The Druce family of Ardlethan, in southwest NSW, are masters of innovation, and their Junee Licorice and Chocolate Factory is a sweet and lasting reminder of that.
During these times when the health of the nation is challenged due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of us are sitting in idle isolation, you’d be forgiven for turning to the immune boosting, respiratory strengthening properties of licorice.
Or for that matter, whisky.
The Druce family also produces whisky down Corowa way, on the Murray River.
But if anyone had stopped them in the street early this year and told them they would be making hand sanitiser, they’d have thought that was crazy.
However, crazy is a term the Druce family has become used to.
Back in the 1960s, when Alan and Jessie Druce started farming organic spelt, wheat, oats and barley on their 1100-hectare Ardlethan property, “Green Grove”, there was a view in the local community that they were, possibly, a little bit “out there”.
But, even back then, Alan had become concerned about pollution in the food chain and set about taking steps towards pure food production by eliminating harmful sprays and fertilisers.
Of course, these days “out there” is becoming mainstream and Alan, the advance guard of the international organic grains industry, is now considered more of a master, who like-minded farmers behold.
And, of course, the innovation didn’t stop with him.
There’s a 20-metre sentinel that stands tall in Junee, which is testament to the drive of his son, Neil Druce.
That sentinel is the historic Junee Flour Mill, which is located just north of the town’s centre – a place constantly bubbling with tourists all year round.
Purchased by the Druce family in the 1990s, it was the first sign that Neil, like his dad, was different.
After years working on-farm alongside his parents, it was the loss of their on-site flour mill combined with an excess of grain one year that led them on a search that, for Neil, became a quest to start making licorice from the flour they were producing.
Fate brought them to the old Junee Flour Mill, a landmark local building which had been vacant since the 1970s.
Today, the restored mill is home to the Junee Licorice and Chocolate Factory, which produces 250 tonnes of licorice per year, while acting as one of the town’s major employers and a premier tourist attraction in the Riverina.
So when the Druce family had the opportunity to buy the disused Corowa Flour Mill for $1, it was an opportunity begging for Neil’s son, Dean, who was faced with a surplus of barley and also wanted to try something different.
Today the former flour mill is churning out whisky as the Corowa Distilling Co and it is regarded as one of the top distilleries in the world. It’s also a mecca for the border tourist trade, where visitors enjoy the indoor and outdoor delights in the form of chocolate and fine beverages.
Now the Druce family has answered the call of the community and begun producing hand sanitiser to help meet consumer demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a move that was also considered necessary to keep their teams employed in the face of the tourism downturn, the business repurposed its Corowa distillery to make hospital-grade hand sanitiser that meets World Health Organisation standards.
So while they’re churning out Easter eggs by the dozen in Junee, the operation is making hand sanitiser around the clock in Corowa.
Online demand is exceeding the distillery’s ability to make the hand sanitiser, which is labelled “Special Edition” and being snapped up by individuals and medical organisations throughout Australia.
Neil says making Corowa Distilling Co’s sanitiser has been a challenge, but massive demand from the community emphasises how important the product is.
“We had to get the recipe right and we had to get our permissions right,” he explains.
“In the tourism sector, and as a business person, when you’ve got really good employees and not much work for them, it’s critical to be able to turn around and do something different.
“You’ve got to reinvent yourself and this opportunity has been great for us. But I think for anyone, if you can’t do your normal thing, look at what you can do.”
If you would like to purchase Corowa Distilling Co hand sanitiser, it is available on the company’s website and through the distillery’s Facebook page. The product is also available on the Junee Chocolate and Licorice Factory’s Facebook page, and from The Whisky Company.
People in Canberra can also email [email protected]