The world’s smallest commercial distillery – operating from Auckland

The world’s smallest commercial distillery, producing just eight bottles per run, is operating from the Auckland suburb of Point Chevalier.

The Vicar’s Son is run by software sales manager Stewart Martel and midwife Lucie Hrdina and is selling their vodka and gin to three bottle stores.

The home operation, run out of the couple’s garage, has also begun supplying its spirits to its local, Cupid Bar, and Ed Verner’s Parnell restaurant Pasture.

Martel said New Zealand was no doubt one of the easiest places in the world to set up a commercial distillery. Hrdina develops the recipes, while Martel makes the spirits.

It’s a side gig at the moment, started in March during the Covid-19 lockdown and they have since applied to customs to be a customs controlled area, meaning that it pays excise tax on the alcohol it produces, is registered under the Food Act, and have applied for an off-licence to comply with the Supply of Liquor Act.

Hrdina had to become a duty manager (of the garage) in order to achieve that.

The company began making its spirits two months ago and has sold out of its first seven batches.

Most micro-distilleries have a 200-litre still, making between 200-300 bottles at a time, however, the Vicar’s Son operates using a 6-litre still, imported from the Netherlands.

The motivation for starting the firm was sparked by their passion of home distilling and the pair, having tasted quite a few gins, thinking they could make their own premium product “just as well, if not better” than those already on the market, Martel told the Herald.

The Vicar’s Son imports its bottles from France from a company called SaverGlass and the printing on its bottles is done through a kiln-fired process whereby the label is baked into the glass. The company specialises in handcrafted product, including coffee-flavoured vodka, and its products are sold for $149 per bottle.

Once a week the company makes a batch of gin and vodka. But more impressively, it makes its own base alcohol from barley – a time-consuming process, which most distilleries opt to skip doing themselves.

“The process we’re doing is called grain to glass and it takes three weeks to convert the grain into base alcohol and then we distill it four times to get it to the quality we want it to be. Every time you distill it, it becomes smoother and more clear,” Martel says.

“When we first thought about this, we didn’t write down a business plan, we assumed with our small volumes that we’d be selling only direct online. As soon as we launched, we got approached by some small independent bottle stores and they wanted to sell the gin and vodka, so we now have bottle stores selling it in Wellington, Hawke’s Bay and Auckland.”

Martel said selling to three bottle stores was probably all the business could handle as it was constrained by the manufacture of the base alcohol.

To make 20 bottles takes 200 litres of water and 50kg of barley.

“We’ve got capacity to do 400 litres at a time; that gives us two weeks’ alcohol supply.”

Martel said the pair were happy with the size the business was at and they were not looking to increase production.

“The next step in investment would be like 10 times what we have spent now ($20,000) so it would be a very big decision to grow any bigger.”

Expansion plans on the horizon would include creating different types of alcohol, he said. The next variety will include a cherry vodka.

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