The Illawarra hotel to grow and distil produce and spirits

Connor Pearce
By Connor Pearce
April 16 2022 - 11:00pm
Farm manager Liam Fraser at the Smith Street Distillery. Picture: Robert Peet

Passing through the gates at 100 Smith Street the smell that one notices isn't one that you would expect at a former car wash.

Instead, the faint smell of fertiliser is present, a hint at how the site is being transformed.

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Ryan Aitchison, publican at The Illawarra hotel, has taken the keys to the light industrial plot and is turning it into a farm and distillery, to supply his pub, smells and all.

Already, the small parcel of land is supplying a good chunk of the pub kitchen with herbs such as basil, parsley, cos lettuce, chives and tomatoes.

At the back, the final touches on a chicken coop are being finalised and soon - pending DA approval, the site will begin producing spirits for the pub.

Rather than being Wollongong's latest cellar door or brew pub, Smiths Street Distillery and Vinery, as it is called, is about reducing waste, creating a more sustainable product for punters at The Illawarra and a unique recruitment tool.

Nikki Aitchison has been a driving force behind the zero-waste concept. Picture: Robert Peet

"We purchase $500,000 a year of spirits, mainly vodka and gin, so if we produce our own, we save a huge chunk," Mr Aitchison said.

"We thought we could bank the savings or we could invest them in creating something that the community would love and set an example for sustainability."

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Working with advice from GreenConnect, organic waste produced in the pub's kitchen will be turned into fertiliser for the farm and spent grain used in the brewing process will be given to farmers for finishing cattle before they are served up as steaks.

"Nothing gets wasted," said Mr Aitchison.

"A staff member and I both went down a rabbit hole and it's taken us to same crazy places."

One of the places that ended up leading to was passionfruit. According to Mr Aitchison, the only adequate passionfruit liqueur available is produced internationally, and passionfruit cocktails are increasingly popular.

"We have the ability to produce it all here because passionfruits grow like crazy and produce fruit all year round," he said.

Ryan Aitchison at the Smith Street Distillery. Picture: Robert Peet

In addition to closing the loop on spirits and produce at the pub, Mr Aitchison has found the idea of growing their own food and drink has energised his staff.

At a time when the hospitality industry is facing a critical staff shortage, the proposition of tending to the vines in between shifts behind the bar, or cultivating herbs when out of the kitchen, has attracted talent.

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"We've just found a great chef, in a time where no one can seem to, because she loves gardening and the idea of being able to farm her own food," Mr Aitchison said.

Ultimately, Mr Aitchison said he wants the whole of Wollongong to benefit.

"It's just really cool to live in a city where you can walk down the street and eat some fresh stuff. I think it'll add to the Wollongong experience."

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Connor Pearce

Connor Pearce

Journalist at Illawarra Mercury

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