Our People: Master Distiller Ian Thorn
Gareth Shute
25.01.21
Filed under

Knowing the Rules So You Can Break Them: The Story of our Master Distiller Ian Thorn

Master Distiller Ian Thorn has spent over two decades in the brewing and distilling industry. Yet his time at The Gospel Whiskey has proved he’s still willing to try new approaches and throw away the rulebook in aim of creating a uniquely Australian whiskey.

Ian Thorn recalls that his first memory of whisky was at the tender age of fifteen. He’d followed a whim to learn the bagpipes and ended up performing at a Burns Night Supper. His Glaswegian Pipe Major (teacher) asked him: ‘Do you drink?’ and he’d sheepishly replied ‘yes I can drink.’ That was how he found himself toasting a haggis and slugging back a liberal pour of cheap whisky, before then having to perform on the bagpipes with his stomach burning with the heat.

Fortunately, Ian’s parents weren’t averse to the him trying alcohol. Both met while working in the pharmaceutical industry and his father’s interest in wine saw him set-up his own vineyard as a side hustle, despite the fact that their property in the hills of East Kurrajong (northeast of Sydney) had more bush than arable land on its 30 acres. His father started out with just three rows of vines, growing it into what became the Bull Ridge Estate Winery. Thus, Ian was tasting wine and other beverages from an early age, and learnt to appreciate their flavour before he had any interest in the mind-altering capacities of alcohol.

Ian’s father’s winery, Bull Ridge Estate Winery.

Ian initially followed in his parent’s footsteps by undertaking a pharmacy degree at University. At the time, it was awkward for a young Australian male to be drinking chardonnay in pubs with his uni mates, but he also didn’t think much of the beers on offer, until he chanced upon a pint of Newcastle Brown in an Irish pub and it opened his eyes to what beer could be:

“It tasted a lot better than Australian lagers. I thought, ‘if I can make wine, I can make beer.’ This culminated in me building a 200 litre system in my backyard out of pharmacy grade stainless steel tanks. It got a bit obsessive. Though I had a lot of friends because of that!”

Ian eventually quit studying pharmacy to pursue his growing interest in brewing and switched over to a BSc in Microbiology and Biochemistry. He also completed a Certificate in Brewing on the side and joined the Institute of Brewing and Distilling. As he recalls:

“I went to their meetings as a student because they gave you free beer and you got to talk to brewers. They had a big book of memberships and I worked out that the number of breweries in Australia was the same as one county in the UK, so statistically I’d be much better off there.”

After University, Ian moved to the UK and managed to get a job at one of the big breweries, Scottish & Newcastle (now Heineken UK) as a Microbiologist. Much to his horror (and in a turn of twisted fate), the main product he would be testing was Fosters! Nonetheless, the company paid for him to begin a three-year Diploma in Brewing, continuing the course even after he moved to become Head Brewer for a 1000-litre microbrewery in Gloucester. The job switch was fortunate timing since Scottish & Newcastle were bought out soon after and the brewery where he’d worked was shut down.

Ian as Head Brewer at the 1000-litre microbrewery in Gloucester

“I finished my diploma in brewing while I was in Gloucester. I thought, ‘what do I do now?’ I wasn’t really ready for the Master Brewer program since it was very focused towards big business, but they also did a Certificate in Distilling and that seemed fun. I thought, ‘I like whisky, I’ve been to Scotland a number of times, why don’t I do that?’”

During his University years, Ian had taken the approach of ‘drink less, but drink better’ cutting down on the amount he drank in a night, so he could afford more interesting brews. Yet some pubs only had flavourless beers available, so he moved to trying whisky. He gained an early appreciation of Laphroaig and now that he was living the UK, he was able to pursue his whisky interest further.

