David and Susie met in the science lab at Uni many moons ago. These days they are still working together, experimenting with an array of local ingredients to make amazing vodka, liqueurs and wines. Focus made the journey up the mountain and on to the Dorrigo plateau to find out more.
Can you tell us a bit about your connection with the Coffs Coast?
Born and raised in Glen Innes, David’s family would holiday on the Coffs and Clarence Coast. Susie first came to the area on holidays 60 years ago! We have watched Coffs Harbour grow from a sleepy seaside town with caravan parks behind the dunes and banana plantations on all the hills into a vibrant, multi-faceted area.
We have lived in the Bellingen Shire for the past 25 years, having moved back to NSW after a stint working in our professions in Tasmania. We have always been passionate foodies and have been supportive of and mentored others interested in local food production systems. We always source the raw materials for our products first from the local area and Coffs Coast. We have been particularly interested in organic systems and sourcing local ingredients, which we know, will produce “food with flavour”.
What was the inspiration behind opening Red Dirt Distillery?
In Bellingen, we operated a winery making wines from fruits other than grapes, value adding local product that seasonally “glutted” the area. When we moved to Dorrigo, we decided to go one step further with our value added product, and become more specialised. We wanted to produce a product that would be uniquely Dorrigo, that would affirm the character of the area, that could not be easily copied, that would make Dorrigo a destination in itself, and provide the opportunity to visit the only Potato Vodka producer in Australia.
How long have you being distilling Vodka?
We have held our Distiller’s Manufacturer Licence since 2007 and, after extensive R & D, have been distilling for production of Vodka and other spirits and Liqueurs since mid 2008.
Can you briefly describe the process?
Using potatoes as an example, the potatoes are washed, chopped, shredded, and cooked. They are then fermented to produce potato wine, with high alcohol tolerant yeast strains. Potatoes have starches; these have to be converted to simple sugars before they can be fermented to produce alcohol. The wine is cleared and then distilled to produce spirit at around 80% vol/vol alcohol. Other fruits, e.g. limes have to be fermented with the addition of sugars to produce a wine, which is then distilled.
How long did it take for you to master these skills?
We have been working with fermentation and alcohol production for the past 15 years. David has a Masters in Science and has undertaken all the research and development associated with the development of this business. With dedicated and careful attention to basic scientific research principles, most issues and techniques were sorted out in the first year of having our licence.
Susie and David met at UNE, and Susie worked as David’s research assistant. Susie started the winery in Bellingen in 2000 and her extraordinary over developed olfactory senses are invaluable in the whole process. We continue to undertake research in the development of new and exciting products. For example, we are currently working on a range of rhubarb based products using rhubarb from Fernbrook, just outside of Dorrigo.
Do you use local ingredients?
All the base material is made using local ingredients, whether it is potatoes, limes, oranges, ginger, or rhubarb, to name a few. Some of the spices we use are imported, because they are not produced in Australia. For example, Juniper berries, used in the production of our Gins and liqueurs, are not readily available in Australia in quantities that we require. We only use an “outside” ingredient when we can’t source a local, regional or Australian ingredient.
Dorrigo is famous for its potatoes; do you us these, and do they add a unique flavour to the Vodka?
All our potato based products are based on the local renowned Dorrigo Sebago potato grown in the famous ferrosols (Red Dirt) of the Dorrigo plateau. Hence our name! We were approached to undertake trials with potatoes from other regions, and the flavour of the Dorrigo Sebago potato is far superior. The Sebago produces a spirit that is warming, rather than burning, with a delicate “earthish”, “potatoish” flavour.
Is it rare for Vodka to be produced from potatoes these days?
Yes, only about 3 to 5% of the world’s production of Vodka is made from potato. We are Australia’s first Potato Vodka distillery. The majority of Vodkas worldwide are produced from grain, e.g wheat or rye, which is both cheaper and easier to produce, when compared to using potatoes. There are an increasing number of Vodkas produced from raw ingredients such as sugar cane and sugar beet and even from products such as milk whey, a by-product of cheese production.
Are there other liqueurs that you produce?
We produce a range of sweet, crème, Italian inspired liqueurs. These are infusions of herbs, fruits and spices in spirit (usually potato) and then sweetened. Nearly all the herbs are grown by Susie in our garden at North Dorrigo, and picked on the day they are to be used.
What are some of your specialties, and how do you use the locally available ingredients to influence the flavours?
Our most popular ones include Lemoncello (from lemon peel), Orange, Ginger, Lime and Green Walnut (Nocino). All these ingredients are locally grown. The 80 year old walnut tree is out the back! The freshness of the local ingredients is the key to the flavours we create.
We continue to refine and experiment with botanicals to extract complex flavours in a balanced liqueur, where the alcohol, sweetness and flavours meld to produce an easy drinking product that lingers on the palate.
Variation to produce “terrior” in our small scale batches is exciting. We are exceedingly proud of all our products, but happily remind customers that the liqueur that they purchase one month may be quite different to the liqueur they try two months later. This also applies to our Gins, as we use fresh local botanicals with every batch.
Where can people find you, and are you open to the public?
We are located in the main street of Dorrigo at 51-53 Hickory Street, next door to the NAB, and are open 9am – 4:30pm, Monday to Friday and 10am – 2pm, Saturday and Sunday.
We urge people who are travelling to Dorrigo to check our website: www.reddirtdistillery.com.au which has an online calendar or give us a quick call: (02) 6657 1373. Sometimes we get called away for other duties around the village and we also attend Food and Wine festivals and events outside the area, promoting our products and the beautiful Dorrigo Plateau and Mid North Coast.