We've never been much for showrooms, we prefer the studio out back where the metaphorical or sometimes literal sausages are made. We've spent time with local jewellers in the unassuming little workbenches where quarter-million dollar diamonds are cut, and we've spent more than our fair share of time in Perth's iconic Chris Huzzard Studio, a photographer's playground which does a wonderful job reminding us that only where the camera is pointing needs to be pristine. This fondness for transparency came about immediately when we stepped into the home of High Spirits distillery. Nothing is unclean or slapdash about the distillery, but the aesthetics of the workspace are clearly secondary to the product itself. You get the impression that this is where work gets done, and High Spirits distillery's first two products, a triticale Vodka and Gin, are testament to Mike Caban's dedication to putting out exciting and beautiful spirits.
High Spirits may well be the smallest distillery in Australia. Entirely family operated and funded, the distillery is less focussed on bells, whistles and gimmicks than in becoming a nurturing ground for Mike to use his chefs background in exploring and experimenting, all with a creative drive and a passion for great ingredients. "Ideas for distilling are what keep my brain ticking," said Mike, "Pretty much anything you can eat besides the obvious things like fish and steak, you can run through a still. And most will impart some sort of flavour. One thing I'm very excited about right now is making a ginger beer from scratch using wild yeast, and distilling that ginger beer. I've never done it before, it's still in it's infancy at the moment.”
Vodka and Gin
"It was obvious that gin and vodka were the start, owing to the ageing requirements of anything else."
The genesis of High Spirits came about four years ago as Mike and his brother attended a Cognac tasting night. "We started talking later on that night about what we could do, and a distillery was the obvious choice. I had a knowledge of stills from having a friend who worked selling stills. The seed was planted and over the next two and a half to three years we threw everything we had into it financially and scraped together what we could from family. I started out on the R&D straight away."
As Mike and the family went down the route of licensing and fitting out a distillery, they were fortunate to be approached by a farmer from Dumbleyung, "Our farmer only supplies a handful of producers, amongst them are a couple of breweries and an organic rolled oats producer. He grows to the principals of biodynamics and doesn't use any chemicals, instead, between harvests he lays ground cover crops to regenerate the nitrogen in the soil," said Mike. It was this farmer who suggested they try using the Triticale wheat/rye hybrid grain which is now the base of their vodka and gin.
"I distilled the Triticale and it was like nothing I'd ever tried before, not initially a good thing— it was very hard to work with, but the result was a game changer."
Apart from using the triticale grain, High Spirits distinguish themselves in making a Gin which is redistilled from their Vodka: At it's heart, Gin is just a juniper flavoured neutral spirit, and part of the Australian gin craze can be attributed to the availability of wholesale neutral spirits which many new distilleries import as the basis of their Gin. High Spirits make their Gin entirely from scratch, considering their Triticale Vodka as an ingredient just as important as each of the twelve botanicals they add. The ability to have control over every aspect of their process not only results in a product which is completely local and bespoke, and also one of the smoothest Gins we've tried.
"The idea is the build up a repertoire of spirits which we can knock off as time progresses.”
Mike told us he has little interest in looking out at the market for new spirits. Rather than a reactionary creation process, he is relishing the chance to experiment and establish new recipes to build a backbone for their new and seasonal releases. "Everything goes out to our close knit group of family and friends, as you can imagine, lots of people put their hands up for taste testing when you run a distillery.” Said Mike, “Everyone gets a sample of bottles, I don't include any of my notes, just have them write down their own subjective opinion, we develop based on that."
"I'm currently working on a few products at the moment, and we also plan on having a series of small batch seasonal runs, "I've got some really nice ingredients to play around with, one thing I'm really liking is vanilla from broken nose.” Said Mike. In the corner of the distillery is a small basket press similar to what you’d find in a small batch winery or cider house. It becomes clear that buying from High Spirits is an investment into Mike’s sheer excitement with the distillery at his hands, mitigated by his dedication to seek out feedback.
"I started High Spirits to start a tradition for my family, as well as to provide an income doing something that I loved and to satisfy my need to experiment. And to make something which adds to the market, not just another vodka on the shelf. Nobody that I know of makes triticale vodka. There are tens of thousands of distilleries out there, but I don't know of any other commercially available triticale spirit.”
Spirit of a Family Business
High Spirits have strong ties to Mike’s family who are all welcomed to weigh on in the company’s products and direction. The distillery is entirely family funded, with no external debt, and Mike’s brother works as the Co-Managing Director.
Continuing on from their family attitudes, Mike has ensured that the impact made by High Spirits is bespoke and considered even beyond the product itself, and this extends to choosing who stocks their item, and to choosing where their waste goes. Spent grain is a byproduct for distillers, but a valuable food for livestock. Mike was careful to pick a farmer who’s values aligned with his own to receive their spent grain.
Concluding on what a family business means to them, and what supporting family businesses looks like, Mike said, "The difference for us is that when you buy from a local producer you’re not paying a CEO, that money is paying a kids school fees, or filling up a family's car”