By Shelby Brooks
A FAILED crop of hemp, grown on a dairy farm near Wilsons Promontory, has taught distiller Rhys Staley a lot about spirit- both the drink and the human characteristic.
Rhys is the founder of Natural Distilling Co, a grassroots business making vodka and gin from locally grown hemp.
The experiment in creating white spirits out of hemp was inspired by Rhys’ involvement in the medicinal cannabis industry and his cellular molecular biology degree.
“I’ve always been entrepreneurial,” he told the Sentinel-Times.
“And I’ve always loved whisky.”
Whisky was too expensive to begin with, so Rhys started with white spirits.
“There is a real science and art to spirits,” he said.
“It’s fairly simple to do but it’s all about the story behind it.”
At the moment, the company is using hemp grown in northern Victoria after being unable to successfully grow it themselves, but plan to try with another crop next year.
“The crop is more suited to our area than wheat or barley,” Rhys said.
“But it would be better with warmer weather and more sun.”
After receiving a licence to farm 40.5 hectares, Rhys, with the help of his father, went about planting a 3.24 hectare crop about this time last year.
Unfortunately, due to the Gippsland bushfires, sunlight was blocked by smoke during the first month, a vital time in which hemp needs lots of sunshine to grow.
“It was also a wet summer and the cloud cover gave it no opportunity to pop up in the first 30 days,” Rhys said.
“Because it grows so quickly, [when it does grow], it blocks the sun to other weeds, so you don’t need to use herbicides on the crop.”
Another challenge Rhys faced was the fact the paddock was not flat.
“There was a challenge in harvesting. The paddock had a roll, but we were going to need a header that had an eight-metre-wide front, so the paddock had to be perfectly flat,” Rhys said.
Hemp seeds are also extremely fragile- they can’t be heated above 30 degrees and they need a conveyer belt, not an auger, to be moved.
“If you have an acre or two, you’d shake the seeds off,” he said.
But with eight acres, it was too small to justify paying for a header to come down from northern Victoria where hemp is more readily grown, and too large to hand shake the hemp seeds.
Despite the crop failure, the passion for the product Rhys has produced from outsourced hemp hasn’t wavered.
“I took away a lot of learning from it,” he said.
“We want to create something authentic that people can really get behind.”
And the business is thriving, with Rhys frequenting markets to sell his wares, as well as taking sales online.
The products have also been featured in Men’s Health, Urban List and The Weekend Edition.
Rhys credits his community of family and friends to the success of the business, the people who in the early days of creating, took shifts at odd hours of the night to watch the still.
“In the beginning, friends and family were coming by joking I was a bit crazy,” Rhys said.
“But there’s been a sense of community brought out by this.”
“From our inception we’ve been focused on creating something to be proud of. Our family and community here in Gippsland, Victoria are the ones who made this possible and we would have never gotten this far if it wasn’t for them,” the website reads.