Ian had grown up in countryside New South Wales and was accustomed to long drives. He found it enjoyable to visit Scotland whenever he could - his family had history there and the scenery was appealing, and the great whisky was an added bonus. In 2010, Ian undertook an even more extensive whisky holiday, bringing along his ever-indulgent partner, who was pregnant at the time so couldn’t even take part in the drinking:

“I went to Islay, Campbeltown, and the other Hebridean Isles. By happenstance, we’d just missed a week-long whisky festival, but that actually turned out to be good timing. Unlike nowadays, the event didn’t sell out so I spent time mopping up all the special releases. Springbank Distillery has always been one of my favourites and I had enough knowledge to be able to talk sensibly to them about whisky. I ended up having quite few whiskies with them, one of which had been matured in Australian wine barrels. I thought it was just for the finish, but no - it was the full maturation. It was a real lightbulb moment for me, I knew I’d have to look into if I returned to Australia.”

As it happened, Ian and his wife returned home soon after (following seven years in the UK). He believed that his experience in the UK brewing industry would make it easy to find a job in Australia. However, the CVs he sent out received little response. He came across a job listing for a distiller in Melbourne and decided he may as well apply, even though he had no hands-on experience, only the theoretical knowledge he’d gained from completing the Diploma in Distilling.

Turns out having a degree in distilling was a rarity in Australia at the time and, in 2011, he found himself at what would become the groundbreaking whisky distillery, Starward. The scale of the operation was similar to what he’d been running in the UK and so it only took him a week of training to make the transition from Brewer to Distiller.

Ian also believed that it was pragmatism that kicked off the big developments in whisky over time. One example was the Irish government introducing a tax-per-still policy which led distilleries there to increase their still sizes (so they could do a large volume with fewer stills). However, this meant they couldn’t get enough reflux so it forced them into using triple-distillation. Similarly, American distilleries first decided to use corn as an ingredient in order to make use of corn subsidies, or when they began using oak barrels to help employ forestry workers (leading to the unique flavours of bourbon from the US).

This philosophy led Ian and his colleagues at Starward to investigate the idea of using Australian wine barrels, as he’d seen them do at Campbeltown:

“Why would we import America’s second use barrels when there’s fifty million wine barrels here made of better timber and they’re cheaper? That fits with my definition of the true nature of whisky and the distilling industry. You look for a local resource that you can exploit. In our case, that was wine barrels. I should say it wasn’t purely my idea and there were some problems we found and had to solve. It also backfired for some of our followers and on quite a few occasions people said to me - 'we tried it, but it didn’t work'.”

Ian with his family at Starward Distillery.

Ian worked for seven years at Starward, often in tandem with Sam Slaney (now Distillery Manager at the company). The pair had their own maxim when it came to their working process:

“They say in wine-making that it takes a lot of beer to make a good wine. I’ve decided that it takes a lot of coffee to make a good whisky. We had a vintage steam lever press coffee machine at Starward so me and Sam became coffee buddies, because you can easily drink way too many espressos. We agreed we could have a full doubleshot espresso at the start of the day but then we weren’t allowed to have another. Instead, we’d always pour two single shots out when we made coffee, so he’d have one and I’d have one. It kind of kept us in check. That might be one reason things always went awry when one of us went away on holiday...”

By the time he left Starward, Ian was a few years into his Masters in Distilling and had accumulated enough knowledge that he was now a sought-after consultant. He also began teaching the next generation of distillers, after being shoulder-tapped by the mentor who’d overseen his Masters program and is now teaching students internationally for the Institute of Brewing and Distilling).

Ian first met Andrew Fitzgerald and Ben Bowles from The Gospel when he became interested in the small distillery they’d set-up for Melbourne Moonshine. Later, when they went on to create a new distillery for their whiskey operation, they asked if he’d like to come on board.

Ian initially thought that the work might be too much like what he’d already done, so remained ambivalent, but agreed to help them find the right person. In the meantime, he began helping with their operation:

“I started here in April 2019, which was the week before the equipment got turned on. They already had a Distiller, Jason, so I didn’t need to operate the place, I just had to run it. I started thinking: ‘I actually quite like this.’ I have two options here, either I have to start working harder to find them someone or I have to do it myself. So, I finally committed to coming on board.”

