Eddie Brook is the CEO of Cape Byron Distillery, a family-owned business, creating spirits that capture and showcase the unique terroir of the Northern Rivers. The distillery rests amongst the macadamia orchard & rainforest that the Brook family regenerated and was recently awarded 2020 ‘Sustainable Distillery of Year'. We met with Eddie to learn more about his environmental ethos, business success and passion for native botanicals.
Hi Eddie! Tell us a little about yourself—why and what led you to co-found a distillery?
I was born in Melbourne but grew up from an early age (around 8) on the family farm in the hinterland of Byron where the distillery now lives. As early as I can remember my brother, Will, and I would be helping the folks work the land, clearing weeds & regenerating rainforest. When I started high school, my parents, Pam & Martin Brook, founded our first family business called Brookfarm producing gourmet Macadamia products, including Muesli. When I came home from school, I'd be either taste-testing different products Mum was working on, putting labels on bags or boxes, and come the weekend, we’d pack the car and set up shop at the local markets to sell our products.
My upbringing of being connected to the land & environment, having a fascination for native ingredients, and an upbringing in the food industry led my flavour curiosity to the world of alcohol. When I finished school, I moved to Brisbane to study and a change of scenery and, as a lot of students do, I started working in bars. The industry captured my imagination, excitement, and love of flavour and stories which led me to work in many great cocktail bars and then into a career in sales marketing and the ins and outs of the premium spirit industry. To cut a long story short It was here where serendipity would have it that I met my idol Jim McEwan (the world's most awarded Scotch whisky distiller) and we (Jim, The Family, and I) would start Cape Byron Distillery.
In 1988 your parents Pam & Martin bought a rundown dairy farm and planted over 35,000 subtropical rainforest trees. Today, this landscape has transformed into a haven for birds and wildlife, and of the 25 botanicals in Brookie’s Byron Dry Gin, 17 are sourced locally, many from your rainforest. Can you tell us more about the land you are on, what types of ingredients does the rainforest have to offer?
Going back a short 150 years, the Northern Rivers was home to the largest subtropical rainforest in Australia that spread over 75,000 hectares, known as the ‘Big Scrub’. This was all but cleared to make way for farming land, now only 1% remains.
When my parents purchased the farm, it was a completely bare and run-down old 98-acre dairy farm with barley grass growing on the land. They started regenerating the rainforest and nursed the land back to life. Today it’s a thriving ecosystem that’s home to many species of native flora and fauna but in particular home to many native rainforest botanicals unique to our area. This is where the gin comes in!
I am lucky enough to be able to source many of our native botanicals such as native ginger, riberry, native raspberry, aniseed & cinnamon myrtle (just to name a few) directly from our regenerated rainforest. We distill them straight into our Brookie’s Byron Dry Gin.
The distillery feels like a real family affair, with both your parents and yourself having a hand in its conception - you even have a limited edition Kumquat Gin named after your grandmother. In what ways have your family influenced some of your creations and do you see them as a source of inspiration?
Family is everything to us. We started Cape Byron Distillery as a second-generation family business including my brother Will & I, my parents Pam & Martin, and Jim McEwan. We use the term generational not as a marketing buzzword but as our exit strategy. Our goal is for the business to grow and to be passed on generationally. We have no intention of eventually selling and this plays a massive part in our reason for being, our direction, and the longevity of the business.
Family is a huge part of our inspiration and connection to our products and it seems that our family has a fond history of alcohol. Our first still was named George after my Grandad on Dad’s side. He was the police chief commissioner in a town called Torquay in the UK and was an avid lover of Gin. It only made sense to name our first Gin still after him. My Grandad on Mum’s side, Mick (affectionately known as Micko) was an inspirational man, an adventurer, and one of Australia’s pioneers of skiing. Aside from this, he was also a lover of single malt scotch whisky so we have named our next still, which is soon to arrive, after him.
We recently launched a special edition Kumquat Gin, ‘Shirl the Pearl’, which was my grandma Shirley’s nickname. She notoriously used to make her own home-made kumquat infused gin that was brought out at various dinner parties. There are so many great stories of inspiration from our family that we weave into our products.
The Byron Bay area is continuously establishing itself as an entrepreneurial hub within Australia; how has your local community impacted your business and the way in which you collaborate with other creators?
I am constantly in awe and inspired by our business community. Across our region, there seems to be a strong sense of shared values that makes collaboration happen relatively easily. These are generally brought about by bouncing off ideas between different individuals and we get swept up in the excitement of bringing this to life.
