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How Karu Distillery Survived The Fires

The Australian fires have been terrifying but its another world when your business is producing bottles of highly flammable gin and barrels of ageing rum

By: Tiff Christie|February 1,2020

Emergency plans, evacuation and bushfire devastation are not words that you often associate with the spirits and alcohol industry but they are words that have overshadowed the Australian industry in the last few months.

As the country has burned, the industry as a whole has rallied to help, particularly by raising money for those worst affected. And while a majority of their efforts have been directed to the general public, there have also been call-outs of assistance to those within the industry who have seen first-hand the impact the fires have brought.

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The mouth of the Devil’s Wilderness

“We’ve had so much support from the industry,” said Nick Ayres from Karu Distillery. “As soon as people saw our posts about the fires, we had so many people contact us offering any assistance we needed.

“We had bars calling us checking that we were OK. We had distributors offering to help us moving and storing our stills and products. We had other distilleries offering us the use of their stills and their bonded warehouses. The support from the industry has been amazing.”

Karu Distillery is located in Grose Vale at the base of the Blue Mountains in NSW, not far from an area commonly referred to as the Devil’s Wilderness. It is run by husband and wife team Ally & Nick Ayres. Although they are a relatively small distillery, the brand has won an extraordinary number of awards for their gin.

To name a few, last year, they won gold at San Francisco World Spirits Awards, gold at the Australian Gin awards and gold the Melbourne International Spirits awards for their Affinity Gin and their Lightning Gin also took double gold at San Francisco World Spirits Awards.

Several times over the last few months, the distillery, and the couple themselves have found themselves on the frontlines, with fires that were as close as 1km (0.6 miles) away.

“When the fires hit Bilpin the first time, our friends in the RFS (Rural Fire Service) and others there, rang us up and sent us photos saying, “This fire is not like a normal fire. This one’s really, really bad.” We found that the fire was a lot larger than we expect. It had jumped the Bells Line Of Road and from there it got into the Grose Valley, where there was nothing but fuel between it and us.”

“That was when we prepped everything. We stopped production, we cancelled anyone coming to visit us. All our events we were meant to go to got cancelled. We loaded everything up and got ready to move. It just kept getting closer, just burned through the bush. And then Bowen Mountain got evacuated .”

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Ally & Nick Ayres with their potstill

“And that’s three minutes up the road from here,” Ally adds. “We had the RFS come up the same day and basically said, “You know, it’s coming. When you get told to leave, you leave.” And shortly after, the evacuation call came in and we just basically pulled everything. There was this orange haze and there were chunks of ash falling from the sky and smoke. And then suddenly it just stopped.

Luckily for the distillery, it was at that point that the winds changed. The fire then turned around and headed away from the distillery and back up towards Bilpin. It was a close call, one of many that Karu would face.

“For us, it pretty much started at the end of October,” said Nick. “We were driving back from the gin festival Junipalooza in Melbourne and we got a phone call saying there’s a fire just over a kilometre from the distillery. That one was only a small fire and we were lucky that it was a low wind day.”

Imagine looking into the valley that surrounds your distillery, looking down into the Devil’s Wilderness and watching the fires coming closer and closer. And behind you, is not only a pair of very expensive stills but thousands of litres of highly flammable alcohol.

And then imagine this scenario not just occurring once but a couple of times. Months and months of labour, not to mention the equipment and finished bottles of gin and barrels of new ageing rum. Everything you have built and everything you have created under threat from a force you can’t control but that could flare up and engulf everything at any time.

“It’s just being in that mindset, prepared for anything, day after day, for what ended up being a bit over two months,” said Ally. “You can’t really work. You can’t relax. You can’t sleep. You can’t do anything. So we’ve ended up being really worn down and really tired.”

“Everything’s just sitting and waiting until doomsday happens. And you worry about things like the stills. The pot still in particular is copper and while it can be moved, it really shouldn’t be. We think it could easily be damaged in transport and that then changes the flavour of the liquid.

“Really, it’s been months of just hoping for the best but expecting the worst. And constantly being ready to just go.”

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Through all of this though, both Alley and Nick say the RFS were simply amazing. They were constantly in communication, either in person or via social media, making sure that everyone knoew what was going on and were constantly updated.

“We also used their app a lot to keep an eye on where the fires were but also we saw first hand how tirelessly the guys all worked to keep any spot fires in the area under control,” said Nick. “They came in here and cleared a full containment line around the ridge of the property and connected it up to their fire trail.

“There’s a creek just down the bottom in the gully, where they’ve been doing a test on the ecosystem for quite some time. So they really wanted to save that. So they spent a lot of time putting a big trail in around there, so that they could access through the property here, down through the national park and down to the gully.”

The loss of ecosystems and the flora and fauna are often the uncounted loss of any disaster such as this. The Ayres grow a lot of their own botanicals, especially a rare Rose Geranium that is one of the main plants that gives their Lightning Gin its flavour. To ensure its survival one of the Rose Geranium plants was relocated.

“Another thing about the smoke. and haze is that they block out a lot of the sunlight,” said Ally. “A lot of our botanical plants have become very stressed and they are really not thriving. That’s another thing that will take a while to fully recover.”

Now it’s all about cleanup. The couple were really only let back into the distillery a fortnight ago and everything has been about getting the operation back up and running again.

“With all the ash and dust and everything, there’ been a lot of cleanup involved,” said Nick. “We use rainwater for our gin, and that’s why in a lot of our ways, our gin is so nice and smooth but even that is now going to need to be repeatedly filtered.”

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But more than the cleanup, the time and money lost have been taxing on small business.

“We’re about to start doing now what we were doing a bit over a month ago,” said Nick, “so we’re more than a month behind in production. We were meant to have our fifth barrel of rum laid down. The barrel is about three-quarters full and it was just needed that last run to get it finished. But we just couldn’t do it, we just didn’t have time.”

But it’s not just production but also lost opportunities. Ally points out that they had a lot of pre-Christmas orders that couldn’t be sent out and events that they had to cancel. One event they couldn’t make was Meet The Makers but as the couple points out, if they were away and the fires kicked up, they might not have been able to get back to evacuate everything. Even going to the post office to fulfil orders was difficult.

“We felt so horrible about missing that event, but it was just too far away,” said Ally. “We couldn’t risk it. On those days we had three separate fires nearby. One was 2km away, another was 6km away and we had a third that really only 1km away. Lucky they were all small but you’ve still got to be on alert

As Ally points out, the idea of losing everything, especially the spirits they have been working on for the last few months, was devastating. “That’s literally your life. The last four years of your life.”

With everything that happened, both Alley and Nick admit that it could have been far worse. But no matter what they have gone through, they want to do their part in helping the wider community as well.

“We’re actually been donating AUD$10 of every bottle to the RFS, and $5 of every G & T. So, yeah, we’re back up and running. We’ve got stock and we can fulfil orders.”

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How Karu Distillery Survived The Fires

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