28 February 2024

Cultivating an urban jungle proves a winning gamble for Illawarra hospitality duo

| Zoe Cartwright
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Ryan Aitchison checks out the passionfruit crop at the Smith Street Distillery urban farm in Wollongong.

Ryan Aitchison checks out the passionfruit crop at the Smith Street Distillery urban farm in Wollongong. The teeny tiny beehouse is home to native sugarbag bees, which he says have helped the garden flourish. Photo: Zoe Cartwright.

Creating a garden oasis out of a disused gravel car park wasn’t what hospitality powerhouses Ryan and Nikki Aitchison had in mind when they decided to open a distillery – luckily for Wollongong, fate had other plans.

Two years from inception it’s a lush wonderland and community hub that produces enough passionfruit and chillies for the duo to launch more delectable locally grown products.

“We’ve been harvesting both for the past two years and have a massive stockpile,” Ryan said.

“We’re on the cusp of releasing a passionfruit liqueur we’re confident will do really well, and a sriracha we’re excited about this year.”

They’re not the only new products on the horizon but getting to this point hasn’t all been smooth sailing.

READ ALSO Brother-sister duo’s culinary dream Little Betty’s Bar still flourishing in Kiama three years on

The partnership came out of COVID, after the Illawarra Hotel began selling Headlands Distillery products and Ryan and Jarad Smith struck up a friendship.

Ryan approached Jarad about producing a rose gin using local produce, and the conversation evolved from there.

“The volume going just through the Illawarra Hotel alone was enough to get a distillery ticking over,” Ryan said.

“We found a bit of property on Smith Street and the owner said we could lease the gravelly old car park next door as well if we wanted – our immediate reaction was ‘no’.

“But we thought having a beautiful urban garden in Wollongong would really elevate the drive in, so we went for it.”

Ryan said the key to success was being able to cover day-to-day running costs.

A bit of creative thinking and some partnerships with other Illawarra businesses made the garden largely pay for itself.

“We donate our spent grain from the distillery to a cattle farmer on the coast and he provides us with some of the best soil you could ever want,” Ryan said.

“We work with venues across Wollongong to collect the organic waste from their kitchens, and we do a lot of return and earning.

“The feedback we’ve gotten is our neighbours are over the moon to live near it and walk past it every day, and people have volunteered to get involved pulling weeds and looking after the chickens.

“We can make it worth their while with fresh eggs and fresh produce, so it’s a win-win.”

READ ALSO Shoalhaven’s Eleven Eighty unveils gin venture one year after transformation

The garden also supplies the Illawarra Hotel with fresh produce for the kitchen, reducing food miles and the reliance on fruit and veg grown out of area.

The pair hope to release a road map for other businesses or organisations keen to kick off a community garden of their own.

“We made a lot of mistakes setting it up, but we learnt so much I feel like we have the perfect recipe for any city or town to create a community garden that’s environmentally and financially sustainable,” Ryan said.

“There’s a lot of goodwill and sentiment for locally distilled stuff, but the way the economy is people can’t pay 30 per cent more to buy local.

“It’s a tough market out there and people don’t have that disposable income when they could get something similar significantly cheaper, so we create oppportunities to keep our prices down and be more competitive with the Smirnoffs of the world.”

It’s not just good for business – Ryan’s enthusiasm for creating opportunities to improve the Gong is infectious.

They’ve brought other venues on board and created a network dedicated to putting what the Illawarra has to offer first.

“Now we either supply ourselves or support our local distillery friends to supply house pour vodka for more than half the venues in Wollongong at the moment,” he said.

“Wollongong is an outlier in that respect; there aren’t many cities or towns where the majority of venues serve vodka produced locally as the first pour because of the price.

“We’ve set up a bottle collection and reusing initiative and the Illawarra distilling community now collects more than 1000 bottles a week. Every bottle that’s saved saves $3 on the bottle, label and lid.

“Especially for later trading venues vodka is the highest driver of sales, so to move local spirits from the back bar to the first pour and create local jobs has been a really cool journey for us.”

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