Growing up here and now moving back to start a new business, this area and community of businesses has had a big impact on shaping and growing our business. We are so proud to be a part of this local area and to support the region that also supports us and believes in what we do.
As a young person establishing a business in an industry steeped in tradition and heritage, how have you set about putting your own stamp on the spirits and alcohol market?
To compete against distilleries that have been established for hundreds of years is a challenge but for us, we aim to create spirits that capture the unique terroir of our natural environment and region whilst keeping true to the time-honored methods of distillation. The majority of these traditional methods and processes of distillation come from Jim, who has been distilling for over 52 years. As the world speeds up and technology improves, it is important to understand that some things simply can't be rushed and good things take time. This level of tradition is evident in how we distill and produce all of our spirits at Cape Byron Distillery and write our own chapter in the industry.
How is sustainability woven into your business strategy, and are there any things you’ve learned along the way when building a business with such a strong environmental ethos?
Sustainability is something that has always been at the core of who we are as a family and business. If we can grow and develop a business that has a positive impact on our environment and community (both locally and internationally) then that is success to us.
Sustainability is a word that gets thrown around a lot in business and can sometimes be used a little too heavily by businesses for marketing purposes rather than how it is measured as a business. For us, the idea of sustainability goes through all levels of our business and helps frame our everyday decision-making process. All the small things count, from actively diverting clear plastics to landfill, minimising waste and managing all production waste on-site (commercial compost), questioning our supplier's sustainability practices, repurposing waste items to be reused, educating customers about the importance of biodiversity and regeneration. It is something that we actively work on and encourage everyone in our team to work on and we still have a lot of things that we want to achieve and become more sustainable in.
You have won awards for your entrepreneurialism and are continuing to grow your business in rapid and inspiring ways, can you share with us your top tips for working productively?
If I was to summarise what are the key factors for us as a business to achieve growth and productivity are, I’d put it down to; loving what you do and having a purpose, building great teams and giving them the autonomy to make decisions, and having a structured and transparent company-wide goal setting system.
Loving what we do and having a strong meaningful purpose is something that we generated from the beginning. This is the ultimate driver and also attracts like-minded individuals that are passionate and have shared beliefs. No business is ever built by one person, rather it is a result of great teams. The crew that we have at the distillery are incredible and one thing we work hard on, is setting decision making structures that give them the autonomy to make good decisions quickly and we become more of an advice line or council rather than yes or no people. Lastly is a system that I pinched from Google which is a system called OKR’s (Objectives and Key results) which is essentially a companywide goal-setting framework with strong measurables. OKR’s provide transparency as to the direction of where the business, as a whole, is intending to go and transparency to each department's goals and direction. It has been a great framework that has helped us keep on track.
What does a regular day at the distillery look like for you?
Like anyone that works in a small business one day is never the same but generally, it consists of wearing many hats, which I love. It may consist of working on a new spirit or testing the flavour development of various spirits, team meetings, and catch-ups around production, sales, marketing or finances, to meeting customers that are coming through the distillery and the rainforest.
One of the most satisfying moments is bringing customers through the rainforest and seeing the amazement in their eyes and awakening their inner child. Connecting people back to nature is an incredibly powerful and moving experience, and we hope that they leave the distillery with the sense and message that regeneration doesn't take a lifetime and we can all have a positive impact.
Tell us about the cocktail you have made for us, what ingredients have been used and how can we recreate it?
I mixed up one of my favourite drinks which is a Negroni made from Australian spirits.
It consists of:
- 20mls Brookie’s Byron Dry Gin
- 20mls Brookie’s Byron Slow Gin
- 30mls Maideni Australian sweet Vermouth
- 20mls Australian Bitter (Campari substitute)
I love this drink because it is bitter, sweet and moreish. You simply stir down all the ingredients over ice in a glass and twist some orange skin (the oils) over the top of the drink. We garnished with some lilly pilly and native violets that were growing next to the distillery.
What do you love about Byron Bay, and where are your favourite places to eat and shop?
In the Northern Rivers and Byron bay we are spoilt for food and drink choices, and the caliber of quality produce we have available is exceptional.
At the end of the day, I am a man of simple flavours and some of my favourite food places are the local markets on a Thursday morning at the Cavanbah Centre. For grabbing a coffee, Harvest, Sparrow, or Bay General, and grabbing a bite to eat at Shelter, Bay Leaf, or 100Mile Table at Stone and Wood. A few afternoon sundowners at Stone and Wood or the Beach Hotel with my better half, Soph, and some friends is a must-have. An ultimate food day wouldn't be complete without indulging in a Portuguese tart from the Bread Social at the farm...really there is so much good food in this region and we are spoilt for choice.