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19 January 2023

A sea change with a dash of whisky: how ‘let’s have a go’ helped the owners of Fannys Bay Distillery do their thing in retirement

Mathew and Julie Cooper were getting into the swing of retirement life on Tasmania’s idyllic north coast when Mathew said to Julie, “I think I’ll start a whisky distillery.” Julie replied with, “What?!” Fast forward a few short years and Fannys Bay Distillery is so much more than anything the couple expected it to be. It sure isn’t just another everyday job or retiree hobby. Here, they chat with us about deciding to “give it a go”, applying old skills to new stills and ensuring their Monday mash runs don’t cramp their retirement lifestyle.


Thanks for chatting with us. Can you tell us how Fannys Bay began? How did you go from retirement to distilling whisky?

Julie: Well, we didn’t plan to make and sell whisky in retirement! We’d retired down here at the beach and, after working when we first moved, we thought it was time to make some changes. I still did a bit of hairdressing, and Mathew did a few odd jobs.

Mathew: That’s after 25 years of working at TAFE and going on to manage sectors of it. I’m an auto electrician and diesel mechanic by trade.

Julie: So one day, as Mathew does, he says, “I think I’ll start a whisky distillery.” And I joked, “What? That stuff that burns your stomach?” Mathew enjoyed whisky and decided it was something he’d like to try to make. It just went from there.

Mathew: We were fortunate enough to meet a gentleman who had worked as a distiller in the fortified wine industry in Italy all his life. He wasn’t distilling whisky, but he knew all about the process. So I learnt a lot from him.

Julie: And you said, “It can’t be that hard,” and started researching. When Mathew decides to do something, it’s like, “We’re 100% in. Here we go!” The local council allowed us to do it here at home, which was great. We started quite small but it soon took over half the shed. And Mathew built everything. He built the still and put it all together.


Does the distillery’s location play a role in how the whisky is made?

Mathew: The weather we get is actually generated from the westerly frontal systems that we have come through. And that has a big influence on our whisky because we use captured water, and there’s a high amount of salt in it, from the sea. That’s why we do it the way we do it. There are flavours in our whisky that you won’t taste in others because they don’t use the same sort of water.


Before you started distilling, what was life like? How was retirement treating you?

Mathew: Oh, good! When I retired, I needed something to do, so I started farm fencing with another gentleman. But I thought, “Well, this isn’t really what I want to be doing.”

Julie: Yeah, life was good. We haven’t got children and we’d retired a bit earlier. I suppose we could have travelled but we didn’t get around to that. And we live in paradise down here. We keep busy. ‘Retirement’ is a funny word, really. I think to just sit down and do nothing would be…

Mathew: … That’s not going to happen. After some conversations we’d had with various people, we thought, “Let’s have a go at distilling. It can’t be that hard.”

Julie: So, it was a bit of a risk, I suppose, to build it here. But we thought, “Well, it’s only 10 minutes off the highway and there are a lot of wineries around here, too.”


What is your day-to-day like, running the distillery? What does your work involve?

Mathew: On a Monday, for instance, I’ll do what we call the ‘mash run’, which is more or less the same as making beer without hops. Once I’ve done that, it all goes across to two 1,200-litre fermenters to go through a ferment for 14 days. A slow and gentle ferment gives us better flavours. In between it all, I’ll be doing bits and pieces. Once fermentation is done, we’ve got five days doing distillation. And we distill twice.

Julie: I take on different things when they’re ready. I do all the bottling and labelling. I handwrite the labels and sign them. I also keep the tasting room tidy and otherwise help keep Mathew sorted to make sure everything is right to go.


What skills have you brought from your previous careers into running the distillery?

Mathew: My background has helped. I’m in charge of all the set-up and maintenance and running of the distillery. I also made the still myself. I looked at numerous stills from Scotland, drew one up on CAD [computer-aided design software] and set out to make it. I just thought, “I’ll give it a go.”

Julie: My hairdressing and artistic background, and communicating with people, has come with me. And some of the marketing side, too. I think you can have a great product but it has to have a great bottle, something that sits on a shelf and stands out. So, I suppose I put handling this side of the business down to my creative side. And I love talking to people when they visit. We sometimes get carried away and visitors can be here chatting for an hour or more.


It sounds like you both keep busy. How do you find that balance between running the distillery and enjoying your retirement?

Julie: We’ve always thought this wasn’t going to tie us down. We could go away if we wanted to. We did open a cellar door, so we’re here, but we don’t have to sit in there and wait. It’s on our property so we can do other things, and then if someone comes in, we’ll do a tasting. Visitors have just got to take us as we are – we might be in gardening clothes or something. None of it feels like work. We just fit it around our lives.

Mathew: The day that it feels like a normal, real job, I think I might pull the roller down.


How did you manage your money when you started out, and how do you manage it today?

Mathew: Before we started, I looked at the amount of money that was available to us. I’d decided we wouldn’t be borrowing any money; instead, we’d be using the funds that we had. But even before that, I looked at the market first to see where we wanted to sit in it, how we were going to be sustainable and what our fallback position would be. And then I did the business plan and came up with a financial plan that matched our funding.


Have you found getting bigger a challenge, or has it been fairly smooth sailing?

Mathew: Because of the way we structured the business, it’s grown as it should grow. A lot of distillers sell what are called ‘investment barrels’ or make gin and other products for the turnover. But we only wanted to do the one product, and do it within the funding we had. So that’s how we did it – nice and gently. And as it’s grown, it’s grown on its own two feet.

Julie: We’d also made the decision that we didn’t want to employ people. We wanted to be able to manage the distillery ourselves so it was just a part of our lifestyle. We didn’t want to have to rely on others. And it’s really grown more than we expected!

Mathew: Very much so.


What do you both love about going on this adventure in retirement?

Mathew: I thoroughly enjoy what I’m doing. There are no day-to-day pressures. And I think the fact that there are people purchasing our whisky, and purchasing it again, indicates that it’s a good product. To make something that people like is a really good feeling. We wanted to make a premium product and, to have achieved that, I’m pretty chuffed.

Julie: The beauty is that we are here on our property, and Mathew comes in and out – or if I can’t find him, I know he’s over in the distillery. It all just fits in with our life. Mathew often says to me, “Well, it’s not a real job. If I want to sleep in, I’ll sleep in.” It’s just been easy and fun.


What’s the plan for the future?

Julie: Well, we thought we had a plan! But it’s changed a bit because we are enjoying what we are doing. We’ll just see how it goes. Before Covid, I thought I would like to do some more overseas travel, but now I’m not so sure. We love living where we live. I sometimes walk on the beach and think, “Well, if I don’t get to go to the Greek islands like I dreamt about, I can walk on this beach every day and have it all to myself.” So that’s really nice.


Mathew and Julie’s tips for doing your thing
  • Have a go. If you feel like it’s something you want to do, go for it 100%.
  • Make a plan about the money side of things. Make sure the financials and the dream can work together (without breaking the bank).
  • Let things grow naturally. Once you’ve started, see where it takes you (it might be a pleasant surprise!).
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