Michael Ward aka Unkle Michael
I went to the famed Tamborine Mountain Distillery to chat with Michael Ward and his wife Alla. As I sat in their eclectically decorated tudor style home eating freshly baked buns, I got the story of their life and how they came to be Australia’s most awarded distillery in the new millennium.
How did you get started?
When we moved here from Tassie, this property was a run down avocado and citrus farm. I would sit outside in the garden, happy as a pig in mud and Alla one day said “I wouldn't mind making some liquors.” So I said, “We won’t do it illegally, we better get some licenses.”.
We had never done it in our lives! It wasn't rocket science, but we really didn't know what to do.
We went back down to Tassie and got a little 80 litre still and put it in the laundry.
One day, a local fellow came by telling us there was a fire in our laundry. The still had caught on fire! I thought “oh s**t!”. Alla said, “Well I think you better build me a shed to make liquor in, so we can get it out of the house.”.
So I made some building plans and thought it would be a garage with roller doors on one side and a distillery on the other. Quickly Alla ran out of space, so the doors turned into bay windows and we made the distillery even bigger.
We had put quite a bit of money into the distillery, so I said to Alla, “We’ve got to find a way to have this start making some money.” So we opened our doors in 98’ to the public.
We converted an area in the house to a tasting room. I said we should start entering world competitions. Alla wasn't confident enough in her product, and said no, but I said yes, yes and did it anyway.
You left Tasmania for a climate and lifestyle change, but out of all the places in Queensland, why did you settle on Tamborine Mountain?
We had visited Tamborine Mountain before, and we don't like the cold but we don't like the heat either. We thought, if ever we move, we could possibly cope with Tamborine Mountain. So that’s how we came to come here. That was in 92.
Did you have any previous experience in making liquor before you started Tamborine Mountain Distillery? If not, what were you doing?
No, I was a property developer in Tasmania and fairly successful. I had about 40 some odd pieces of land. When we moved up here and would need money I would sell a block so I could take care of Alla.
After winning over 300 awards, can you recall which award was the most surprising to win?
We are the most awarded distillery in Australia in the new millennium by a mile!
I’m so proud of what Alla has done and I don't take failure as an option.
I was more surprised when I thought something would win a double gold and we would come home with a bronze. We would make something so wonderful and judges couldn't even wrap their head around it. We were so far ahead and they didn't understand. That’s more surprising than winning.
What’s your favourite product?
I don't drink, but we make an amazing Wattle Toffee Liquor.
A couple of years ago I tried some wattle seed ice-cream. It was so similar to butterscotch. Alla got some seeds and roasted them and made the toffee liquor. It’s our most award winning product.
You know, although I rarely ever drink it, I do rather enjoy Wild Citrus Vodka with some soda if its hot.
How many bad flavours do you come up with before you make a hit? And why do you think your products are so well received?
We don’t come up with any bad flavours. It’s not ego, but we just know if you do this + this it will come out right.
Do you export your liquor outside of Australia? If so, where is your biggest foreign market?
We were, but with the passing of my son and my daughter moving to Melbourne, we we had to scale back the business. There was just too much going on.
Do you find its mostly visitors loving your products, or are they popular amongst locals too?
Both, over three thousand Poms have been in because of my appearances on Poms in Paradise, and a lot of the tourists come up to the mountain and love it here. But we do get a lot of people coming up from Brisbane and the Gold Coast buying our products.
What is the most rewarding part of owning a distillery?
When the public rave about what you’ve created and it becomes a very popular product.
How did you get the nickname Unkle Michael?
Michael: It was from Robbie Buck from Tripple J. He used to ring up and call me.
-Michael went in to a hilarious story about Charles Manson making absinthe
Alla: It was Marilyn Manson, Charles Manson was a serial killer. That’s why ABC would call him, because he was politically incorrect and hilarious, but not knowing he was hilarious. So it was a weekly thing where they would ring up Unkle Michael.
Michael: Yes, so they would ring up talking about Marilyn Manson’s absinthe and ask about mine. I told them we had won a gold metal and Robbie was like AUSSIE AUSSIE YEAH! From then on he called me Unkle Michael the absinthe farmer.
So many people would listen to that stupid program!
I’ve noticed you love to wear wacky shirts. Is there a story behind that?
I suppose it started as a business idea. I wanted to sell shirts and had some test shirts printed in China. I couldn't get cotton because with cartoon/cotton printing you could only use 12 coulors. So we had these ones made, but I’m pretty fussy. I wanted a seamless shirt, and if you see here (shows shirt) the logo has been cut off. So it wasn't cotton and the print was wrong, plus it was going to be an astronomical amount of money to get the shirts printed. So I have six of theses sample shirts and we left it at that.
You are seemingly always in such high spirits (pun intended). What’s the secret to your happiness?
I love my work. Very few people today, sadly, don’t like what they do.
Work is the most important thing you will do in your life. If you don't have a job you don't have an income then you can’t feed yourself and you die.
You need to be happy doing your job. Your happiness will then reflect in your family and your social life.
What is your can’t miss spot on Tamborine Mountain?
We get such a buzz from going for a walk in the rainforest. Nothing to do with alcohol of course! We just love it. I think it’s one of the main reasons people come up here. Hug a tree!
To have a taste of the award winning liquor or to meet the famous Unkle Michael, head to Tamborine Mountain Distillery
87-91 Beacon Road, North Tamborine
By Marleigh Kelly