took a long time around educating our customers on how to drink it and how to understand what potato vodka is like. I wouldn't say it was easy for the first few months. The business really didn't really take off until gin came along, and now, it's funny, it's flipping back to vodka again!
Vodka is coming back again?
Yeah absolutely. That the vodka has picked a couple of awards, I think, certified the fact that it's a good vodka, and now it's really coming making a comeback.
You released your first rum recently, too, and it sold out really quickly, is that right?
Like two weeks! We were really proud of it. You know, in Tasmania, the industry is quite big for whisky, and we're the kind of business that doesn't want to do what everybody else is doing. So we decided to do some rum! We're doing it all from scratch, buying in the molasses and fermenting our own molasses, which is quite rare. And you know, doing the barrel ageing on site, and you know, we're this little small still off from the potato farm. So when you come, you'll see the potatoes, the packhouse and then on the side is our little distillery and everything we like to do from scratch as much as we can.
Speaking of the whole Tasmanian spirits industry. Do you feel like the saying that you're a proudly Tasmanian spirits company is a thing? Is it a USP?
I feel like it's overused. That's the truth. I feel like you can use it, absolutely, but you need to find a gap, and you need to find your point. Yes, we are Tasmanian, and we always use as many local ingredients first. Many distilleries can claim that they're using fresh water, but our distillery also uses Tasmanian rainwater. We filter it, but we're trying to use as much of our farm and tell our story because the Tasmanian story is told so well. But told so much as well...
I was going to ask, is there a whisky going to come next?
We'll leave that to Larks and all the good guys like that. We like to tell our story differently. You know, we're trying to do more from the potato base as much as we can and focus on the rum.
Well, that begs the question, what's next? What's on the horizon?
We've got lots of R & D things up our sleeve. We had lots of growth last year and had a huge risk by releasing a non-alcoholic product. That was really brave for our distillery, and we got a little bit of backlash from other distillers, and certainly, my distillers were like, 'there is no way I can do it. It just goes against everything that I know'. But once we found that market for non-alcoholic spirits, it was incredibly well received and opened this whole new space open for our distillery. But we discontinued that product because we've decided to regroup and refocus this year on some new R & D. So we're thinking about RTDs and some low alcohol - not non-alc but a low percentage - products. And we've got a couple of rum releases up our sleeve this year and maybe secret products as well.
You enjoyed some real wins in recent years - what is the Hellfire Bluff Distillery's secret to success?
I would say our team. I would be nothing without the small little team. We're also really brave - we have no limits and nothing's off the table in our distillery which I think is because we are so small. We don't have to go through higher management. You know, we develop it we go for it, and we release it and we're not scared to release something that's a little bit wild.
I think you know, we tell our story from our farm, you know, our family farm and everyone that works for us who say they're a part of this family farm. People also want to help farmers, so it's a bit of a feel-good purchase, I'd say.
That makes a lot of sense because there's a big push at the moment for provenance, where something has an identity. Do you think a sense of place helps to sell the message?
Absolutely. I mean, if we didn't have that we'd be like any other distillery. Essentially, ethanol producers. But we are a farm first, and we always tell that story first, and I think people really buy into it.
Looking back after a couple of years of experimentation, is there anything you wish you'd done differently?
I don't think there is. I think everything I would have done leading up to now, in our eighth year, has been for a reason. I mean, certainly, we've made mistakes. Don't get me wrong. We've made lots of errors in maybe not quite getting the vodka Right. I'd say probably releasing vodkas that probably aren't quite to our standards would probably be the biggest mistake. But that's a part of growing and getting consumers to learn and getting consumer feedback about what works and what doesn't. It was really important for the vodka because it's a really hard product to produce. I think that would probably be my only regret.
Also, would you consider turning the distillery into more of a destination? Something of a full cellar door experience?
Plans in the council right now! We plan to build a bigger operation on the farm in the next 12 months. The strategy is always to have the farming story at the heart and to build this place where people can see where the potatoes grow, see how the waste is turned into alcohol and bring people into our farm.
A final question that is the chip shortage real? I really want to know if it's real, or just confected?
Absolutely real, and we're in the thick of it. It's not going to get better anytime soon. We are lucky that we're in the fresh market, so we sell to supermarkets and it has not affected us. But in saying that we had a gap in supply - we were off-shelf for eight weeks. People don't realise what happens with the weather you know, you can't farm in these conditions. It's just impossible. And potatoes are a slow-growing crop. So we're definitely going to be seeing this for the next 12 months.
A year without chips!
Yeah, I think they're harvesting more now, but it's going to be a while for the chip stocks to recover!
Trade buyers can purchase the Hellfire Bluff range on Kaddy Marketplace now.