Salt spray on the windows and howling winds lashing at the door are nothing new at Tom Ambroz’s office. Perched on the edge of the world overlooking Bass Strait, this energetic young distiller tends to his craft just metres from one of the world’s most treacherous bodies of water. “Bass Strait can be a millpond one day and a writhing sea the next,” confirms Tom. “There’s nothing quite like working here and taking in her changing moods.”
‘Tom the distiller’, as he is referred to by the locals, can be found quietly going about his business at Furneaux Distillery on Flinders Island. “You certainly learn to be self-sufficient working from here,” he grins. “One boat comes from ‘the big island’ (Tasmania) each week and if there are rough seas, we miss that, then I have to wait again for supplies. But I love what this place has to offer. Island life is all about the outdoors…fishing, camping, hunting, climbing…the mountains here are just absolutely spectacular.”
It was inspiration from the isle of Islay in Scotland that bought the Furneaux Distillery vision to life. “Our owner Damien Newton-Brown realised that Flinders shared many of the ideal environmental characteristics that have traditionally made for excellent whisky production,” explains Tom. “Namely naturally occurring peat, pristine water sources and a strong maritime climate.” Damien had spent his childhood visiting the island, spending long summers on the land his family owned. He had grown up wanting to establish something special here on Flinders. A trip to Scotland put things into perspective and he knew what to do with the unique resources here on the island.”
An unassuming distillery was soon in the planning on Damien’s farm. “When he crossed paths with mates who were planning a new restaurant and bar on the water at Whitemark however, they just got talking and the synergies soon became obvious. “This room was specifically designed to provide the height required to house our stills,” explains Tom. With Furneaux Distillery operating from The Flinders Wharf, the two businesses share a symbiotic relationship. “Visitors come in for a whisky tasting and stay for dinner, or the exact reverse. We work really well together and each business is a perfect complement to the other.”
A love of whisky and a fascination with the art of distilling sits behind this remote new chapter in the Flinders Island story. Tom is quickly becoming a champion of small batch craft spirits – single malt whisky, gin and vodka all oozing with Tassie maritime flavours. It’s a taste that’s defined by the raw and untouched surrounds.
Tom describes how his role at the distillery came into being. “I was actually over here for the Crayfish Festival a year ago. At the time I was working for Sullivan’s Cove Whisky in Hobart. On my first night here we were just relaxing on the beach with friends and having a quiet drink. A boat pulled into the bay and, as you do here, we joined our parties together and chatted into the night. I had a whisky in hand and it sparked a conversation with Damien, who told me he was building a distillery at the time and needed someone to run it.” He pauses before adding, “Whilst I wasn’t looking for a new role at the time, it was an opportunity I simply couldn’t ignore.”
Tom moved to Flinders in spring 2019 to commission Furneaux Distillery’s Tasmanian-made stills. The beautifully crafted copper pots were made in Hobart but built in classic Laphroaig style. Bringing with him a rich background in hospitality, having worked across Australia, Tom explains that he’s been enraptured with spirits for a long time. “I co-owned a rum bar in Fitzroy for a while and was also playing round making gin and bitters and the like too. When I finally moved home to Tassie I got into whisky and was lucky enough to be working with some of the heavyweights in the industry; Tasmanian whisky godfather Patrick McGuire, and Sullivan’s head distiller Heather Tillott. I really learned a lot from them and will always be grateful for the expertise they shared with me. After moving to Flinders I really started understanding the effect of a unique terroir and how to use those resources effectively. I often stop and think how lucky I am to be able to be doing this right here in Tassie.”
Distilled, matured and bottled on the island using 100% Tasmanian barley and local maritime peat, the first batches of Furneaux’s finest were poured into their casks almost three years ago. “Whisky needs two years minimum to age,” explains Tom. “These first batches that we have available now are Damien’s original work. “They have been really successful and we’ve already sold out of a couple.”
There are five single malt whiskies currently sitting under the Furneaux Distillery label – an unassuming design appropriately watermarked with a nautilus shell, a local Flinders icon. It’s a brand honestly representing the product within: purely sourced boutique drops carefully crafted by hand. Tom’s own handwriting sits neatly on the back. He individually finishes each bottle and does all the packing and distribution himself.
It’s hard to choose a favourite drop. Tom explains that the 100% Flinders Island peated bourbon is the most popular at the moment – vanilla and earthy dark sugar on the nose, a bright and spicy palate and a rich peat profile. It’s one to compare with the ‘smoky wedding’, a 50:50 combination of peated malt from Flinders and Scotland that offers a palate of porridge, orange and light honey. The Scottish influence provides a more classic meaty peat profile. It’s a beautiful balance of two extremes of the earth.
The peat on Flinders comes from saltmarsh swamps found along the island’s eastern flanks. “It definitely imparts a salty flavour,” nods Tom. “What we do is different from other Tasmanian whisky producers because the peat we are using is so unique. Our flavours are very much maritime in nature. It’s not only from the peat, but from the water as well. We’re using water that been very much affected by the wild westerlies we get here and it has a very salty, briny, earthy tone to it. The salt spray here definitely imparts something to our spirits.”
Perfectly capturing its wild, remote and breathtakingly beautiful surroundings, Untamed Gin has hit the spot with the experts. Taking out a gold medal in the 2020 Australian Gin Awards, Tom is exceptionally proud of this classic dry drop. “There are 10 different botanicals in there, including grapefruit zest from a lone tree that grows here on a farm in the middle of the island. I’m so happy with it…it’s perfect either on the rocks or with a splash of citrus. “
It’s difficult not to be swept up in Tom’s enthusiasm for island produce. “I love foraging here,” he continues. “Who wouldn’t want to spend a work day collecting fresh produce out there,” he grins, motioning to the huge window before him that frames the coastline beyond. “In time, I’d really like to see us source most products locally. I’ve discovered the mountain pepper berry that grows on Strzlecki, about an hour’s walk in as you head up the mountain. I’ll be up there in March as soon as it’s in fruit to gather some to play around with.”
Bottles of Furneaux Distillery magic are currently available online or in specialty outlets. “We’re content to grow slowly,” explains Tom. “We have lots of experimental batches underway and are really taking the time to play with the local botanicals we have here. They are all super exciting…coastal rosemary, boobyalla, native juniper, wild fennel…there’s a lot to try out and they’re quite herbaceous. I really want our flavours to be reminiscent of a walk along the beach at Killiecrankie. That’s something that’s simply unbeatable.”
Asked about his transition into the community, Tom reflects, “It was definitely an adjustment moving from a city to a rural island of only 900 people, but once we had settled in we realised that there is so much to love about a small community. People really take care of each other here, and as long as you are honest and genuine they will support you fiercely. The people here work hard and have real heart.”
The next batch due to be decanted is a tawny cask. “This will be a nicely warm and gentle drop,” smiles Tom, turning his gaze to the barrels resting quietly before him. “But what I’m most looking forward to is the first whisky I’ve distilled here on the island. That will be ready at the end of the year and will be really exciting.”
Furneaux Distillery was recently recognised in the Icons of Whisky Australia Awards. The team have been crowned the Craft Producer of 2021.