Season 1, Episode 12

Mt Uncle Distillery

Join Benjamin Starr as he interviews the entrepreneurial scientist, Mark Watkins, who took over the family banana shed in the Atherton Tablelands to become the man behind world award winning gin! 

Listen to Mark talk about the alchemy that is needed to produce an award-winning gin on the Atherton Tablelands in Tropical North Queensland.

Hosts & Guests

Benjamin Starr

Mark Watkins

Read the transcript

Ben: Okay we’re on location for Ingenia Holidays and we’re doing drive our own adventure. We’re standing in a place that has got a lot of echo to it. If you stood behind me, there’s barrels here. You can feel that. No bodies in the barrels, we’re not in Adelaide. We’re right up here on the Atherton Tablelands and we’re chatting to a guy whose got the coolest title; Head Distiller and Director, Mark Watkins who owns, well, Mount Uncle Distillery. Welcome.

Mark: Yeah hey, how’s it going guys?  

Ben: Yeah, don’t be so excited. 

Ben: Now tell me, do you wake up every morning with the hair of the dog? Because you must have to sample all this stuff?

Mark: Ah, I’m pretty much a professional alcoholic, I suppose, yeah.    

Ben: AA meetings happen out the back?

Mark: Yeah, I’ve tested all the apparent cures: the raw egg, Berocca. Yeah, been there, done that.

Ben: Which one works?             

Mark: Um, just get back on it again.

Ben: So, Mark, tell me a little bit about this career that you’ve got. I mean how did you get into doing this?

Mark: So, it started off… I’m actually an Environmental Scientist by trade. And then I didn’t fall in love with trying to save dolphins and turtles. So, I started doing wine science. But it’s too cold down south for me. So, I was in the middle of Wagga Wagga   in the middle of winter, and I just threw my hands up and said I’ve had enough of this. And rang up Mum and said, “Mummy, I’m coming home.” And decided what else can we do up here that’s in the booze industry?

Ben: Yeah.

Mark: We’ve got a lot of sugar cane so we set out to start making the best rum in the world. Which, we just got that title: ‘Best From the World’ this year at the World Rum Awards. 

Ben: Good on you. 

Mark: Yeah, we just got a best rum in…

Ben: So, you weren’t a rummer-up? 

Mark: Yeah, no we were the top-dogs there, so…

Ben: What’s it like to be the top-dog? I mean we’re a long way away when you think of the world, who you’re competing against here?

Mark: We’re up against all the big rum companies, so all the ones that have been going for two, three, four hundred years, so…

Ben: Wow!

Mark: So, it’s pretty good, you know.  

Ben: That is pretty good.

Mark: That was the first time we entered the awards too, so…            

Ben: And what makes you the best rum in the world? What is it?

Mark: Well we don’t add any sugar to it. We use the best sugar cane syrup from the local mill just down the road here. We then age ex-red wine casks, American Oak for about five to six years, and that’s what gives us that really nice flavour.   

Ben: How do you make rum? What’s the process? 

Mark: So, rums made from any form of sugar. So say molasses. You can use granulated sugar, some people in the States do that. We use cane syrup where you can just crush the cane and use the fresh juice. So, there’s three families of rum. We do the syrup, and then we age in two hundred litre, two-hundred-and-thirty litre ex-red wine, American Oak barrels and that gives us a really nice oaky flavour. Because that barrels had a lot of time, probably ten years with red wine, its absorbed all those red ports sort of nuances, red wine sort of flavours, and that gives a little bit of a twang to the, to the rum as well.

Ben: So apart from Shania Twang, this machine here, what does it actually do? It looks like something that…

Mark: So, we’re in the distillery house so this is this is where our still is. So, its helga?? it’s a fifteen hundred litre Arnold Holstein still. A lot of copper, you can see a lot of copper there, very important in making a very nice smooth spirit. Whereas if you’ve just got stainless steel you won’t get that same affect. The copper pulls a lot of the sulphites    and astringent notes and the beasties?? out of the spirit. Generally it takes about a four, five hour process. So, we do the fermentation in the big fermenters outside. That takes about two weeks.

Ben: So, this is the sugar?

Mark: Yeah, so we water the sugar syrup down to around about twenty bricks or twenty percent sugar. Then we chuck the yeast in. The yeast does all the hard work for us, it chews all the sugars up and turns them into ethanol…

Ben: Wow.

Mark: …and CO2 essentially, so we’re doing our bit for climate change. So, which no one’s really picked up cause wine production produces crap loads heaps of CO2.    

Ben: Really?

Mark: Yeah so it basically cuts the sugar in half turns half into CO2 and half into ethanol.

Ben: Because they go on about cows so this could be doing a lot more?

Mark: Yeah but there’s too many politicians that have got shares in wineries so they’re not going to start attacking that.

Ben: So, it’s filled up with…  so how big is this tank again?

Mark: So, this is fifteen hundred litres and then when we have the washes finished fermenting it’s around about nine percent alcohol, so we then pump that in there. 

