Ryan Hartshorn and his family run Grandvewe Cheeses, a sheep cheesery in Birchs Bay in southern Tasmania. But several years ago, Hartshorn decided he wanted to do something of his own.
Now, in addition to being part owner in the cheesery, he’s also the creator and head distiller at Hartshorn Distillery, the first distillery in the world to make boutique batches of vodka and gin from its own sheep whey.
“The cheesery was just making enough money to support the families, but not really much more than that,” Hartshorn says. “So I thought, something better change, because we were just working too hard for hardly any money.”
He wanted to learn distilling. “I was actually teaching myself distilling first, without the idea of the whey,” he says. “I wanted to try to make a distillery that was relevant to a cheesery but didn’t quite know how at that point. That’s when I read about a place in Ireland experimenting with cow whey.”
But Hartshorn didn’t have a science background, and when he tried to contact the Ireland operation to find out how they did it, they wouldn’t tell him anything. “So, I had to figure it all out from scratch,” he says.
He’d work in the cheesery by day and do research at night – mostly online forums on distillation, because back then, no one was teaching distillation in Tasmania. He also researched equipment – the best stills and fermenting designs, for example.
Then, once he got the equipment, he experimented, trying to figure out how to turn the complex sugars in the whey protein that was leftover from the cheesery into basic sugars that he could ferment into alcohol and distil.
To start with, he paid for everything himself – he didn’t use money from the family business. “It was going to be just a side project for me,” he says.
“And then as it got more popular, the business decided to try to buy me out and bring it under the family-business umbrella.”