For Leigh and Bree Attwood, the husband-and-wife team behind Backwoods Distilling Co., their journey into distilling started with a love for drinking Australian whisky. Leigh’s obsession reached a new peak when he first visited Peter Bignell in Tasmania: ‘Just seeing in Tassie what people were doing in sheds… I was just like – this! I can do this!’
For Bree Attwood, it was Black Gate. ‘When we started exploring how different Australian whiskies tasted, I just fell in love with Black Gate… Meeting the people making it was the inspiration, too. It was the whole industry; it was the story behind the makers that really got us going.’
It hasn’t been common for new distillers entering the scene in the last 20 years to specifically credit Australian whisky as their inspiration. Scottish single malt is normally the catalyst, American Bourbon or rye follows, and a couple of Aussie distillers reference Irish whiskey. But the Attwoods have been different. At every post, they’ve been determined to create uniquely Australian whiskies that say something about who they are and where they’re from.
They both grew up in Myrtleford, 45 minutes south of Albury-Wondonga. From there, living overseas and then in Melbourne took them away from the Victorian high country for almost 20 years. It was the tiny town of Yackandandah, 30 minutes north of Myrtleford, that drew them back. They found a picturesque property in Yackandandah, sold their house in Melbourne, found new jobs in the area, and then got serious about making whisky.
They looked at locations nearby, breweries mainly, where they could start distilling. But then in 2017, a talk with the local council resulted in them being granted a license to distil in a shed on their own property.
The next hurdle was sourcing a still. Leigh eventually got connected with Mark Burns, the owner of Burns Welding and Fabrication and The Aisling Distillery, based in Griffith, three hours north. For Leigh, ‘Burnsy’ was the perfect fit. The 1250 litre pot (‘Stillvester’) built for the Attwoods by Burns, with a reflux bulb at the base of the neck, has been hard at work laying down spirit since.
Rye whisky and single malt became their preferred styles, channeling Belgrove and Black Gate, and the Attwoods found another ready ally in Voyager Craft Malt in NSW. Specialty maltsters, Voyager supplies grain to a number of leading distillers and brewers, and all of Backwoods whisky has been produced with Voyager-sourced grain.
With Backwoods rye whisky, Voyager’s approach is given full room to shine. The mash bill Leigh ultimately settled on – 60% heritage rye, 25% pale malt, 10% wheat and 5% chocolate malt – is sourced from farms in NSW’s Riverina region (the single malt is also a mix of three different specialty malts). The rye grain, in particular, comes from Barellan (the same variety used for Archie Rose’s Sandigo Heritage Rye).
That local philosophy has also driven Backwoods’ approach to maturation. They only use casks that have previously contained Australian wines or spirits. Backwoods first rye whisky release, launched in August 2020, was a vatting of two ex-shiraz casks from the Barossa, while the first single malt is a marriage of four ex-tawny casks. But apera, shiraz, cabernet, various white wine casks, casks that previously held Australian whiskies (Upshot from Perth), and the much talked about native red gum barrels are all currently maturing Backwoods spirit.
Towards the end of 2020, the Attwoods also hope to be moved into to their new distillery site in the heart of Yackandandah, which will offer tours to the public.