En-route to the mountains half way between Jindabyne and Thredbo you can’t miss the Wild Brumby Distillery, especially with the old ute parked out front. A schnapps and gin distillery and cafe with Austrian inspired food, it’s grounds are scattered with contemporary sculptures and is home to Brad and Monica Spalding.
Speaking with Brad is like having a history lesson on the Australian skiing industry. A Ski School director for 20 years, he has seen a lot of change in the industry.
Growing up in a little country pub 27 miles out of Albury, his parents were keen skiers who made their own skis out of Alpine Ash and Hickory and skied in army boots. They steamed the tips of their own skis and helped to build the first club lodge at Falls Creek. Family friend Tom Mitchell used to call into the family pub on his way back from the slopes. He was one of the first Australian’s to ski overseas. He had lessons from Hanna Schneider who started the first ski school in the world, learning to do a proper stem christie. Tom came back from Europe with skills and the latest technical equipment of the time; skis with edges and proper ski boots.
The Australian ski industry was heavily influenced by the European ski schools up until the mid ’70’s, when Brad started teaching as a kid in Falls Creek. That’s when it changed from being an elite sport to something for the masses. You could hire equipment and go for a day and have a lesson. It was all packaged together and it became very accessible and affordable, there was a huge boom in Australian skiing. “It was a really exciting time from there into the ’80’s, then in ’81 we had a huge ski season, which was great for the industry because there was snow everywhere, metres and metres of it.”
Throughout that time the Australian Instructors found their position, offering a different type of lesson that wasn’t being taught by the Europeans, and the Australian teaching method developed catering to the Australian student.
Unlike the Europeans who were used to snow and slippery surfaces, most Australian beginners have never seen snow before. They’re usually fairly sporty, used to taking lessons and want a really quick fix. The Australian method was about teaching them in a way that would give them the skills through some really quick drills, good teaching and feedback so that they could get into the sport as fast as possible. It was totally different to the slow methodical progression of drills that was the European system. Australian’s wanted something else and so the teaching method changed and evolved into this interesting way of teaching people.
Spending many winters himself in Europe, Brad is a fully qualified Austrian ski instructor and met his wife Monica, who was also a ski instructor, in Austria. Ski school director of Falls Creek for nearly a decade, he was made an offer he couldn’t refuse and he and Monica moved to Thredbo 1993 to run the ski school. Brad’s main thing was developing programs, teaching methods for skiers and kids programs like the Thredboland program which is still used today. Monica was an important part of that as well as being office and business manager, establishing and growing the private lesson business and kids school business.
With an interest in turning fermented fruit into spirits and schnapps which Brad picked up in Austria and a history of schnapps making in Monica’s family . It seemed a pretty good recipe, and Brad and Monica decided to build a distillery.
There was no Australian Schnapps being made, and schnapps consumption in Australia was declining, but Brad thought, ‘if we can get a really good Australian product, there should be a market for it.’
When a property became available with a perfect location between Jindabyne and Thredbo, they decided to go ahead and build the distillery. In 2005 the Wild Brumby Distillery opened it’s doors and after 26 years of 52 back to back winters, running ski schools for 20 years, Brad got out of the ski school business. “For the first couple of years it was pretty quiet and Monica said, ‘you’re crazy, we had a really good job working for Thredbo and we could have done both’. Then it took off. People started drinking it in the mountains and calling into the distillery. They were asking for some lunch so we made a pot of goulash, then we bought a coffee machine and started selling Austrian cakes. The restaurant has grown organically and now has a full lunch menu and as well as schnapps we make a vodka and a Gold award winning Gin.”
“We’ve been working on components of the Gin for 10 years, it’s only been on the market since mid 2015, but we stuffed around with it for a long time. We just wanted to make sure it was a really nicely balanced good spirit before we put it on the market. We tested it a lot and benchmarked it against the really good ones. Australian Gin has got a long way to go. We’re still dominated by the London Dry’s that are imported. The good Australian gins have got a lot of potential.”
“It’s breaking new ground for us. The schnapps was mountain based, a skiers drink, but Gin is a staple drink, everybody has a bottle of gin in the cupboard. We knew we’d made a cracker, we just didn’t know whether it would crack through. The gold medal from the International Spirit Awards is for our crew here, everybody has worked on it.”
Along with his skiing and distilling background, Brad is also an artist. He studied Fine Art at Bendigo Art School, majoring in photography. A talented painter, he has exhibited in the Snowy Mountains, Sydney and Europe, mainly Austria. His art reflects the snow and is well known in the Snowy Mountains. In 2000 his portrait of Stuart Diver was selected for the Archibald Salon and he has exhibited in Arthouse Hotel, Pitt Street, Sydney Moulton Galleries in Mosman and Stanley Street Gallery where he now exhibits every second year.
The distillery has a self guided sculpture walk curated by Brad, which includes a few of his own; the prize winning Loserbago made out of flattened corrugated iron, and a barbed wire canoe and a local producers market on the first Saturday of the month.
In winter you can find Brad on the first lifts nearly every day in winter if you’re up early enough.
Most of the fruit comes from Batlow and Shepparton, but Brad grows his own sour cherries and raspberries and a few apples at the distillery and has a farm up north where we grow citrus and we’re planting juniper for our gin.