A Sheep Farm Business Turning Whey into Spirits and More

This Tasmanian-based family has turned the common business model on its head in pursuit of their values.

Turning sheep’s whey into alcohol doesn’t sound like your everyday activity, but Nicole Gilliver and her family aren’t your everyday folk. Together with brother, Ryan Hartshorn, mum, Diane Rae, and mum’s partner, Chris Young, Nicole makes cheeses, spirits and, in the clan’s most recent venture, skincare products. And the common — woolly — thread that runs throughout, apart from the family, of course? Sheep.

Tasmanian Family Farm

“We have about 30 breeding stock here and we’ve got two other farms who milk for us, so between those, we milk about 900 sheep. It makes us the second-largest sheep dairy in the country,” Nicole explains. “Still, in Australia, sheep dairying is for ‘weirdos’. We don’t milk cows, we milk sheep, we don’t milk goats, we milk sheep.”

It all began back in 2002, when mum Diane and her then partner set out to retire and moved to Tassie from sunny Queensland. As Tasmania was relatively overlooked by most Australians at the time, they were able to buy a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house with an ocean view in rural Birchs Bay, about 40 kilometres south of Hobart, and with a population of just 93, with 40 acres (16 hectares) for a measly $200,000, plus change to spare. They then reinvested the leftover capital in a winery, vineyard and sheep dairying set-up, with the aim of developing a tourism-based business where customers could meet the producer directly and sample what’s on offer. “The idea was for them to derive a small income from that, enough to subsidise their lifestyle, which they did pretty successfully, and it grew so quickly, they needed to call in reinforcements in the form of my brother and myself,” Nicole explains. “Ryan moved down in 2003 to set up and run our cellar door and I moved down in 2005.”

Family Distillery

At that time, in addition to the cellar door, the family was running the cheese arm of the company, Grandvewe. But as the business grew, so did one nagging problem. “As you grow the cheese business, you grow the waste,” Nicole says, and in their case that was whey. “We had to be as smart as we possibly could, which meant wherever waste was generated, we had to look very discerningly at whether or not that was really waste, or whether it had an ability to be a value-added proposition, so it started with whey becoming a nutrient source for our sheep. We used that to offset our supplements for their diet, and then as the family business kept growing, we couldn’t feed it all to the sheep, so mum came up with the idea of a liqueur.

“I’ve had whey thrown into my face during cheese-making so many times that I know it’s actually quite a tasty beverage by itself. But we have these cultural perceptions around waste products and not wanting
to put them in our mouths, so mum took the approach of if you stick sugar and booze in it, every Aussie will want to drink it, and she culturally reappropriated it towards Australianism. It’s been one of our most successful ventures.”

Family Business - Cheese

And so, in 2015, Hartshorn Distillery was established, and the family now make vodka, gin, Whey-sky and liqueurs using a method that is completely unique to them. In fact, they’ve even won awards. “In 2018, we got the shock of our lives when we won the title of World’s Best Vodka at the World Drink Awards in London. So we beat out the Cîrocs of the world, the Belvederes of the world, the Grey Gooses of the world,” Nicole says. “It was a pretty big thing, and we’re still the smallest distillery in the world to have ever been awarded that title, as well as the only Southern Hemisphere producer.”

And it was all born from the other common thread that runs throughout everything the family does — their deeply embedded values of sustainability and a zero-waste policy. “One of the major pillars in everything we do is that broad term of sustainability, but essentially the whole family business was founded on polyculture and on seeing waste as an opportunity, not necessarily a cost to a business,” Nicole explains.

Cheese Racks

So, rather than wanting to create something and finding the means and materials to do so, the family’s business model works a little differently. They are presented with a problem, a byproduct, and come up with ingenious ways to not only minimise that waste, but turn it in their favour. “It’s not necessarily that we want to make booze or we want to make cheese or we want to be farmers, it’s about how can we have a different conversation around solving these problems. The whey became a bigger and bigger waste product to the extent that it was surplus to requirements,” Nicole explains. “We don’t actually back ourselves into a corner, for example, in terms of cheese production. We make in accordance with what we need and those needs might be dictated by the distillery. The distillery might have a greater requirement for whey volume, so we make cheeses that will produce more whey, and that’s been a necessary adaptation that we’ve had to make to accommodate a very quickly growing element of the business.”

Distillery

And as if their (cheese) plates weren’t already chockers, just last July, the family established another arm of the business — their Ewecare skincare brand. “Ewecare came about because we shifted our business model from being farmhouse to artisan, which means we buy milk from other farmers rather than keep it all in-house. The milk doesn’t taste spectacular to begin with, it only gets good in the summer and autumn, but we didn’t want to tell the farmers to dump the spring milk and create a cost for their business in its infancy. We thought, we can be clever and value-add to it in a different capacity,” Nicole explains. “So we went into a rabbit hole of figuring out what that would look like and skincare seemed quite a natural fit. We set about having our hunches verified by talking to friends at Massey University in New Zealand, and they produced a paper on the functional benefits of sheep milk fats in a skin context.

Business Owners

They did a study with the University of Mumbai on scarring, psoriasis and other topical skin conditions and how specifically sheep milk fats could help reduce redness and scarring.”

However, as the skincare market is already so saturated, the family wanted to make sure that they developed a quality product that also spoke to their values. “We wanted to be functional and it had to sit with our values of sustainability,” Nicole explains. “So there’s no petro-chemical-derived plastics used in any of the packaging. We live on an island, off another island, and we’re surrounded by oceans and pristine wilderness and we couldn’t add fuel to the fire of the beauty industry that uses disgusting amounts of single-use plastics to pedal its wares.”

Cheeseboard Family Business

And with that, what started off as a small family business 20 years ago — and a retirement plan, no less — has evolved to include 20 other employees from the region and three distinct brands. And now that Covid restrictions have eased and with Ewecare still in its infancy, Nicole’s current plan is to get out there and tell the company’s story and “guide people on a journey of taking commonly held belief systems around what a product should or shouldn’t be and twisting it with a very strong focus on sustainability and ethics and what that means for us”.

For more information on the Ewenique family, visit ewecare.com.au, grandvewe.com.au and hartshorndistillery.com.au.

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