Goodradigbee: The Spirit Trade of Cubed Aussie Hardwoods
Updated: Feb 22
Seemingly overnight, Brookvale has become Australia’s Loire Valley, Sydney’s Barossa, Northern Beaches’ Napper, with breweries and distilleries popping up faster than Beaver Menzies off Cliffy Lyons’ shoulder. And thanks to John O’Connor’s foray into whisky business, an element of innovation has been added to the mix.
Five years ago, John was an ad man, but having relocated to London and finding it tough to get a foothold in the advertising business without the contacts he’d amassed in Sydney, he decided it was time to chance his arm at something he’d always wanted to do - work with booze. “I wanted to get good at something that wasn’t advertising. Having always worked with intangibles, ideas, creativity, I thought it’d be great to physically make a product, something you can touch and feel…and drink!” He lobbed up to a top-notch whisky distillery in the Scottish town of Pitlochry. “Do you need labour? I’ll work for free.” What sort of penny-pinching Scotsman could possibly say no? Straight to work, almost instantly his Eureka moment struck. Looking at a distillery warehouse with acres of barrels stretching into the distance. “I thought, that’s an interesting business model, all that investment parked on concrete, money sitting idle for years at a time.”
The challenge was clear; is there a way to mature whisky faster while maintaining quality? “It’s the barrel’s wood that imparts flavour, particles interacting with timber. There’s a higher surface area of wood with a cube as opposed to a barrel. I figured, if I can distil with cubes, ensure more frequent timber interaction with spirit particles, the maturation will naturally speed up.” Not content to give distilling a geometrical overhaul, John had two more innovative ideas in his cask.
Firstly, using Australian hardwoods to impart flavour. “I had memories of camping at my happy place in the Snowy Mountains, Goodradigbee River, huddled up around the fire thinking, am I crazy or can I smell cinnamon, pepper, myrtle? So many rich flavours were emanating from those smouldering Aussie hardwoods.” If a spirit’s flavour comes from the wood it interacts with during distillation, what better flavour to impart than aromatic Australian hardwood? Secondly, placing diagonal veins of timber in the cube itself to further increase the surface area interaction and facilitate the maturation process even more.
Armed with a great idea, and ably assisted by the experienced Scottish distiller who gave him a job, it was time to experiment. “I made four cubes; oak, which was my control, ironbark red, ironbark yellow, and a jarrah cube.” It was a long, cold 60 days and nights of spirit particles brushing against Aussie hardwoods in the Scottish Highlands before taste test time arrived. “The oak was just clear spirit. It hadn’t aged at all. The ironbark red was ready to drink! Phew! The ironbark yellow was mellow, quite soft. And the jarrah was rough as guts! A Scottish distiller called it windscreen washer! But another fella, a bearded Irishman called Russell, he said it’ll come good, give it another month. We did, he was right. That extra month made all the difference.”
John had viable product! A crucial ingredient for every start-up. And for the past four years, he’s been committed every step of the way to ensuring that product becomes ever more refined. “I’ve spent a lot of money on R&D, chewing through 6 figures no problem. But you don’t know unless you have a go.” His R&D includes designing the perfect cube too. “The first design leaked, but they have to leak in order to seal. Prototypes 2 and 3 sealed, but the wood cracked. Prototype 4 and 5, I played with sliding and dovetail joints, allowing for expansion, much like shipbuilding techniques. And we cracked it. Well, ‘cracked’ is the wrong word, but we worked out the ideal cube design to ensure uniformity of production.”
With his feet firmly planted back on the Northern Beaches where they belong, his Goodradigbee product is very much ready for market, with a range of Ironbark Red, Ironbark Yellow and Jarrah malts, all packaged in the cubed design that is the heart and soul of his innovative journey to the spirit trade. Bizarrely though, in a quirk of nomenclature only the Brits are capable of, John’s spirit is prohibited from being called whisky, as that specific term legally requires 2 or more years of maturation. “That law came out of the UK pre-WWII to stop people trading in moonshine as a way of getting around food coupon stamps. They decided over there that you weren’t allowed to call a whisky, whisky, unless it was 2 years old. And it was basically a defence against starting a black market in booze. Whisky before that never had to be ‘old’. It’s a marketing construct, something marketers use to denote quality when, in fact, it has nothing to do with that.”
You put your spirit in a big oak barrel, it’ll take 2 years to mature. Put it in John’s Goodradigbee cube, you’re all set in 2-3months. Simple. But the last thing John wants is any drama with whisky producers over age statements. “My Goodradigbee product is a barley, single malt spirit, which is what I call it.” John has grand plans of producing whisky in line with UK timing guidelines, already has a range of Sweetwater and Freshwater gins to complement his malts and may have even made proposals to council for creating a destination distillery in one of the Insular Peninsula’s most iconic watering holes. Rest assured; John’s cubed revolution is just the beginning.