The latest interview in my ‘Meet the Distiller’ series is William McHenry, Master Distiller of McHenry’s, one of Australia’s most awarded gins. His story is a fascinating one, involving a complete career change, as well as a move interstate, creating a very different life for himself and his family in the process.
How long have you been a distiller?
We are now in our 6th year. I moved from Sydney to Tasmania in 2010.
How did you become a distiller?
In around 2005/6 things weren’t going well at work. I was travelling between Perth and Sydney every week, working for a company that was in trouble, and as they usually are when things are bad, the atmosphere was terrible. I missed my wife and kids and knew that there had to be something else other than the life I was in. The trouble was, I’d worked in the pharma industry for so long, that I couldn’t see what other opportunities there could be for me.
Over a few glasses of Shiraz with a neighbour one night he says “well, with a name like William McHenry, I think you should be making whisky”. A lightbulb went on. Between 2006 and 2010 I spent most of the time doing research and educating myself. Oh and convincing the family that the move was a good idea!
So you originally set out to make whisky?
Yes, that was the plan. But I was pragmatic enough to know that for the business to work, I’d need cash flow and gin was a way of achieving that as it’s so much quicker to produce (aside from our Barrel-aged and Sloe gin which take 12-18 months). Protecting the business through diversification was also a key objective.
(note: William released his 10 year old Three Capes whisky to great acclaim this year.)
What is the most challenging thing about making gin?
I think the biggest challenge in the beginning was getting the recipe right. I continually bounced ideas off my wife, Ali, who has a very different palate to me. Every time I presented her with what I thought was the winning recipe, she didn’t like it. We just couldn’t agree. It was extremely frustrating, but I think in the end, having the combination of two contrasting tasters like ourselves meant we created a gin with a much broader appeal than if I had just gone with what I wanted. The gin is all the better for both our inputs.
How did you choose which botanicals to use?
You have to remember that back when I started the gin landscape was dominated by imported gins. There wasn’t the support for Australian gins as there is today, so I wanted to create a classic gin that could stand up to the international competition and hold its own.
I remember watching a booze program with James May and Oz Clarke where they visited Plymouth distillery and were talking about cardamom. I hadn’t seen much of it in gin, so I started with that. I also knew I wanted to use star anise, as I like the flavour. Then I added coriander, juniper (obviously) and orris root to the list. Our citrus comes from Valencia oranges that we peel and dry ourselves.
What the best thing about your job?
Two things really. Meeting people who love gin. I’m a natural extrovert, so I really enjoy it when people drop in to find out more about what we do, as well as converting those who don’t see themselves as gin drinkers.
The other thing is the sheer joy of making something that people like to drink!
Who or what inspires you?
My family. When I set the distillery up, it was with a simple purpose, to eventually gift the business to my three children. I would like to think that McHenry distillery will be passed on through the generations and that in 2090 that my children’s children will still be working in the business. I’d like to leave a legacy.
What is you favourite gin cocktail and why?
My two favourite drinks would have to be a G&T and a Negroni. Nothing beats a G&T on a hot summer day, I’ll always choose that over a glass of white wine. As for Negroni, that’s my drink. I love the combination of bitter, sweet and orange.
Which are your favourite bars (anywhere in the world)?
Oh that’s a difficult one. I think I’d have to go with Bad Frankie in Fitzroy, Melbourne because they have my picture on the wall! Seriously though, Seb has been a great supporter of the Australian distilling industry and it’s a great bar.
The other is the The Henry Jones Art Hotel in Tasmania. Anthony has been amazingly supportive of what we do. If you come to one of my “Make your own gin” workshops, and then take your bottle to him, he will design you a bespoke cocktail using your gin for $10 or for free if you are staying at the hotel.
What’s next? Any future plans?
So many! It’s a really excited time for us as we move into the next stage of the business. We’re about to take delivery of a new 1500l still and we’re redeveloping the cellar door area. There is a new a pavilion being built specifically to host the gin-making workshops and some additional bothys for so people to stay at the distillery. Plus we’re realigning a road on the property in order to build a tunnel, which will be used to mature our whisky.
On top of that I’m working on some exciting new gin projects, but I’ll keep that under my hat for now!
If you’d like to meet William yourself, he will be at the Australian Drinks Festival (order your tickets with promo code QUEEN10 for get $10 discount) on the 16th and 17th July, where he will be running his “Make your own gin” workshops. Book here.