Ben: Yeah.

Mark: And then the distillation process basically is the purification process where we’re extracting the alcohol and a little bit of water out and a few other compounds that the yeast produces and we leave behind the waste, which we then dump back out into the paddock. So, we don’t…

Ben: So, the trees get drunk then?

Mark: Yeah so, well, most of the alcohol’s actually removed out of it, so that it makes a really good soil conditioner. So, all the botanicals that we grow for our gin we sort of basically fertilise them with the waste.

Ben: So literally this machine here is it’s all liquid that goes in. So, if I look at your bottle you’ve got all these ingredients.

Mark: Yep.

Ben: Just list a couple of the ingredients that go in.

Mark: So, with the gin, we’ve got juniper obviously, so that that’s the reason why it’s called gin; it’s a flavoured vodka with predominant juniper notes. Then we’ve got peppermint gum; bunya nuts are an interesting one, it’s like a supercharged pine nut.  

Ben: This is all fermented in different vats?

Mark: Yes.  

Ben: Then you bring it into this room here, and there’s literally you’re going to feed it all in like a life support system.

Mark: Yeah and distill it and then we’ll collect that vapour, and that’s, that’s the odor v???

Ben: And out of this vat… So how long does the whole vaporization thing take?

Mark: So, it’ll take about two to five hours depending on what we’re distilling, and we’ll get roughly about three hundred litres of distillate at about seventy-eight percent alcohol every time we do that.

Ben: Good grief.

Mark: And basically, a barrel. We get a barrel each time we turn it on.

Ben: And how many bottles would that fill?

Mark: Around about three hundred, three hundred and sixty. Because we’ll lose ten percent of the cask per year. And we call that the angel share in our game.

Ben: Yeah. 

Mark: So, what happens is we’ll lose that eight to ten percent per year, but in that process there’s concentration going on. So, we’ll lose over a quarter of the barrel over a period of seven or eight years. 

Ben: So literally, so what happens is it comes from this machine, you put it into a barrel, and then it’s got to ferment for a period of time.

Mark: It’ll rest, yes, so the fermentations done, then the distillation and then the ageing. So, when it sits in the barrel it’s getting attacked because wood isn’t porous, so it will absorb…

Ben: Moisture? 

Mark: Moisture, air, I think in the Caribbean they don’t allow women in the barrel stores because they reckon the perfume will be absorbed into the rum. I’m pretty sure that’s just because that’s where the boys do their drinking.

Ben: Yeah.

Mark: But, so yeah, in that process we’ve got oxygenation. The spirits moving in and out of the barrel, so it’s absorbing like making a cup of tea.

Ben: Sure.

Mark: It’s absorbing those barrel flavours. 

Ben: So, where you ferment all this stuff, if you’ve got to walk through can you smell it?

Mark: Um, when they’re fully going, yeah, it’s got this really pretty heady sort of gassy CO2 smell.

Ben: So, where do all the barrels sit?

Mark: Yeah, they’re in the barrel stall.

Ben: And is that like, there’s no smell in there?

Mark: Yeah, no, there is, yeah. Go have a look if you want.                      

Ben: Fantastic. So, this is amazing. So literally here, what’s the door do? What do you do when you open that up?

Mark: So, this is just there so we can get in there and give it a good clean.

Ben: Oh my god, look how much stuffs in there.

Mark: Yeah, so that’s all the cleaning. And it smells like sugar and smells like all this other stuff. Yeah so there’s a lot of other components?? and flavour compounds that are in that give the rum its flavour.

Ben: It does smell like rum.

Mark: Yeah.          

Ben: Listen to that echo in there. Hello, hello.

Mark: It’s sort of something out of the yellow submarine. 

Ben: It is like the yellow submarine, huh? Hey, can I ask you what are the little portholes up the top there?

Mark: So, each of these are bubble plates, so that allows us, we can turn them on and off. So essentially it dictates… 

Ben: Oh, so you can see… This is like a this is like a VU metre for radio, watching the levels going up and down.

Mark: Yeah. So, you can watch the water… Yeah, so when it’s running you can actually see the alcohol vapour going up, condense and turn back to liquid, and then vaporise again, and then moving up. So, we can turn them on or off.

Ben: Yeah.

Mark: So, when we’re making rum, we turn them all off because we want it to be as less distilled as possible. We want as much flavour.

Ben: Yeah.

Mark: If we’re doing vodka, we turn them all on and close them all, because we want to really, really refine that spirit. 

Ben: Unbelievable. So, what is it about rum and gin that you love so much? I still can’t believe how big this is.

Mark: Yeah, no this is. It’s one of the biggest types of stills in Australia anyway, if not   the southern hemisphere. I like rum because it’s about capturing where the sugar cane grows, the rich red soil. We can tell where the cane comes from like it tastes better off the red soil compared to the sandier soil. So, we use only red soil grown.

Ben: God, mummy must of loved when you came back here. She must have said… what…  Is this the family property?

