Bushfire grapes are being distilled into spirits

Words by Jane Ryan, editor Difford's Guide Australia

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Archie Rose, a Sydney-based distilling company, have just taken a big gamble. They've purchased 50 tonnes of the Hunter Valleys smoke-tainted grapes and will find out next week if distilling them will save the crop from being resigned as yet more bushfire collateral damage.

Australia's recent bushfire season garnered world attention for its dramatic devastation of land, homes and both animal and human lives. Now that the fires are, for the most part, out, the next challenge is rebuilding the communities left devastated. And as you'd expect and hope, the bar industry has certainly risen to the occasion.

Grapes picking up smoke taint might seem small fry compared to some of the images and videos which went viral, but for the growers on the ground it's an annual income that they've just lost. In some cases it's up to 80-90% of the harvest that's no longer viable thanks to the combined efforts of the drought followed by the fires.

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Step in Archie Rose, a distillery with a firm Australian identity and a maverick or two behind the scenes who have seen an opportunity to help.

"Everyone who lived under that constant cloud of smoke in NSW for the summer will realise how bad it was for the growers," says Harriet Leigh from Archie Rose.

Joining together with Tulloch Wines and First Creek Wines, Archie Rose has sourced the grapes from the small growers of the Hunter Valley's Pokolbin area who would typically be selling their crop to the bigger wineries. Currently (as of 25/2/20) the 50 tonnes of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon grapes have been made into a ferment, or wine without sulphate, and are sitting with their padded silver jackets on, keeping them at a cool one-degree celsius. But next week that's set to change.

"When we heard of the smoke-taint we immediately started to think how we could help and what we could do with the crop," says Harriet. "The problem is we didn't want to buy a tiny allotment, we wanted to buy as much as we could, but there's no brandy market in Australia."

While the team at Archie, lead on this occasion by master distiller Dave Withers and senior distiller Trynt Xavier, will certainly be making an eau-de-vie and brandy they're hoping to experiment further and capture a wider audience for the liquid.

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"We're not ruling anything out – maybe we'll do a grape-based gin. Maybe a botanical vodka. But we must see if distilling the ferment gets rid of the smoke-taint and stabilises it. Smoke doesn't necessarily ruin the wine immediately but as it ages badly over time, so we don't really know what we're going to be playing with."

Smoke taint is a reasonably new and inexact body of science within viticulture. Factors such as proximity to the fire, elevation of the land, grape variety and days spent in contact with the smoke all result in different tainted outcomes.

As soon as the new wines are driven to Sydney they'll be put through the stills immediately and we'll be updating you all here as the Archie Rose team work out the exact challenges ahead of them. If successful they could be pioneering a new style of spirit, and a way to help growers not only in Australia but in places like America's west coast as well.

Other Aussie industry initiatives to know about

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The Aussie Spirit Auction

In a bid to raise money for those affected by the fires, over 100 of Australia's craft distillers have banded together and donated more than 200 bottles and experiences to The Aussie Spirit Auction – many of which are rare, limited-edition or usually not for sale.

Those involved include the likes of Four Pillars, Starward, Archie Rose, Young Henry's, Iniquity (Tin Shed Distilling Company), Brookie's Gin (Cape Byron Distillery), Manly Spirits Co. and Never Never Distilling Co. with the auction underway online right now.

The most coveted top 12 items are being auctioned off at a special event in Sydney on Friday 28th February. All ticket sales from the event are being donated as well with 100% of all funds raised going to bushfire and drought relief via Rural Aid – targeting communities that have been doubly hit by disaster.

Part of the live auction will see Bill Lark, often referred to as the godfather of Australian whisky, blending and maturing five unique barrels of whisky at Old Kempton Distillery in Tasmania – each with a different expression. The barrels include ex-rum, ex-honey spirit / bourbon, ex-tawny with a heavy char, ex-Bluebird Distillery four grain bourbon and a 300L, 60 year old, French oak, ex-Cognac/VSOP barrel.

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