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Damien Anderson – Tiny Bear Distillery

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16/09/2019
Written by Gin Foundry

Ahead of Junipalooza Melbourne we’re playing catch-up with some of the down under distillers making their way over to Melbourne for the show. Tiny Bear Distillery, based in Knoxfield, Victoria, is indeed a wee little thing, and the bear part of the name came from the huge beard that founder Damien Anderson was sporting back in 2016, when he decided to follow his dream of creating spirits. We had a little chat with him ahead of the show to find out about why he took the decision to make his base spirit from scratch and why he picked such an incredibly strange vegetable to work with…

What prompted you to become a distiller and how long did the journey from idea to first trial take?

I suppose the story starts when I was 19. I was in my second year of a Biochemistry/Education bachelor degree, in a class learning about distilling. My mind kept wondering and thinking about various parts of alcohol/spirits production outside of the lecture theatre. A conversation with two of my best mates later one evening over a few spirits lead to us coming up with this grand scheme of us making our own spirts and one day starting a distillery. The very next day we started we set up our first ferment. From then, it was roughly 10 years before we opened the Tiny Bear doors.

That’s quite a gestation period! You must have gone into a career over that decade – what were you doing before distilling and who is the Tiny Bear team today?

Before distilling, I was a high school Chemistry, Science and Mathematics teacher for eight years. I took my long service leave and never really went back to work as a teacher. I do really miss teaching the kids, not so much the other stuff that goes on in schools.

My wife Manda, is also involved heavily with Tiny Bear. She is a Biology/Welfare teacher and provides much-needed support, funds and social media interactions as well as a sounding board for all my crazy ideas. We have also recently hired Kass, a young apprentice who is becoming invaluable to Tiny Bear. She is learning all parts of the business from distillation to events.

You’re a small team with an intentionally tiny set up why. Small and mighty, mind. Is that where the Tiny Bear name came from?

There are two parts to the name and two parts to that story. Firstly, from the moment we set out to do this, we wanted to ferment, distill and bottle everything ourselves. That choice, inevitably meant our production was always going to be “Tiny”.

The “Bear” part is a little bit of a combination of two things. During the set-up phase of getting the distillery open, I would spend my weekdays as a teacher and weekends inside the cave. My friends and family started to mention that they weren’t seeing me anymore as I was “hibernating” at the distillery. I also made myself a promise when we set out on the journey of opening a distillery. It was simply no shaving until I get the doors open as I had unfinished business. I had quite the grizzly beard at that time.

You didn’t go easy on yourself, deciding to make your base spirit from scratch rather than buying it in. You make yours from kale! It is such an unusual choice – can you talk us though why you made that decision?

Our understanding of fermentation kind of guided us on this. Firstly, yeast eat sugar (whether it comes from grain, grape, fruit, etc) and turn it to alcohol. They also need nutrition to stay healthy. This is where the Kale comes in. We supply our yeast with a Kale/Sugar mix and provide them optimum conditions to make the best possible alcohol they can.

So you turn that into a vodka first, then add it back into the still with your botanicals. It’s quite a big process to undertake, so how much of the flavour base comes through in the end gins and what does it add to the mix?

It doesn’t necessarily add a flavour (we let the botanicals do that), but adds more of a mouthfeel. In our opinion, the alcohol is super clean, really lacks any harsh volatiles and really allows the botanicals to shine, creating a unique gin.

Did you always set out to make a trio of gins, or did that develop once you got started?

That was always the plan. The three Children were named well before the final recipes were decided on. I have never really had an overall favourite Gin – the gin I drink is always dependent on my mood/the weather. So we made gins to suit that.

You never had a favourite outside of your own, but of the three you make, which is your go-to?

Oh wow, very taboo. Don’t tell the other two, but its definitely the Gypsy. Her versatility keeps me going back for more.

You’ve also got an experimental series underway now, are they regular limited editions or one off’s? And are they themed, or is it just random ideas that tasted great so were made available?

Every single one of those are one offs. Generally, they are inspired by what our customers want and if they work, we make a super limited batch. We are super excited about a few of these which will be released in the next 12 months or so.

Nice! We love the responsive, experimental nature that small craft distillers can have to be able to explore new ideas and create new expressions. What do you think makes Tiny Bear stand out in today’s crowded market?

This one is a tough question. I suppose we simply have created a gin brand our own way; we kind of threw out the rule book on a few things. We have taken our own understanding and beliefs and built a brand that we are proud of. We are super proud of what we do, and we really do believe we are delivering some cracker gins. We have a small growing following who continue sto hare their experiences with us, and seeing them enjoy something we have created fills us with complete joy. We couldn’t be prouder!

Last but not least, what’s been your most memorable highlight of the journey so far?

This one is simple. The friends we have made since doing this. Whether that be customers, other distillers or other businesses we have worked with in some capacity. That and every time someone takes a sip of our gin and it makes them smile.