Mark: Yeah, so this is actually, the distillery’s actually in our old banana shed the old banana packing shed.

Ben: So, you just said, I’m just moving it in here?

Mark: Yeah, and as we grew, I sort of started working away at the shed, and now I’ve got all of it, so.

Ben: Good on you. Now show us where these barrels go. So, they come outside here?

Mark: Yeah, so we’re just about to start filling these in the next week or two.    

Ben: It’s a total science, isn’t it?

Mark: Yes.

Ben: What do you love about the science of all this? Do you love the fact that you just, throw all these ingredients together you can create something?

Mark: For stuff like gin it’s really interesting. Because yeah, a lot of the Australian botanicals no one’s distilled with before.

Ben: Yeah.

Mark: So, it’s a bit of experimentation.

Ben: Oh my goodness, this smells amazing.

Mark: So yeah, this is a, this is the barrel stall.

Ben: Wow!

Mark: Once it’s finished distilling, we’ll then put it into a…

Ben: Oh you can smell the whisky, can’t you?

Mark: Yeah, so that’s the angel share. So yeah that’s the, this is my favorite room.

Ben: I bet you it is. I notice there’s a straw at the back of that one.

Mark: Yeah, there’s a bit of a sample tube there.

Ben: So, to be number one now, that must come with a lot of media exposure. You know, from a from humble beginning of, ‘Mummy I’m coming home’, you must sit there and go…

Mark: Yeah, so…

Ben: You could never have pictured this would happen?

Mark: No, I actually nearly fell off the chair when I got the email.

Ben: Really?

Mark: When I got the results. Yeah because I had to look twice. I was like, ‘Ooh that’s my rum.’                  

Ben: And you went over and got presented with an award? 

Mark: Yeah, so I actually judge at both the World Whiskey Awards and World Rum Awards. Um, but it’s pretty funny because in the last tasting I noticed that I said, ‘Gees this stuff tastes like mine.’  So, I was like, ‘yeah three points.’  

Ben: Really?

Mark: Yeah. Now I went to a whiskey festival in Canada once. The Canadians love whiskey, spirits, they love spirits.

Mark: Yeah.

Ben: And I went to this fabulous whiskey festival, and there, I could not believe how many whiskies are on the market. I was tasting stuff from Ireland made out of peat moss.

Mark: Yeah. 

Ben: And you know, everything is got a different taste, a different tannin.

Mark: Yeah depending on the climate, so where we are here, our whiskey will age a lot faster than it will in a cool climate. Um, so our seven-year-old whisky is around about the fourteen year or year fifteen-year equivalent of a cold climate whiskey. That’s where we get a lot of success with our awards with our whiskies because we can essentially age for a lot less of the time then what it does in a cool climate.

Ben: Now tonight you’re doing a tasting and an information night. Is it important that people come along to these two to learn about them, because I mean there’s so many different things to do with whiskey.

Mark: Yeah, so like with these master classes or information nights, they’re really handy because, especially from a lot of the smaller producers, because you get like, most of ninety percent of the time it’s from the distiller, and you’ll get to pick up and learn a lot about what that product is, how it’s made. Whereas like, a lot of the big companies like the big brands, which I won’t mention, they force-feed their marketing garbage to the consumer. And sort of, there is a lot of smoke and mirrors there, so…  

Ben: What’s the best way to drink this stuff? I’m gonna let you in on something. Chris whose traveling with us, he’s going off for counseling after this. He just admitted that he puts coke with gin. I just said, you know… I can’t believe this. But we’ll get more out of him later about why he does that.

Mark: So, for most of them we recommend to try them straight or neat. You know stuff with gin a lot of people drink it with tonic. But if the product is really good you should be able to drink it and eat and it shouldn’t burn.

Ben: Really?

Mark: Yeah. Whereas if it’s of lesser quality and it burns, it’s generally not a good sign, so.  

Ben: Now, is this like the Cadbury factory, like you know when you start work here you go, ‘You know what I’m going to eat all these chocolates, like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.’ Do you find that people once they start working with all this stuff just go, ‘Oh yeah it’s that available I could drink it every day.’

Mark: Yeah, it’s the Colombian drug lord rule – don’t get high on your own supply.

Ben: Well Mark, thank you very, very much. Where do people find out information about what you do here?

Mark: So, we’re on the web. So, www.mtuncle.com. We’re also available in Dan Murphy’s, BWS, and Dan Murphy’s online. We’ve also got an online facility.

Ben: Yeah. Well now being number one, you’re going to be in demand? 

Mark: Yeah, well hopefully, that’s the plan.

Ben: Do you have to ramp up production now?      

Mark: That’s the plan. Oh yeah, this year we’ll start producing rum in the next fortnight.  Yeah. So we should be starting…

Ben: Have you told Mum she’s moving out of the house? It’s becoming a store room? 

Mark: No yet, not yet.  

Ben: Well let’s go sample something.

Mark: Yep.

Ben: Chris, put that coke can away will you, you’re not having coke with this.    

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