Ian was particularly intrigued that The Gospel incorporated a number of approaches that he’d had no previous hands-on experience with. The majority of his previous distillery work had involved making malt-based whisky in paired pot stills. In contrast, The Gospel worked with rye and employed a continuous column still to process their fermented mash of grains (what is known as a ‘wash’).

This type of unit is essentially like having twenty small stills stacked on top of one another. The wash comes down and zig-zags its way from across perforated plates at each level (connected by pipes). As it crosses the holes on each plate, it is met with steam going up, which removes some of the alcoholic liquid (effectively meaning that distillation is happening at a small scale on every plate). At the end of the process, 55% alcohol distillate is expelled from a run-off pipe at the top, while dealcoholised slurry is produced out of the bottom.

The Gospel also use grain-on fermentation rather than lautering or employing grain separation. This was an approach that Ian knew about in theory, but had never done in practice. Nor had he worked with new American oak barrels.

Luckily, Ian was a fan of rye whiskey, having first tasted a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle. Purchased for a moderate price at the time, it is now considered one of the best in the world, fetching upwards of US$2,000 per bottle on the resale market!

Ian’s work at The Gospel is driven by his belief that it’s pointless to try to replicate what overseas distilleries are doing. The conditions in Scotland or the US are very different and therefore produce unique flavour profiles. As an example, Ian investigated the variation in temperature across the year and found that Melbourne’s temperature swings far more widely within each successive month than overseas whisk(e)y-making regions such as Scotland or Kentucky.

“The temperature within Melbourne can swing 20 degrees from one day to the next. This means alcohol expands and contracts in the barrel many more times over a given period, forcing the alcohol into the oak and back again.”

This isn’t necessarily a help or a hindrance, but definitely something that needs to be understood to create the best whiskey possible. This led Ian and the team to experiment with a much more varied range of approaches – changing the interaction of wood and spirit, the treatment of the wood (charring, toasting etc), the amount of oxygen that interacts with the maturing spirit (micro-oxygenation), the size of barrel, and how the final blend is created. For Solera Rye, they’ve even been challenging the old-as-time idea that longer in the barrel is always better.

Ian finds it fascinating to compare Solera Rye to their more traditionally made Straight Rye Whiskey, since each has their own unique and wonderful aspects. Ian’s first blend of the Straight Rye Whiskey led to another surprise discovery:

“When I did the marrying for the first release of our Straight Rye Whiskey, I took the barrels out and found they had slightly different wood profiles, often for experimental reasons. I found one barrel that was very nice and thought, ‘this barrel is going to be a really nice star in the blend. I’ll put it in the middle and build around it’, but it didn’t work. This barrel was really nice on its own, but did not play well with others. So, I moved it to one side and we decided to put it out as a small single cask release, because it was beautiful on its own.”

This first special release led on to a number of others, including a project that used two 300 litre Tawny barrels. It ended up being Ian’s favourite whiskey they’ve done thus far, given the interesting mix of sweetness from the wine residue and pepperiness from the rye - or as he describes it: “almost like black pepper and strawberries”. Even The Gospel’s focus on making 100% rye whiskey has been put aside when it seemed interesting to do so:

“Last year, we found a bunch of odd little barrels that Ben and Andrew had filled back in the day. One of them was a rye whiskey but with a high proportion of wheat mixed in it which had been aged in a second-use barrel. Everyone in the team really liked it, so we’re also releasing that first barrel as a special release in February, just 50 litres of it. We’ve also laid down a further ten barrels in that style using wheat malt and crystal wheat malt. Each year, we’re going to try to lay down 8-10 barrels of a different mash build like that, perhaps using some interesting yeasts.”

It is these experiments which keep Ian excited, even after decades of brewing and distilling. This is why he finds The Gospel is the perfect home for his talents:

“It’s very different to what everyone else in Australia is doing. It’s uses a different process and a different idea. I can really learn, develop and grow as a person here while helping them. I bring my existing knowledge and apply that to their interesting ideas, then we thread it together and create something new ... Why would you want to be the same as someone else? There’s no fun in that.”

Our Master Distiller Ian working at The Gospel.

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